Culture

Modern Family: Why Only-Children Rule

I'm afraid there's a puppy in my future. It's not because one of my daughter's first complete sentences was "I want a puppy." Or because my 16-year-old Siamese cat still acts as though my kid is an intruder in our home. It's certainly not because I actually believe that my dear child will take responsibility for walking a dog three times a day. Nope, we will probably end up with a labor-intensive pet because my 7-year-old is a wizard at spotting and exploiting my maternal guilt. (That's a sign of intelligence, isn't it?) "If I can't have a brother or sister to play with," she asks, "can't I at least have a puppy?" Her strategy is transparent, yet effective because I feel guilty that my daughter is an only child. I worry that she won't learn to share. I can't escape the desire for an "heir and a spare," especially after watching the anguish of Chinese parents who lost only-children in the recent earthquake. I wish my kid had a built-in playmate, or, if my own sibling relationship is any guide, someone to fight with in the back seat of the car.

I have one older brother, and when I was growing up our family was considered tiny. Only-kids were freaks. Broods of four or six were common in our neighborhood. In one family, all the kids' first names started with J—the epitome of Midwestern chic at the time. Americans have since warmed up to the idea of smaller families. In 1936, 64 percent of families said they wanted three or more children, compared with 34 percent today. But onlies haven't grown any more popular. A Gallup poll from last summer found that most parents consider having an only child about as desirable as having no children. There were fewer children living without siblings in 2004 than in 1991, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Stereotypes that only-children are spoiled, maladjusted, selfish, lonely and prone to imaginary friends are common, according to Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of "Parenting an Only Child." Other parents of onlies share my concerns about their kids, if not my guilt. Even though she says she has never considered having more than one child, Jodi Kurtz, 31, worries that her daughter, Anna-Sophia, who is almost 2, may "end up being spoiled and miss out on the good parts of having siblings." A recent posting on babycenter.com: "I hate people with one kid. They act like the kid is a God and can't relate to other moms with more than 1 kid."

But before the double-stroller set gets too smug, I'd like to point out that the outlook for onlies is quite bright. "There have been hundreds of studies done on only-children here and in China, where there are millions of only- children, and these myths just don't hold up," says Newman. She traces our bias to 1896, when psychologist G. Stanley Hall conducted a study of rural families and concluded that only-children were at a sharp social disadvantage and that "being an only child is a disease in itself." Which might have been true for kids in rural 19th-century America, but doesn't apply to my Brooklyn neighborhood. In fact, only-children and children with a lone sibling tend to perform better on standardized tests, earn higher grades and stay in school longer, according to Douglas Downey, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University. "As the number of siblings increases you see a steady decline in performance for all the children in the family," he says. In his own research he's found differences in social development, but they were small.

I doubt that very many parents consider the research before deciding how many kids to have. The size and shape of our families are often formed by forces outside our control. In another life, I think I would have had a passel of kids. But given that I'm 48, divorced and love my job, one kid and maybe a French bulldog sounds fine.

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