Originally published in the Journal Inquirer Monday, June 24
By Kristen J. Tsetsi
In the online feedback section of a Daily Mail excerpt of Lauren Sandler’s new book One and Only (Simon & Schuster), one reader manages to fit just about all of the negative assumptions about parents of only children into a single comment: “Talk about being stupidly selfish. Kids need to grow up with kids. Having just one child is bad for that child.”
But is it? This is the question tackled in One and Only, in which Sandler draws on the research of numerous experts, as well as her own extensive interviews with only children around the world, to squash such misconceptions.
“It’s time to retire the erroneous stereotype that clings to only children and finally accept the idea that having just one kid is just as legitimate as any other family size choice,” says Sandler, herself an only child and a journalist who has long covered cultural topics for such outlets as NPR, the New York Times, Time, and The Guardian.
The prevailing belief about only children, Sandler says, is that they are lonely, selfish, and maladjusted, words strung together so frequently to describe only children that, she writes in her often entertaining book, they may as well be one word: lonelyselfishmaladjusted.
According to Sandler, the myth of the troubled only child began as far back as 1896 with “Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children,” a study conducted by psychologist Granville Stanley Hall, the leader of a late 19th-century child-study movement. In a 1907 lecture, he called being an only child “a disease in itself.”
Negative commentary on only children would persist over the next hundred years. In 1927, Sandler writes, a speech therapist couple concluded that only children were “handicapped” in life and emotionally stunted. In the early 1930s, a Good Housekeeping article encouraged women to have more than one child to prevent the creation of a miserable, spoiled only child. A 1986 story about Chinese only children published in the Guardian characterized onlies as selfish and introverted, and, Sandler writes, studies leading well into the early 2000s found only children to be “the most academic and spoiled and the least likable.”
However, other research has been challenging the negative stereotypes since 1928, beginning with Norman Fenton’s findings that only children surpassed siblings in a number of areas — truth-telling, self-assuredness, and leadership among them, Sandler writes. Several later studies support Fenton’s findings. But none of the research assigning positive traits to only children seemed to influence public opinion.
“I was amazed to learn that these (negative) traits have been disproved in hundreds of studies over decades, and yet the myth lives on,” Sandler says. “It’s like the only one to survive political correctness utterly untouched!”
People are strangely comfortable telling parents of only children that they’re selfish, Sandler says. They also assign to them a dislike of children, lack of love for their only child, and poor parenthood.
And while parents are the ones on the direct receiving end of the insults, the harsh words extend to the children, themselves. Sandler says that as a child she didn’t feel judged for being an only, but it’s safe to say her perception is colored by what she was aware of at the time. After all, as the parent of a 5-year-old daughter who will never have a sibling, she hears from strangers that she’s “screwing up her kid” and that her daughter will grow up to be “spoiled rotten, an egomaniac, and incapable of making friends,” all of which are certain judgments of her child, albeit delivered through a powerful filter.
Additional criticism has been aimed at Sandler’s mother.
Sandler writes in One and Only that Bernice Sorensen, a British psychologist she interviewed, called Sandler’s mother a narcissist for having just one child (“and you’re one, too, if you make that choice,” she added).
The assumption is that the only child will be inherently unhappy; therefore, a parent who has only one child is mistreating that child. But what Sandler has found in her studies doesn’t gel with the notion of the miserable only child. Although only children can face unique challenges, such as being the last one standing after the death of parents or feeling isolated in rural areas where neighbors can live a mile away, “Overall,” she says, “the findings that only children are pretty much the same as anyone else holds true no matter where you go.”
As much as she argues in defense of the only child, Sandler does acknowledge the challenges and drawbacks, which all people will experience in one form or another. And she admits on the first page of her book’s introduction to being guilty herself of thinking “Selfish!” when her mother explained that she had only one child because “It’s all about me.”
However, Sandler goes on to write that she also felt pride, following up with a strong argument in favor of acknowledging and catering to her personal needs as a parent: “[T]o have a happy kid, I figure I need to be a happy mother, and to be a happy mother, I need to be a happy person.”
And for Sandler, part of being a happy person means not adding another child. It means, as she writes, snuggling with her daughter “for as long as she’ll let me” while having the time and opportunity to do the things she loves, like producing meaningful work, traveling, maintaining friendships, feeding her romantic relationship with her husband, reading novels, enjoying solitude, and attending movies and concerts.
“I think that for parents who don’t feel in their hearts that they really want another kid, to stop at one is a liberating thing,” she says. “It allows children to develop wonderful skills — onlies tend to be higher achievers, and have higher intelligence and self-esteem — and allows parents to devote more time to a life outside just work and raising kids, meaning their marriages, their friendships, their inner lives, and their larger communities.”