Just Explain It: The Only Child Myth


$295,560. That's how much a middle class couple can expect to spend on a child born in 2011 until his or her 18th birthday, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And by the way, it doesn't even include saving for college or the added expense if your adult child moves back home.

The cost of raising a child is one of a few factors persuading some couples to have one child, despite the societal and familial pressure many parents feel to have more.

So, why do some people buck tradition and choose to have just one child? And is there any truth to myths many of us have about only-children?

Answering those questions is the subject of today's Just Explain It.

Along with the cost of raising a child, the uncertain economy and delaying marriage and pregnancy are pushing parents to have fewer children. According to Census data, the percentage of families with kids that have only one child was 33% in 1970. In 2011 that number was 43%. And the National Center for Health Statistics said the fertility rate in 2011 for women aged 15 to 44 was its lowest ever reported, at 63.2 births per 1000 women.

[Related: What’s the Rush? 7 Celebrities Who Had Kids After Turning 40]

Although some parents may make the decision to only have one, the idea that these sibling free children will grow up to be selfish, spoiled, maladjusted and lonely adults still persists. Do an online search for "only child" and the first suggested search term is "only child syndrome," something that doesn’t actually exist, at least not in the medical sense.

The singleton stigma can be traced back to psychologist Granville Stanley Hall’s 1896 study “Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children.” Hall’s conclusion - probably influenced from his rural upbringing in a large family - was that only children were socially deficient and he said, "Being an only child is a disease in itself." His research has since been proven to be highly flawed, but many myths about only children have endured.

Besides the long list of successful and influential people raised as only children, there are no studies that show only children are different from other children, says social psychologist Susan Newman. There is some evidence that younger only children may have social difficulty in their early school years, but they tend to be on par with their peers when they reach adolescence. In fact, an analysis of 115 studies of only children showed that they - and first-borns with one sibling - perform better in intelligence and achievement tests.

[Related: Weak Economy Means Fewer Babies (for Now)]

Part of that is due to attention and resources. With one child, parents can focus their time, energy and money instead of dividing them among multiple children. That support can lead to higher achievement, but also a higher expectation of achievement by the child themselves. Only children also tend to be close to their parents, form deep friendships and feel comfortable being alone. That ease with being alone can be a barrier against peer pressure during adolescence.

While these are trends, experts point out only children aren’t necessarily better or worse than children with siblings. Each child and each family is different and unique.

So, what do you think? Are you an only child? If so, did you like growing up without siblings? Or are you a parent or soon-to-be parent and thinking of having just one child? Let us know in the comments section below or on Twitter using #JustExplainItNews.
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