The Rise Of The Only Child

On sunny days, elderly women in the working-class Rome neighborhood of Testaccio bring their grandchildren to the local playground to socialize with other kids. Maria Ceccani, watches warily as her 3-year-old grandson, Fabrizio, tussles with a playmate over a dump truck. "He doesn't have any brothers or sisters or cousins," she laments. "We did wrong by having only one child. I keep telling my son to have another, have another." But Ceccani's son and daughter-in-law seem disinclined, no doubt in part because they still live with her. "It used to be that Italian families had lots of kids," says Ceccani. "But now the mothers work and don't have time to have big families. It's a shame."

It's more than just a grandmother's worry. With an average of 1.18 children per woman, Italy has one of the lowest birthrates in the world. That means there are fewer births than deaths each year, resulting in what demographers call "subreplacement fertility." At that rate, massive immigration is the only way to maintain the total population. With the national pension system deeply in debt, demographer Antonio Golini of the University of Rome "La Sapienza" says the country is already becoming dependent on immigrants to bear the economic load. And as far as he is concerned, that puts the future of Italian culture at risk. "Italy will no longer be Italian," he says. "It will be the end of society as we know it."

That may be an overstatement. But at the very least, it's the end of the big, boisterous family crowded around the dinner table--and not just in Italy. Family size is shrinking in many places around the globe, particularly in the richest countries. Across Europe, the average fertility rate in 2000 was 1.46, down from 1.72 10 years before. Asia's dropped from just over three children per woman to 2.54 in the same period. Even in heavily Roman Catholic Latin America the fertility rate is plunging. Women in Brazil now average 2.3 children each, down sharply from 6.3 40 years ago. The big picture is more dramatic still: according to the United Nations, the fertility rate in the most developed nations is approaching an all-time low of 1.57 children per woman. In the 48 least developed countries, the current fertility rate of 5.74 is expected to fall sharply to 2.51 by 2050.

Most striking, more parents than ever are having just one child, whether by necessity or by choice. Precise numbers are impossible to come by: counting only children requires asking families whether they plan to have more kids, and often they say yes but then don't. Demographer Margarita Delgado says that in Spain the declining birthrate, which has halved in the past 28 years to 1.2 in 2000, paired with the rising percentage of first births--more than 50 percent now, compared with 38 percent 25 years ago--illustrates the trend. "The one-child family is on the rise," she says. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one-child families are the fastest-growing unit in America, jumping from 9.6 percent in 1976 to more than 17 percent in 1998. (In that same period, by contrast, the percentage of families with three or more children shrank 21 percent.) In Germany more than 50 percent of the 12.9 million families with children in 1999 had only one child, compared with 46 percent in 1972 (though the 1972 survey didn't include East Germany) In China parents who stop after one child are merely complying with the law. But the birthrate there has shrunk so dramatically that the government is, unofficially at least, beginning to relax its draconian 20-year-old policy (accompanying story).

Who would have guessed? Thirty years ago the big worry was that runaway population growth would decimate the earth's resources. Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich warned direly of "The Population Bomb" in his 1968 book; four years later a team of MIT researchers predicted that the world would soon run out of gold, oil and arable land. None of it happened. And though the world's population is still growing rapidly--6.1 billion today, and expected to swell to 9.3 billion by 2050--the rate of growth has slowed to 1.2 percent. Better contraception, delayed childbearing, more women in the work force and the widespread migration from rural to urban areas have all played a role. So has public awareness: bombarded with doomsday predictions, many countries, including Mexico, launched aggressive family-planning campaigns back in the 1970s--and they worked.

There's another reason for having fewer kids that today's exhausted, overworked parents may be reluctant to admit: it's easier. And cheaper. French sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufman attributes the rise in one-child families to "the growth of individualism." "It increasingly results from a compromise between an individual's hopes for himself or herself and the dream of a family," he says. "[A one-child family] is not an ideal but a way of resolving a contradiction." With one child, it's more feasible, fiscally as well as emotionally, to take the family to a four-star restaurant, or on safari to Tanzania. It's much more manageable to live in a cramped, big-city apartment with one kid than with two or three. And when it comes to education, there's no comparison: only children are much more likely than their friends with brothers and sisters to go to elite private schools. "I wanted one child so I could give her the best education possible," says Brazilian Ana Claudia Juca, a 37-year-old single mother who organizes lavish birthday parties for kids.

For all the benefits of this demographic trend, there is a distinct dark side. The decline in population growth is occurring almost exclusively in the most developed nations; the poorest, according to the U.N., will triple in size by 2050, when nine out of every 10 people will live in a developing country. One out of six will be living in India, which recently passed the billion population mark. In sub-Saharan Africa the birthrate has shrunk, but it's still too high: down to 5.57 births per woman last year from 6.26 in 1990. The world's population is also graying fast; the U.N. reports that the number of people over 60 will more than triple in the next 50 years, and the number over 80 will increase fivefold. Who will provide for the aging and infirm as they live ever longer? Currently there are 11 retirees for every 100 workers in the world. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2050 there will be 26 retirees for every 100 workers. That could be economically and socially "catastrophic," says Paul Hewitt of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In this changing family landscape, no group comes under more scrutiny than only children. They are routinely accused of being self-centered and uncompromising. In China, only children--known as "little emperors"--have been blamed for everything from increased juvenile crime to rampant materialism; kindergarten kids in Guangzhou are printing up their own name cards, while junior-high students in Changchun now carry mobile phones. In the United States, after Jennie Caicedo's only child, 2-year-old JJ, started acting up during swimming classes at their local New Jersey pool, the instructor grabbed the boy out of her hands and asked her, "Is he an only child?" Caicedo was so angry that she confronted the head teacher after class. "She told me to my face that only children tend to be catered to, that they don't know how to follow instructions and that they are spoiled," she says. "My tongue fell out of my mouth."

Such attitudes often provoke feelings of guilt and rage in the parents of only children. Whatever their reason for having one child, many resent the fact that outsiders feel free to comment on their family size. One contributor to the Just the One Child Web site in Britain wrote, "People seem to think either you can't get pregnant and you must be trying, you can't afford another one or you can't physically 'take' another pregnancy. I didn't enjoy pregnancy, the birth was a nightmare and I wouldn't enjoy spending all my time running around after two [kids]."

The constant public scrutiny tends to put many parents of single children on the defensive. They seem to worry far more than parents of multiple children about their offspring's social and emotional adjustment. Texas psychologist Carl Pickhardt says that he sees a disproportionate number of only children in his practice, not because they have more problems but because their parents "want to do it right and be sure they're doing everything they can to help their kid." Parents of only children often go out of their way to help their kids adapt socially, and do all they can to avoid overindulging them. Tomoko Yamamoto is so worried about spoiling her 8-year-old son, Shunichi, that she has refused to buy him a much-coveted Game Boy. She also makes a point of dividing every treat three ways. "We need to remind him that he isn't the only one in the universe," she says. "We are strict about not letting him have all he wants."

Only children themselves are particularly sensitive to their image. "Half the only children I know hide that they are only children," says Fumie Ishii, a 29-year-old only child (and mother of three), who founded the online Only Child League in Japan. "So many people have a stereotypical view that an only child is self-centered. We struggle with this prejudice forever." In India, 19-year-old Saviraj Sankpal founded a support group for the tiny minority of only children. Among other things, the group does volunteer work--recently visiting children who survived the Gujarat earthquake, for instance--to counter the myth that they're irresponsible. "People think we're pampered and spoiled," says Sankpal, a computer-engineering student. "But I'd like to remind them how lonely it can get."

It's less lonely all the time. Today there are newsletters, support groups and Internet chat rooms devoted exclusively to only children. Scores of books have been written about their plight, from "Only Child: How to Survive Being One" to "Barron's Keys to Parenting the Only Child." There's even a children's book, "Why Am I an Only Child?" by Jane Annunziata, in which a little purple rhino discovers, "I feel special!" Recently Sankpal's The Only Child Group discovered, a Los Angeles-based Web site set up by Charles and Carolyn White. The Whites started their site and accompanying newsletter after their own unsettling experience raising Alexis, now 21. "Whenever we took her out, people would say, 'What a beautiful child! Does she have a brother or sister?' " says Carolyn, an admissions director at a private school, who suffered several miscarriages. "And when we said no, they'd say, 'What a shame!' It took me a long time to work out the guilt of having just one."

Now the Whites have 1,250 subscribers to their newsletter, which, among other things, offers profiles of famous only children, including Indira Gandhi, Chelsea Clinton and U.S. Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. Their Web site receives at least 20,000 hits a month, from as far afield as Asia, Scandinavia and South America, and dispenses advice on everything from adjusting to the empty nest to caring for aging parents.

All the networking and advice-sharing may make only children and their parents feel better. But the truth is, it's not necessary. Study after study has found the same thing: whether they grow up in Thailand or Bolivia, only children are indistinguishable from those with siblings. "Only children are pretty much like everybody else," says American psychologist Toni Falbo, who wrote "The Single Child Family." "You can find slight advantages in an only child in self-esteem and academic achievement. But there's no difference in sociability or aggressiveness." If anything, only children tend to be friendlier and more communicative, to get along well with adults and to have exceptionally close relationships with their parents. Marie-Amelie Goachet, a 20-year-old architecture student in Paris, who lives, shops and talks constantly with her mother, Agnes, says her friends can't understand their tight bond. "They think it's really strange, especially that I tell her things they'd never dream of telling their parents," she says.

To be sure, only children experience some things differently from those with siblings. Many feel more pressure to succeed. In the absence of brothers and sisters, only children also tend to look more exclusively to their parents as role models. Still, the only time most only children say they wish for siblings is when it comes to caring for aging, ailing parents. Britain's David Emerson, coauthor of the book "The Only Child," says that such a person bears a terrible burden in having to make all the decisions alone. "He has no one to call up, even if it's a brother in Australia, and say, 'Do you think we should put our father into a home?' " Emerson knows from experience: after his father died, he chose to move his elderly mother from their family home, where she was vulnerable to burglars, to a new one with more security. "The move was quite hard on her, and she might feel that I pushed her into it," he says. "Ultimately, I am left with that responsibility."

In the future, more and more only children will likely face similar choices. There are no signs that the falling birthrate will reverse itself any time soon. With working mothers increasingly the norm, many families are finding they simply don't have the time, money or energy to have more than one child. "We know that many young women, before they enter a long-term relationship or get married, think of having more than one child one day," says German psychologist Hartmut Kasten, who wrote the book "Only Children: Raised Without Siblings." "But then, along the way, they come to realize that more than one child is hard to manage unless they cut down on their career ambitions tremendously." In Italy, a recent survey in the popular semifeminist magazine Noi Donne found that 52 percent of women between 16 and 24 had already decided they did not want any children, most often citing "interference with career" as their reason.

To be sure, Italy could do more to promote procreation. Maternity benefits may be generous, but rather than entice women to have more children, they actually deter employers from hiring childless women. According to CENSIS, an Italian agency that analyzes trends, women who have one child tend to climb the corporate ladder much faster than those who haven't had children yet--suggesting that women are rewarded for having small families. Italy offers no state-supported child care, and day-care facilities are rare. Grandparents, in fact, are expected to provide child care. Mostly, they do so with love and enthusiasm. And if Maria Ceccani is any example, with a sharp eye out to making sure their only grandkids know how to share their toys.

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