Are parents who only have one child happier?

Mother of one, and only child, Lauren Sandler talks about her new book that’s making the case for onlies.

Sarah Treleaven 6
Katie Holmes and Suri in New York October

Katie Holmes and Suri in New York (Photo by Keystone Press).

Only children are something I’ve always been curious about. I grew up with an older brother who was, for the first decade of my life, the antagonizer. (I’ve never fought so fiercely in my life as I used to for possession of the TV remote.) But by the time I hit my early teens, my brother had morphed into something else: my protector, my confidant, and the only person in the world who seems to completely agree on all of the uniquely crazy things about my family. So I always figured that only children must be missing something — even if I know my fair share of siblings who seem to have nothing to say to each other.

But that was before I started mulling over the idea of having kids of my own. Now, as I approach the magic (or not-so-magic) age of 35, as I find myself getting more and more fulfilment from my work, I wonder about the only-child approach — which seems so much more appealing than being outnumbered. To get some perspective, I chatted with Lauren Sandler, the author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One. Read on for more from Sandler who, as an only child and mother of one, makes the case for the only child.

Q: What are some of the best things about being an only child?
A: Only children tend to have a really strong primary relationship with themselves, which is actually great armour against loneliness, despite the stereotype of the lonely only child. Plus, there’s often greater achievement, motivation and self-esteem and higher intelligence — at least that’s what the data shows us — and that’s largely due to the fact that parents can devote their time, energy and money to just one kid instead of splitting those resources up amongst more. And, of course, onlies tend to have very deep and fulfilling friendships, and very rich family lives.

Q: About having only one child?
A: Parents of one child get the best of all worlds in some respects: the joy and fulfillment of parenthood, but also some of the freedom and spontaneity of a more child-free life. Only children are, of course, less expensive than more children — and the resources that parents aren’t dividing between more children can be applied to other things. This is how the selfish parent stereotype gets anchored. We are expected to sacrifice it all for our children. But I think that having more flexibility to have a fulfilling romantic partnership, engaged adult friendships, and a life outside the duelling spheres of office and home is a really good thing for parents.

Q: On what basis do people judge your decision to have only one child, and how do you respond?
A: People continue to believe that parents of only children are conscripting their kids into a life of loneliness and selfishness — that if you don’t give your child the gift of a sibling, it’ll turn out rotten. I hear this from strangers who ask me if I have another child, and then are aghast when I say it’s not something I’m currently planning to do. In the past, I’ve cited some data — like how expensive each child is, and how onlies tend to turn out just fine, thank you — but such responses are usually greeted with more scorn. So lately I just do my best to smile politely, and simply move on. I’ve resisted the temptation so far to say, “Well, there’s a new book you might want to read…”

Q: Can you tell me about how your mother has been an inspiration in this area?
A: My mother taught me that to be a good mother you have to be a happy person. I can think of no better lesson. It’s a mentality we’ve lost sight of, as we zealously embrace the sanctimonious self-sacrificing of motherhood. (Did you know that women spend more hours parenting than we did when we were stay-at-home-mothers?)

Q: What advice do you have for anyone who’s currently weighing the pros and cons of having more than one child?
A: If you truly want another kid, you’ll make it work. But if you don’t, and you’re having a hard time silencing society’s whispers in your ear, telling you a child needs a sibling to thrive, know you have a world of research supporting the one-child family, even if the culture hasn’t gotten hip to it yet. Know yourself, your limits, your dreams, and your kid. And follow your heart.

Are you the parent of an only child, or an only child yourself? Tell us about your story in the comment section below. 

6 comments on “Are parents who only have one child happier?

  1. I’m an only child, but mom to 3, and yes, I had 3 because of my oneliness. Looking back, growing up was lonely for me, but that was also due to my parenting. Single mom, who didn’t understand what it was like to be a child, so she didn’t interact with me in a playful, child’s way. (She lost her parents at a young age, & grew up as the war was ending, so she herself never had a childhood.) Now, as a grown up only, I still find it lonely, though I’m surrounded by love from my children and husband. I wish I had a sibling, or 2, that I could share the responsibility of my mom’s aging; the quirks of my mom that drive me crazy; the eventual emotional pain of losing my mom. I know that having siblings does not gurantee smooth, sunny relationships, but I wish I had at least the chance to stumble through it myself. I understand why my mom chose to have only me, and I agree with her reasons, but in an ideal world, I would have formed a different family. Interestingly, I’m focusing on lack of siblings rather then lack of a dad….

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    • I totally agree with Anya. Although not an only myself, a close friend who is an only child says he’d rather not deal with his wife’s less than ideal siblings. He admits that he just doesn’t understand the bond she has to them. My husband & I are each part of a 3-child family but have distinctly different relationships with our siblings (mine are spread out in age while hubby’s are quite close). The common factor is that no one else knows me the way a sibling does. Since I’m a product of my childhood years, there are many things I don’t have to explain while talking to a sibling. They saw, they know! Our daughter spent the first year of her daughter’s life patiently waiting for her partner, an only child, to appreciate her desire for a second child. Although our daughter is quite the opposite of her older brother, they have a unique bond & share a love of quirky things (even bought each other the same book one Christmas). We now have two grand girls and we know that even if they should drift apart in life, it will only take one call when in need for a sibling to be there without questions or judgement. Of course an only child will have their own strengths, (which are well cited by the author), but she hasn’t got the ability to do life over again as a not-only child to understand the difference. It’s a bit like trying to describe something to someone who has yet to experience it. They will only get it when they actually do experience that thing — like being a parent or a grandparent or a sibling.

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  2. I couldn’t agree more with Lauren Sandler’s comments and feelings on being the mother of one. I believe strongly in many things she says but two really stand out for me….Only children tend to have a really strong primary relationship with themselves against loneliness and fulfillment of parenthood.

    I am from a family of 13 siblings which I am number 13… We all have our own lives and are not as close net family since our parents have passed on… I was never deprived of anything I remember lots of happiness, lots of laughter, and both parents were always there for us… Never a shortage of good wholesome food, and participating in many paid activities… Gymnastics, baton, swimming the list goes on and on… I am very pleased of my upbringing and I love all my siblings and only wished we seen more of each other… My mother never worked, was always very positive and was many years older than I…

    Being a happy parent with one child… I had only one child and I was also a single mom… (By choice)… Like Lauren Sandler I heard many times I should have a brother or sister for my son. I quickly learned to nod my head and smile… and I also have a sister that made the same choice… I was a stay at home mom until he started school and after my husband (not his father) passed away… He is now 34, very happy in himself and his life… He grew up having many childhood experiences with many other children… which helped in teaching him he had to share… Our house was the place to go to… (Kid magnet) Other kids were spoiled and disciplined the same as my son was while in our home… I volunteered for 18 years so he could be involved in his choice of sports… I joined a community that held 100′s of family functions so he wasn’t always left with a baby sitter… My son has a successful career… He’s a great cook… (Was always in the kitchen with me), and he keeps house better than I do. He likes his quiet time alone, as well spends plenty time with friends… He is still single (by choice) but is best friend’s with a wonderful lady that sees a future…

    Communication, honesty, high morals, integrity, caring, respect and other life skills were always stressed and discussed of their importance… and he shines in them all… He was blessed with half siblings, he has met and spent only one time with… they live 1000’s of miles away… the moral of all this… I see no ill effects from him being raised as an only child… Nor has he ever voiced any words telling me any different. On those occasions of receiving a card, they reiterate what he has told me and more….

    I believe my son to be proven evidence that having siblings or not having siblings, and my decision of having only one long before my son was born I believe gave me the opportunity to spend that little more quality time together and financially secure a better future for university when completing high school… And the sports from age 3 to 21.. many times 2 activities in one evening… I found that flexibility with having an only child.. For me I was happy how my life went having only one….Would I do it again..? You betcha…. With only one..? You betcha..

    I believe what and how you parent is what can make the difference… My take from being an only child parent… I was happy as a child when there were 12 other siblings and more than happy being the mother of only one…. I was just as happy with one as my mother was with 13…

    My sister’s daughter… who shows no ill effects of being an only child, has also turned out to be a wonderful wife and is married with 3 children…

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  3. Wow this is an interesting topic. My parents had four children because they had lonely childhoods. My dad was an only child and my mom had one sibling who was nine years younger than her. We were very poor and I always wished that our family was smaller so that we would have more money. My step daughter is an only child. She is not particularly selfish. But she was easily bored and I often thought that a sibling would have been a good thing. But I did not want children. She turned out well. She has a great relationship with both her parents. She is extremely materialistic, but that probably has nothing to do with being an only child. Ironically I never wanted children because of my childhood. I never back with fondness. None of my siblings had children either.

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  4. Pingback: Does having a child make you happier? - Chatelaine

  5. Despite making tremendous progress in my lifetime in the area of supporting women as people, this discussion shows we still have work to do. Women (and their partners) will be happy when they have the number of children they wish to have, rather than trying to fulfill some abstract ideal. No children, one child, many children? All options could lead to happiness or not. Know thyself and respect thyself is the important point here.

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