The rise of the only child: Why more families are happy with one

Why We Wrote This

As more Americans opt to have only one child, they’re dismantling stereotypes about only children, and redefining what constitutes a happy family – and child. 

Karen Norris/Staff

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More Americans are grappling with the idea of having one child. The one-child family is the fastest-growing family unit in the United States, according to census data. That’s causing a reevaluation of persistently held beliefs about only children and what constitutes a happy family.   

“To me the most controversial thing I could have ever done in public was be with one child and say I’m not going to have another one,” says Lauren Sandler, a journalist and mother. 

She’s in good company. The one-child family rose rapidly over the past generation. A Pew Research Center study found the number of mothers who reached the end of their childbearing years with one child doubled from 11% in 1976 to 22% in 2015. That’s thanks to a variety of social and economic factors, including delayed marriage and childbearing, higher rates of educational attainment and workforce involvement for women, and the high price tag of raising a child.  

With labels of only children as spoiled or lonely debunked, Toni Falbo, a professor and social psychologist, says parents of only children can relax. “In general, children grow up without siblings and they do just fine.”

Lauren Sandler grew up as an only child, never giving it much thought until she became a mother and decided she was happy raising one kid. Suddenly, making the same choice her parents had made seemed shocking to people around her. 

“On the subway when people would see me with one child in a stroller, strangers would comment on how cute she was and immediately ask, ‘When are you having your next one?’” Ms. Sandler says. When she explained she wasn’t planning another, she received “head-shaking, tongue clucking, in a way that I’d never had a stranger respond to me.” 

“To me the most controversial thing I could have ever done in public was be with one child and say I’m not going to have another one,” says Ms. Sandler, a journalist and author of “One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One.” 

More Americans are grappling with the idea of having one child. The one-child family is the fastest-growing family unit in the United States, according to census data. That’s causing a reevaluation of many persistently held beliefs about only children and their parents and what constitutes a happy family.   

“Slowly, at a snail’s pace, the negative stereotypes seem to be waning,” says Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of “The Case for the Only Child.”  

Rise of the only child

The one-child family rose rapidly over the past generation. A Pew Research Center study found the number of mothers who reached the end of their childbearing years with one child doubled from 11% in 1976 to 22% in 2015. 

That coincides with an overall shift to smaller families, with the number of women giving birth to four or more children declining from 40% to 14% over the same time period.  

Those who study only children point to a variety of social and economic factors contributing to the change, including delayed marriage and childbearing, higher rates of educational attainment and workforce involvement for women, and the high price tag of raising a child even as housing costs skyrocket and wages stagnate. 

“The one-child family is definitely on the rise,” says Gretchen Livingston, a senior researcher on fertility and family demographics at Pew Research Center.  

As more people consider raising one child, parents are sorting through their notions about only children, trying to understand whether they and their children will be better or worse off if the table stays set for three. 

Parents are concerned about whether their child will be lonely, or if it will be too big a burden for one child to care for aging parents, says Dr. Newman, who receives “endless queries” on these topics. 

Comedian Tina Fey captured some of the indecision parents feel, writing in a New Yorker essay, “I debate the second-baby issue when I can’t sleep. “Should I? No. I want to. I can’t. I must. Of course not.” 

Debunked stereotypes 

Many of the labels of only children as spoiled, lonely, or peculiar trace their source back to Granville Stanley Hall, a celebrated child psychologist of his day, who in 1896 declared “being an only child is a disease in itself.” 

In the 1970s, researchers began seriously studying only children and found no evidence that children without siblings turned out any differently than their peers. The research showed only children were instead more likely to have higher levels of self-esteem and achievement. 

Toni Falbo, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted much of the groundbreaking research and continues to study only children. She believes the current sentiment among the American public is that having two children is most desirable.

“I think the belief in the ‘lonely-only,’ or the ‘maladjusted-only,’ persists because of the stereotypes,” Dr. Falbo says. “Stereotypes are something that seem to make sense in people’s thinking. They’ve been around for thousands of years, and there’s the benefit of thinking that all couples should have children, and that’s plural.” 

More recently, researchers in China determined that within a group of 250 college-aged students, only children scored similarly to children with siblings on IQ tests, but showed more flexibility (a measure of creativity) and less agreeableness.  

‘A good balance for us’ 

Of course, not all only children enjoyed their childhood. In an essay in Motherly, writer Christy Heather recalls “my childhood of endless summers alone, of always wanting more of my friends’ time than they wanted to give.” She and her husband did not want to raise an only child. 

Parents of only children have been criticized for being selfish by not giving their children a sibling. 

“People say, ‘What’s wrong with these parents, they’re so selfish, they need to have another child,’” Dr. Newman says. “Every family is different. As an outsider we don’t know what’s going on. We shouldn’t guess and judge and critique. I think that would be quite helpful.”  

The decision to have one child is based on elements that can and can’t be controlled, says Ms. Sandler. Sometimes parents plan for more kids, but infertility or miscarriages interfere. Other times parents can’t afford to pay for housing, plus multiple fees for piano, soccer, and art lessons. A study conducted by the real estate website Zillow in 2018 found that hotter home markets correlate with lower birth rates

For parents who find themselves unexpectedly raising an only child, or starting to doubt they can afford more than one, Dr. Falbo offers some advice. 

“For people considering just having one, there are very few downsides,” says Dr. Falbo. “In general, children grow up without siblings and they do just fine. That’s assuming they go to school, interact with peers, have extracurricular activities, and warm and responsive parents. If they have all that, their outcomes as an adult would be within the normal range.”

Some parents of grown only children look back warmly at their years raising one.

Robert Dewey and his wife raised their now-26-year-old daughter in Bethesda, Maryland. Both parents maintained full-time jobs and are active runners. Mr. Dewey’s wife sang in two choirs. As a trio, their family cheered at each other’s events, traveled together, and have always felt close. 

“We were able to have it all in terms of the quality of family life that we wanted, and focus on our child, and pursue our own interests professionally and personally,” he says. “So it seemed like a good balance for us.” 

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