Jairus’s daughter. John Updike. Condoleezza Rice. Cary Grant. Chelsea Clinton. My grandmother. And my mother. Do you think “most selfish people in the world” when you hear these names and labels? Neither do I. But they were or are all only children. And the stereotype of only children is that they refuse to share, act spoiled, and hog the biggest bowl of ice cream.
Fortunately, this caricature of only kids as brats with tiaras or ponies on the back forty has changed somewhat in the past four decades, in part because more people have “onlies.” Whereas 10 percent of American families had an only child in 1976, by 2014 that number had doubled. Some place the percentage as high as twenty-three. And in New York City, like other urban centers, the number is closer to 30 percent.
Mothers with master’s degrees have more only children than mothers with less education. But that does not necessarily mean these moms opted for education over more kids. Lots of women, myself included, pursued higher education precisely because nothing was happening in the family-expansion department. Among my colleagues and students at the school where I teach, a disproportionate number of them are childless or have only one child. Of those whose stories I know, the vast majority were not by choice.
Certainly, some couples do choose education and careers over larger families. After all, it costs $245,340 to raise a child, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And that’s just from birth to eighteen years. Smaller family size also stems from starting later, as many delay marriage as compared with couples in the past.
Nevertheless, neither of these factors had a thing to do with my own parent-of-an-only-child status. Our small family size was due to factors other than cost or education—factors like infertility, multiple pregnancy losses, and failed adoptions, not a lack of desire.
But as we’ve parented an only child, we’ve discovered that the caricature was wrong. As it turns out, only children score quite low on narcissism and high on sociability indexes, meaning that in terms of relationships with their peers, they do better than just fine. They score even higher than firstborns on leadership ability and maturity, perhaps because they have no choice but to interact with adult models who tend to cheer on their achievements and affirm their self-images. And in fact, only children have higher IQs, on average, than those with siblings.
“How will she learn to share…?” people would ask me about my daughter, as if they’d never heard of a church nursery or an educational classroom. Even only children have to take turns on the swing and jungle gym.
In the self-centered category, only children are basically the same as oldest children. But different. That’s the conclusion Frank J. Sulloway, author of Born to Rebel, reached. He says that, like oldest children, only children tend to be more conservative, but, like the babies of the family, they innovate more. Only kids are the wild cards, he says. They have more freedom to define themselves than do others.
The Draco Malfoy stereotype of the only child stemmed from the teachings of nineteenth-century psychologist G. Stanley Hall, who labeled being an only child as a disease. At the time Hall had a voice, psychoanalysis was all the rage. Yet while his theories have been debunked in the academic world, it sometimes takes magazines and news outlets about three millennia to catch up on data.
So if singletons are more slandered than exceptionally selfish, what about the image of the “lonely only?” “Aren’t you afraid she’ll be lonely?” people would ask, eying my child and then my flat belly with pity. Those who knew of our situation wisely refrained from voicing such concerns, but strangers often made assumptions.
Many parents of only children do fear that their child will be lonely both in childhood and adulthood. And these same parents are also often absolutely concerned that their child will be spoiled. But parents with many kids share some of these same concerns.
Parents of “onlies” also fear that they themselves will die young, leaving their child orphaned in adulthood. Or they worry that they will linger for decades in poor health, strapping their child with the double burden of caring alone for two elderly parents. In short, they may fret about the future. And some of their concerns are similar to how singles feel.
Some of these concerns, also, it turns out, parents of only children share with parents who have more than one child. Who will take care of me? Will I be a burden? I expressed just such a lament to a young Christian friend recently: “Who will take care of me when I’m old?”
She turned to me and with a look of hurt in her eyes, as if to suggest “why would you even wonder?” and answered, “I will, Sandi. And the body of Christ.”
The Lord told the children of Israel, “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you” (Isa. 46:4). He’s the kind of God who still cares for his children today. And he does so through his people. Caring for the old and infirm among us is part of what it means to be pro-life.