PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Only children are becoming much more common in the U.S. and in some other countries. Is this good or bad, given the unique environment in which an only child grows up?
A minor controversy is swirling in relation to this trend — just ask anyone of childbearing age considering having only one child.
Not controversial is the dramatic change in the demographic characteristics of families.
According to the U.S. Census report, the single-child family is the fastest-growing family unit. In the 1960s, about 10 percent of the population under 18 had no siblings; today, that number is closer to 20 percent (meaning about 14 million children and adolescents in the U.S. are only children).
In China, because of the one-child policy instituted in 1979 for population control, only children are the rule rather than the exception. Tight economic times always bring a decline in the birthrate: during the Great Depression, in the 1930s, 23 percent of U.S. families opted for having only a single child.
In addition to financial considerations, other factors may contribute to the decision to have only a single child. Sometimes difficulty conceiving, carrying or delivering the first child cause parents to say “no more.”
People who marry later and/or are in their 40s after the first birth are more likely to have only children, as are those who themselves had no siblings when they were growing up. Family stress, parental divorce and serious medical issues all increase the likelihood that a family will have only a single child. Finally, lifestyle priorities, including career pressures, desire to travel, political values and parenting preferences influence the decision of how many children to have.
About 120 years ago, Granville Hall, an early and influential child psychologist, popularized the idea that only children are developmentally at a disadvantage. According to Hall and others who followed him, not having siblings to grow up with makes social adjustment difficult for only children.
Having all the parental attention focused on them makes only children spoiled, self-centered and bossy, according to the stereotype. An overly close relationship with their parents supposedly leads single children to experience dependence problems in adolescence and, it is argued, all the contact with adults makes them appear too mature, too fast in speech and reasoning.
Given the pervasiveness and persistence of these beliefs, it is not surprising that some mental-health professionals have undertaken to evaluate them empirically. Taken together, several hundred studies show basically that only children are as variable in their social and psychological abilities as their peers with siblings. If there are differences between only children and other children, they tend to favor the single child.
Like first-borns (who are only children for a while), only children may do better on cognitive test scores and achievement motivation. As in the case with so many factors in child development, to expect children who have one factor in common (e.g., being an only child) to constitute a homogeneous group makes little sense.
Every element of being an only child that seems disadvantageous has a flip side that can be of obvious benefit to a child. For example, not having siblings results in more time alone and a lack of children with whom to practice social skills. Yet it also motivates only children to develop strong peer relationships outside of the family, and to work to be included and well-liked in peer groups.
If only children risk being spoiled by their doting parents, they are also equally likely to benefit from a high level of nurturing and parental involvement. Parents of only children may focus all of their expectations and demands on their single child, but whether this leads to incapacitating perfectionism or high-achievement orientation and confidence likely varies with the family.
My take is that being an only child is a double-edged sword: It confers both developmental risks and potential advantages.
It is up to their parents and the professionals who advise them to be aware of both and to make sure that a combination of individualized parenting and appropriate values lead to healthy development with any family composition.
Gregory K. Fritz, M.D., a psychiatrist, is academic director at Bradley Hospital and editor of the Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter.