Friday, June 30, 2000
One child no longer a lonely number
One-fifth of U.S. families have an only child, and they have some advantages
One in five families today has an only child. That's a remarkable change in families since the days of the Brady Bunch or Partridge Family. Back in 1970, the average
family had 2.5 children. Today, the average is 1.8.
Experts say rising costs, an increase in mothers who work, later
marriages and infertility all contribute to the shrinking of the
American family. The experts, along with many parents, say their
choice to raise only one child gives their children advantages.
“Someone once told me you can be the parent you really want to be
when you only have one because you're not pulled in different
directions,” says Linda Mallory, a 43-year-old Oakley mother of one
son. “I know my limitations, and feel I couldn't have been good at
mothering more children when my child was small.”
America's high divorce rate is another reason people end up with
only one child. Ms. Mallory, a court reporter, divorced in 1998. She
was 30 when she got married and delayed pregnancy. Then, she faced
infertility. At age 36, she gave birth to Josh, now 8, after two
vitro fertilization procedures.
While she once thought she would have more children,
now she is glad she has only one. “We sent him to private school. If
we had more than one, we definitely couldn't afford to do that,” she
Dr. Susan Newman, author of Parenting An Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only
(Doubleday; $12.95), cites the most common reasons couples stop at
• Cost. A 1998 U.S. News & World Report article estimates it will cost $301,000 to raise a child
born in 1997 to age 18. “If you were affluent parents, it goes up
more,” Dr. Newman says.
• Working parents. “With both mom and dad at work, it's hard to
divide your time between working and child-raising,” she says. “When
you add that second child, it doesn't double, it more than doubles —
the intensity, the difficulty.”
• Marrying later/infertility. The median age for marriage is 26.8
for men and 25 for women now, compared to the 1970s when it was 22
and 20, respectively.
Women who postpone marriage children for careers often find they've
become infertile or run out of time.
“That leads to either first or secondary infertility, because as you
get older, it's more difficult to become pregnant,” Dr. Newman says.
“Immediately, by starting out older, you're limiting the time you
can have a child.”
Ted Burgess and Anita Guy Burgess delayed parenthood for careers. “I
felt I needed to have a good track record before I went out on
maternity leave so I could come back and feel secure,” says Anita, a
former Procter & Gamble professional. “I always figured children
would come along later.”
What she didn't figure is they'd have trouble conceiving. Anita was
37 when she gave birth to their only child, Alex, now 6. The Wyoming
couple thought about having another, but since they started so late,
they decided they were well-suited to having one child.
While Alex occasionally inquires about having a sibling, his parents
say he seems content.
“If you have a limited amount of time, you can focus and give your
time and energy to one,” says Anita, who now works part-time from
home as a technical writer and consultant to P&G. “I don't feel
like I'm stretched thin in the child-raising department.”
Ted, an environmental engineer, has a challenging career that often
demands travel. “When I'm home, I spend a lot of time with Alex and
don't have the added stress of accommodating the needs of multiple
children,” he says.
What's more, Ted says, the couple is better off financially with one
child, especially since Anita left her job to stay home. Yet, they
don't shower him with material goods. “It would be tempting to
overdo it, but we're not that kind of people,” Anita says.
Only children do get to be the sole focus of
their parents attention and resources, but there are even more
advantages, say the experts. Among those advantages is the absence
of sibling conflict.
“Growing up, I noticed a lot of times kids had a lot of bickering
going on at home. I didn't because there was nobody to bicker with,”
says Dr. Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles child psychologist and an
only child now raising an only child.
Research shows that only children tend to be successful in life, he
says, thanks to their educational opportunities. Even if their
parents don't have high incomes, they still are in better financial
shape to ship one child off to college than two or three.
Another positive attribute, Dr. Butterworth says, is because only
children don't spend a lot of time playing with peers, they develop
fairly intricate imaginations. “They have to amuse themselves a lot
more than the average child.”
Jermel Pigram, 16, of North Avondale, sees advantages of being an
only child. “My parents have more time to focus on me. You get more
stuff. The downside is you're lonely a lot of time.”
During those times, he works on his computer, plays video games and
watches television. “I'm kind of quiet,” says the junior at Harmony
Community School, Bond Hill. “I like to be around other people, but
sometimes I like to stay to myself.”
When his friends complain about siblings who aggravate them, he's
thankful that's one problem he doesn't have.
“The sibling rivalry problem can be very severe for some children,” says Dr. Patricia Nachman, a New York City psychologist and author of You and Your Only Child: The Joys, Myths, and Challenges of Raising an Only Child (Harperperennial; $12).
“You don't have that, at least in the traditional way. You may get
it still with other children in your class and friends.”
Another advantage, she says, is only children get a lot of attention
from their parents and have somewhat closer relationships with their
Children tend to score slightly higher on intelligence tests, says
Dr. Newman, a psychologist and Rutgers University professor in New
Jersey. “They have more adult input, more of the family resources
going toward increasing their backgrounds, their intelligence, their
exposure to the world. It's logical that "onlies' will do a little
“Obviously, they have the advantages of more money for parents to
spend on them, more time, more exposure to adult thinking, more
likelihood as they get older that the family will eat together.”
Several studies show spending time together at meals reduces the
risk of behaviors, such as drinking, drugs and school problems. With
an only child, there are fewer activities to schedule dinner around.
You don't have one child going to soccer and another to dance.
Even after making a conscious decision to have one child
and knowing all the advantages, experts say parents can still harbor
pangs of guilt, especially when a child begs for a sibling.
Ms. Mallory wants those parents to know Josh rarely raises the
“I never feel guilty,” Ms. Mallory says. “If the worst thing that
happens to my child is that he's an only child, he'll have a good