Synopsis: Only children have been villified for more than a century as inevitably selfish, spoiled and lonely. Yet research finds that children without siblings are psychologically quite similar to those with brothers and/or sisters. Today the proportion of only children is increasing. Experts refute the myths about only children and discuss how parents can help children navigate life with no siblings.
Host: Reed Pence. Guests: Beth Apone Salamon, Director of Communications, School of Social Work, Rutgers University and an only child; Lauren Sandler, only child, mother of an only child and author, One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One; Dr. Susan Newman, psychologist, contributor to Psychology Today magazine and author, Parenting an Only Child
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Reed Pence: When Beth Apone Salamon was growing up back in the 1970’s, she somehow felt like an outsider. She had a wonderful childhood with lots of friends, she says, but still didn’t quite fit in. She had no siblings. She was an only child.
Beth Apone Salaman: There just weren’t that many of us. It was not the norm. Most people had larger families, so it was something that made me feel a little bit like the odd person out.
Reed Pence: And as she grew into adulthood, the feelings got stronger. It hit her when her father got sick and needed caregiving, and she and her mother were alone. Today Salamon is Director Of Communications at the School Of Social Work at Rutgers University, and she realizes that when both her parents are gone, she’ll have no one to share a common childhood with.
Beth Apone Salaman: I see my friends with their adult siblings– the connections that they have– especially as the parents are getting older, talking about family memories and family lore, and I really will not have that at a certain point, and that’s challenging for me and I think for anybody. Like many only children, I have developed extremely close friendships with girlfriends– kind of sister substitutes, and that’s a wonderful thing, but it’s not quite the same. I guess the imaginary sibling I have in my mind is perfect: would’ve been my maid of honor, would have been there when my father was dying, because I’m so close to my parents, I just feel like this person would’ve been an extension of that same wonderful situation and that may absolutely not be the case.
Lauren Sandler: It is very common for only children to idealize what it’s like to have siblings, and some sibling relationships are wonderful, but many of them are not, and usually they fall somewhere in between.
Reed Pence: That’s Lauren Sandler, herself an only child and parent of one as well. She’s author of One And Only: The Freedom Of Having An Only Child And The Joy Of Being One. She’s a staunch defender of only children, and she says defenders are needed. For more than 100 years, parents of “Onlies” have been targets of self-righteous accusations that parents are dooming their kids to life as spoiled, selfish, maladjusted loners.
Lauren Sandler: We are the selfish people who have chosen to have selfish children– it cuts all ways on this one. There is this notion that it’s something terrible that you’re doing to your child, and I think that that emboldens a lot of people to be pretty upfront in their judgment, as though everyone’s working for the Department of Services, and somehow by berating you, can convince you to procreate more. But what’s stunning to me is that the notion of this selfishness –is that you know, people are for their own happiness willing to trade in their child.
Susan Newman: Parents who choose to have one child (or even when their choice has been taken away with infertility issues) because of all the only child myths carry around a lot of shame and guilt. Not to add the pressure that other people are putting on them to have another child.
Reed Pence: Dr. Susan Newman is a psychologist and contributor to Psychology Today Magazine and author of the book parenting an only child.
Susan Newman: That shame and guilt is really unnecessary given the climate we have for raising children today and you know all the involvement they have with other children. You know having one child has its issues but so does having two children or three children or six children.
Reed Pence: The myths about “Onlies” really started in 1896 with an influential study that went so far as to call being an only child “a disease,” and entrenched stereotypes die hard.
Susan Newman: We get in our heads in the instance of only children that they’re lonely, spoiled, selfish, aggressive, have more imaginary friends than other kids. My grandmother thought that, and then my mother thought that my daughters will think that. We pass it down through the generation even in subtle ways and it’s quite impossible to get these stereotypes out of our head.
Reed Pence: But that could change in the future. Today, 20 percent of American families have only one child–twice the proportion of 30 years ago, and in some other western nations, the rate is even higher. The reasons are many.
Lauren Sandler: A lot of people do think of this as a financial assessment and it’s true that whenever the economy goes down so do fertility rates but there are a couple of things happening right now; one is the notion of what people feel like they can afford. That means not just looking at what people are earning, but what they expect their lives to look like in terms of pleasure, in terms of travel or food or real estate– gender roles have changed dramatically. It’s not the same society in which women expected their occupation to be mother first, and often mother and wife only, now as we all know ,most mothers work, mothers have to work. And also most mothers have decided that they want more from their lives.
Reed Pence: But while women, families and finances have changed, Sandler says social norms have not, as far as only children are concerned. Somehow, Newman says, “Onlies” seem threatening to the rest of us.
Susan Newman: I don’t think the children are threatening. I do believe that the parents are threatening in the sense that their doing it their way, they have more time, they have more resources to give to their one child, and it’s become a reality of life now that it’s so costly to raise several children, maybe there’s a jealousy element in there. I think that could be part of it.
Reed Pence: In terms of achievement and intellectual advantage, Newman says it’s not how many siblings that you have that are important, it’s how much parental involvement and economic resources you have. And since parents aren’t dividing up their time, attention, and money on additional kids, only children almost by definition get more of each.
Susan Newman: Well, we’ve been brainwashed to believing siblings are necessary. Only children are quite indistinguishable from their peers. They’re real high achievers, and it makes sense because they have their parents’ full attention and resources. And interestingly there was a study a couple years ago that says mothers of one are happiest. And that make sense to me as well because they’re not constantly frazzled and frayed, and you know today so many women are working– they can execute what they feel is their life goal and work towards it and not feel as if family is holding them back.
Reed Pence: Newman says it’s possible that only children have more pressure on them than other kids. An only child knows her report card is the only one coming home. But only children don’t grow up as differently as many people think. Newman says that just because they have no siblings, that doesn’t mean they’re loners. The myth that “onlies” are “lonlies” isn’t true.
Susan Newman: Most parents socialize their children or child very early. You have day-care, you have pre-school, nursery school, pre-school kindergarten. So children are out and about with other children with great regularity, so they’re hardly lonely. There was a study out of Ohio State: only children were as popular, had as many friends as children who had siblings.
Reed Pence: In fact Newman says only children typically have closer friendships than kids with siblings, and that’s the way it needs to be.
Susan Newman: I think it’s important for the parents of only children to give their child the opportunity to have what I call a sibling substitute, so that he becomes or she becomes very friendly with another family and with a child in that family. So he does have a confidant. The only child can also turn to (and often does) cousins, aunts, uncles, and parents, very good friends, and will confide in them once he’s built that relationship. It is important for only children to have people other than mom and dad because particularly when you reach your teenage years, Mom and Dad’s the last person you want to talk to.
Reed Pence: Still, after playmates go home for the night, only children have no peers around. And Sandler says that gives “Onlies” an experience with solitude that many other kids don’t have.
Lauren Sandler: Solitude is a different thing than loneliness. And in fact a number of people that I interviewed think that the reason that only children do not rate as lonely as one might expect or lonelier than other kids in psychological testing or quantitative data, is that, as one person put it to me, a psychologist I interviewed in Texas, said to me: an only child’s strongest primary relationship is with him or herself. And that is actually the best armor against loneliness-if you can be your own best friend. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have other best friends and it doesn’t mean that you’re alone all the time, but the notion of that sort of self-reliance is actually the thing that often keeps people from being lonely.
Reed Pence: Kids adapt to solitude in different ways. Some become extroverts to gather in friends. Others seem like introverts sometimes. Like Beth Apone Salamon.
Beth Apone Salaman: I remember my husband is one of three and we would have these big family get-togethers and he would say, “You kind of just disappear and then you’re upstairs and you’re reading.” You know I can handle chaos and sometimes I can’t. I’m just not as used to it. I had a friend growing up, one of seven siblings, I means there were kids fighting in the hallway over a sweater and just constant insanity, and nothing phased her, and it was wonderful, and there were times I really wished that was me and it’s not. And I think there’s maybe an over-sensitivity because you didn’t have the teasing and the negotiating with a peer in the room next to you. I do wonderfully with adults, as a kid I didn’t always do wonderfully with other kids because I was with adults most of the time.
Reed Pence: But since parents are the primary relationship of only children… What happens when a child is being raised by parents who aren’t very good at it?
Lauren Sandler: Oh it’s rotten. It’s absolutely rotten, because what happens in a single child family is everything becomes amplified. You don’t have other peers sort of at your power level, which I think is a fundamentally isolating situation and the other people who live in your house with you are your parents, or if you have one parent, a parent. So you’re the person without power and you’re the person who is outnumbered, and you’re the person that really needs to rely on that parenting in a very important way. When you are the child of a really difficult parent, it’s a really difficult thing. It is tougher to be alone with that.
Reed Pence: Some couples are well aware they probably wouldn’t be great at parenting, and make the decision to have no children, a choice that also can be the target of criticism from family and friends. But is it really anybody else’s business? The decision on how many children we want is one of the most personal choices we ever make, and one of the most important. But the research is now pretty clear. All other things being equal, the number of siblings a person has doesn’t have that much influence over how we turn out. You can find out more about all of our guests on our website: radio health journal-dot-net. I’m Reed Pence.