Single-Child Families on the Rise
Fastest-Growing U.S. Family
It's an enduring stereotype: Only children are lonely children. But this persistent image flies in the face of changing demographics that suggest that only children, in fact, have lots of company:
- There are currently 20 million single-child families in the U.S.
- The percentage of American women having only one child has more than doubled in 20 years, to almost one quarter. (Time Magazine)
- The single-child family is the fastest-growing family in the U.S. and most of western Europe.
- Couples delaying kids for careers.
- Infertility rates on the rise.
- A shift in thinking more about the "quality" of time spent with children, not the "quantity" of offspring.
- Environmental concerns about world population growth and the depletion of resources.
Issues Single-Child Families Face
"'Only' children never experience the competitiveness that kids with siblings do," says Charles White, co-creator of www.onlychild.com, a website devoted to singletons and their families. "They get it all."
White, whose only child is now 20, assures parents that the nurturing attention they lavish on a "singleton" can be a wonderful thing. Still, he believes parents of one have a longer list of responsibilities, because of the need to provide the competition, camaraderie, stimulation that come naturally with siblings.
"It's extraordinarily important for parents of only children to force them into peer activities," White observes. "More often than not, only children will prefer the company of adults and view other children as loose cannons. They command a great deal of attention from adults, and if a parent doesn't know how to get that under control, they'll be at the mercy of that child."
On the other hand, White notes, parents of only children also need to learn to leave their only offspring alone.
"Most parents feel they have to fill every void in the child's life," White says. "If a child with siblings tells a parent, 'I'm bored,' that parent is more likely to say, 'Well go off and find something to do.' But the parent of an only child may project loneliness and feel guilty if they don't interact with the child every minute. You can end up with a very co-dependent relationship."
On the plus side, the extra time only children spend interacting with adults frequently gives them a leg up academically and socially. Research has shown that only children are often star performers at school, with highly developed verbal skills. High-achieving only children include: Alan Greenspan, Chelsea Clinton, Elton John, and Cary Grant, to name but a few!
"Only children also feel friendships much more deeply," White says. "They develop very fierce loyalties, because their friendships fulfill the need to have a sibling."
While many parents fret about the days when their only child will be "alone in the world," White and others who counsel parents of singletons urge them to think more concretely about the future. Caring for aging parents can be a burden for only children, especially if parents have failed to prepare for old age.
"Draw up a will and look into long-term care insurance, so you're not handing your child a mess, "advises White.
The Gift of Time: One Family's Profile
Carol M. chuckles when she thinks about her seven-year-old daughter's latest tactic to convince her to have another child. Elisa, who attends a Jewish day school, turned to the Torah, the Jewish bible, for inspiration to pass along to her forty-something mom.
"Sarah did it when she was 90," she reminded Carol. "C'mon, you can do it, too!"
Carol says Elisa asks her "all the time" about having a brother or sister. "She's very aware that she's the only single child in her class. And she talks about it a lot. She says if she marries an only child, and they have kids, there won't be any cousins."
Though Carol and husband Ray have no plans to expand the family, they've taken great pains to provide Elisa with "sibling equivalents." For several years, Carol volunteered to provide after-school care for a friend's son, so that her daughter could experience the joys and challenges of having another child in the house on a regular basis.
"Everybody thought I was doing (the other parent) such a favor," Carol recalls. "I was really doing it for Elisa."
Carol and Ray's biggest challenge is trying not to spoil Elisa with too much attention.
"If she's by herself and we're together here in the house, I find it very labor intensive," admits Carol. "I'll tell her to go do something, but I don't say it often enough because she'll just go watch TV."
On the other hand, Carol believes that the extra attention she is able to give her child is a positive, not a negative.
"To me, the biggest gift a parent gives a child is time," she says. "So I give it even when I don't have it. There'll be a pile of dishes in the sink because I spend so much time with her. When she has a friend over, I get a lot more done."
Is Elisa too dependent, or over-attached to her parents, as some experts warn can easily happen? Carol doesn't think so, because she's worked so hard to make sure that her daughter has lots of interaction with other children. Although Elisa is only in second grade, her mother is already talking with her about the importance of going away to overnight camp and college, or spending a semester abroad.
"I keep telling Elisa, she should be out living in the dorms, or in an apartment with friends someday. And already there are lots of times when she doesn't want anything to do with me. And that's good!"
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