The Case for Having Only One Child


Several weeks ago, I gave George Mason University economics professor Bryan Caplan’s book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids a look. Caplan offered go-against-the-grain opinions as to why he thinks it’s a fabulous idea to go forth and multiply and have more than just two kids.

Soon after my column was published, I heard from social psychologist Susan Newman whose new book, The Case for the Only Child offers up her own challenge-the-conventional-wisdom take, suggesting that for many families, having one child is not only the right decision but the better one. So, to be fair, I gave Newman’s book a look because the topic of family size, apparently, is a highly charged one that seems to put everybody on the defensive.

One-child families are evolving into the “New Traditional Family,” Newman, the mother of one, asserted, citing U.S. Census data indicating that one-child families are “growing at a faster rate than families with two children.”

Why is this happening? A whole bunch of reasons, chief among them, Newman said, is the hefty sticker price (she labeled offspring as “big-ticket” items), “the desire to be model parents, the demands and stress of children on their parents.”

“When men and women were asked why they limited their family’s size, 56 percent of women and 40 percent of men said the reason was the stress of raising children,” Newman wrote.

She quoted a mother of one who decided that her friends who had more than one child weren’t as blissful as she: “Children are supposed to bring parents happiness; then I looked at the hectic lives my friends led with more than one child and said, ‘not for me.’ I’m a big advocate for stopping at one.”

In this bleak economy, you also can’t discount the impact that having a child has on a woman’s career, particularly if she has multiple children, requiring multiple leaves of absence, Newman said.

“Mothers pay a much greater price than fathers in terms of [the] stress and overwork that comes with raising a family. Women, as the declining fertility rates suggest, continue to think about what it means for them to have a second child.”

With just one kid, parents can “provide the best for children in time, attention and educational opportunities,” Newman wrote.

But parents have to get to the point where they feel comfortable with that decision, something which Newman hopes her book will help them do, particularly when the folks considering having a single child are slammed with not only pressure and guilt from family and friends to have more, but are told that singletons will somehow be damaged by being raised alone.

“With pressure coming at you from many directions, deciding to stop at one child can be wrenching – sometimes a harder choice than just giving in and having another child,” said Newman. “The decision is no simpler when faced with long-held stigmas about only children.”

In page after page of The Case for the Only Child, Newman essentially says that if you have one kid, not to worry, he or she will be okay.

Forget about the old stereotypes and caricatures of single children as shy, socially awkward, spoiled little rugrats. Only children suffer from those things no more or less than kids from families with siblings. In fact, there are studies which now point out the advantages to having one child.

“Only children have the best of everything and in some ways, they are better off,” Newman quoted a Dallas researcher saying: “Not sharing their parents’ time and resources helps to explain only children’s achievement motivation and verbal skills. They are more likely to continue higher education and more driven to succeed.”

There’s no need to fret about having to be your kid’s only playmate, she said. Not only should you find play groups and friends for your kid, but the times when you’ll be on the floor playing with the kid is quite limited. And having a sibling around is no guarantee that the children will play together or even be friends once the children are adults. (I witness this all the time with my three kids when one kid wants to play and the other two don’t. And when they fight and argue bitterly, I often wonder what their relationships will be like in 30 years.)

“Some siblings benefit from having each other, especially after the trying early years, but as a means of insuring positive development, siblings are far from mandatory,” Newman said. “. . . [F]or the majority of brothers and sisters during childhood, these friendly encounters are nonexistent or minimal at best.”

After reading Newman’s argument about resources, stress, time and impact on women’s careers, I can see why some people opt to have one kid. But then again, I liked what Caplan had to say when he talked about how unnecessarily hard we’ve made parenting with crazy, helicopter parenting standards, a bazillion extra-curricular activities and how it doesn’t have to be that way.

Having read both arguments, here’s my conclusion: Do what you want (what you can), when it comes to the size of your family and tell everyone else to just buzz off. 

When my boy-girl twins were 3 and my youngest son was just a baby, random strangers in grocery stores (it was always people in grocery stores) would ask me why I “messed everything up” and created a gender imbalance by having a third. “Dude, I did it just to screw with you,” I felt like replying.

In 2011, the Beckhams were criticized and labeled bad role models because they had a fourth baby and some British environmentalists thought they were being selfish. This kind of stuff really irritates me.

Bottom line: It’s nobody’s business, no matter if the chattering person is your best friend, your sister or your colleague because how many kids you have is personal. There is no one “right” answer and I think that both Caplan and Newman would agree on that.



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