Revenge of the only children
Rise in one-child families means having siblings no longer the norm
Last Updated July 3, 2007
By Sabrina Saccoccio, CBC News
The body slam is definitely not Sara Peel's strong point. Neither are headlocks.
Peel can't wrestle to save her life. But she's a successful events-production manager in her mid-20s who has travelled the world.
She's also an only child.
"Someone can just take me down in half a second," said Peel, recounting play fights with her husband (who has a sister). "I always think: 'I'm totally strong. It's going to be fine.' Half a second later, I'm down on the ground whimpering like a child."
For years, only children like Peel have been teased for being wimpy, antisocial or nerdy. "It's like we're disadvantaged, because we didn't have some 13-year-old goon sitting on our heads," she said.
Peel has felt ganged up on by the majority of people with siblings, and finds they can be almost intolerant in their doubts about her being a functioning member of society.
But today, read the stats and you'll see Peel's only-child status has become quite normal. In effect, the revenge of the only child is upon us.
More Canadian families today — 43 per cent, according to the most recent census — are having just one child. With career-focused people starting families later in life, there's less chance for a second or third.
In the 2001 census, families had an average of 1.1 children in the house. This was comparable to fertility stats, which showed in 2004 there were approximately 1.5 children for every woman.
Similar tallies have been made in the U.S. In 2004, 40- to 44-year-old parents reported having an average of 1.9 kids, whereas 30 years earlier the comparable figure was 3.1 children.
Baby boom turns to bust
The tables turned slowly, in increments over the past five decades.
Around the 1950s, 20 per cent of children lived with at least five brothers or sisters. That number dropped consistently over the following decades, so that by the early 1990s, only one per cent of couples had six kids around the dinner table, according to Statistics Canada.
After many years of families choosing to have fewer kids — during two world wars and the Depression — the economy suddenly stabilized and families grew bigger.
It was during the 1960s that the term baby boom was popularized. A kid with brothers and sisters was standard, while only children were singled out as strange. If you didn't have an older brother showing you how to swing a bat, or a younger sister to teach math problems to, you were a weirdo on the playground.
Some only children who have become parents want their kids to live similarly comfortable lives, free from fighting over food, toys or affection. "I most certainly only want one," Peel said, "because that's the way I grew up."
She is not alone. When nations grow more prosperous, birth rates drop.
"It seems like it should go in the opposite direction. But what happens is people become comfortable with a certain lifestyle and realize they can provide much more for their children if they have smaller families," explained Carolyn White, editor of Only Child magazine in Los Angeles.
Historically, bigger families tended to be a rural tradition, and with urban populations growing, having little ones to help in the fields is hardly a necessity. Machines to ease the work also created opportunities for better education.
This is what a case study found in China, where urban families are prevented from having more than one child (a government policy since 1979), and rural people are encouraged to keep families small.
The study conducted by Dr. Toni Falbo, a University of Texas educational psychology and sociology professor, looked at 4,000 children in Grades 3 and 6.
She found the more educated urban Chinese tended to have children who were more academically inclined, scoring higher in math, for example.
According to the stereotype, only children tend to be seen as privileged (read spoiled), and with more resources and attention are more successful.
But when baby boomers stopped at one, it wasn't always because they wanted to shower their only child with love and presents.
Divorce is often a reason for having only one child. So is disability.
"A lot of times people stop having children because their first child was disabled in some way," explained Falbo.
"So you have among only children an overrepresentation of some type of disability — not all only children are intellectually gifted."
'Like having a disease'
Misconceptions about only children have been fuelled by psychological theory. At the turn of the century, the psychologist Granville Stanley Hall likened being an only child to having a disease. He claimed only children couldn't interact appropriately and therefore were unable to hold a significant place in society.
The founder of individual psychology, Alfred Adler, similarly wrote about birth order leaving a life-long impression on children, dictating how they would act in relationships and at work. According to Adler, the more siblings, the better for sociability.
A study published last month debunked Adler's theories. It found the ideal family dynamic existed with fewer kids, and that too many younger children can diminish intellect. The eldest children had an IQ three points greater than second-born kids, because an older child solidifies his own knowledge by tutoring a younger sibling. The benefit for the younger child is a more comfortable, supported feeling, meaning he'll take more risks.
Subsequent children receive less adult attention. Only children usually don't have this problem. "From speaking age, you're competing with adults. You better be bloody interesting," explained Peel.
But this can backfire according to White, who has also published an only-child parenting guide called The Seven Common Sins of Parenting an Only Child.
In the book, she coined the term "adultifying," the action of expecting your only child to be adult-like. She encourages parents to avoid letting children participate in grownup activities, such as dinner parties. They shouldn't feel burdened, she says, or else they'll miss out on child-like spontaneity.
Parents of only children can also be guilty of overindulging children, or expecting perfectionism, she found.
At the Only Child magazine offices, where most employees don't have siblings, White has found the only-child stereotypes hardly hold true. "They're highly verbal. They are giving and warm."
White started an only-child newsletter about 13 years ago, and then the magazine, after having just one child herself. At the time, she didn't know any other parents in her situation. She had nowhere to turn for advice, and figured other parents might also need help.
Her most common advice: "Back off and let them breathe … It's like a plant, you just have to give it air and space and see what happens, and don't water it too much."