'One And Only': The Argument For Raising Just One

Jun 11, 2013
Originally published on June 11, 2013 3:03 pm

In 1907, the first president of the American Psychological Association called only children "sickly, selfish, strange, and stupid." He concluded that "being an only child is a disease in itself."

In her book One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One, journalist Lauren Sandler takes on these stereotypes and sifts through a huge body of research that debunks many of the worst myths about only children.

Sandler, an only child and mother of one, talks to NPR's Lynn Neary about the joys of raising just one.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary, in Washington. Neal Conan is away. In 1907, the first president of the American Psychological Association called only children sickly, selfish, strange and stupid. He concluded that, quote, "being an only child is a disease in itself." Now, let's face it: That's a pretty stunning indictment of an entire group of people who, through no fault of their own, were raised without siblings.

Journalist Lauren Sandler takes on such pernicious stereotypes in her new book "One and Only." Sandler has sifted through a huge body of research that debunks many of the worst myths about only children. Even so, she says persistent cultural assumptions about sad and lonely onlys prevent other conversations about the costs and tradeoffs inherent in choosing to have larger families.

Sandler herself is an only child, and she is raising one. She'll join us in a moment. But we want to hear from you, too. If you're an only child, and you're a parent or thinking of becoming one, would you consider having an only? Why or why not? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program: how independent musicians get their music heard online. But first, being and having only children. Lauren Sandler's new book, "One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One," is out today from Simon and Schuster. Lauren joins us from our bureau in New York. Good to have you on the show, Lauren.


NEARY: And I have to say that Lauren and I have a history. Lauren used to work here at NPR, and she and I worked together on a number of very interesting stories. So it's great fun to be able to talk to you about this new book, Lauren.

SANDLER: It's also such a reckoning for me, because reflecting on the way here, I was thinking, wow, the year that we worked together is when I was my most stereotypically only-childlike.


SANDLER: But now after all this research, I realize it wasn't because I was an only child. I just had an entitlement complex when I was 23.


NEARY: I can't help but say that thought crossed my mind in there as I was reading your book.


NEARY: And, you know, you begin your book by saying: This is not a memoir, but to conform to what's expected of an only child, let me start with myself.


SANDLER: There you go.

NEARY: So let's start with you. I have to say, I couldn't help but feel that as I was reading this book, that maybe it grew out of a feeling that you had that you were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, that you had just had enough of insulting assumptions about what it meant to be an only child. Is that true?

SANDLER: Well, it's funny. As an only child myself, I didn't feel that so much. When I started to feel it was once I had an only child of my own. You know, I think that people tend to keep their stereotypical feelings about others to themselves often. But when you're a parent of an only child, you hear it from a lot of people.

I mean, I - not just family and friends - and honestly I don't get a lot of flak from people I'm close to - but in the supermarket, on the subway, I hear from people all the time: Oh, you wouldn't do that to your child. And I was stunned by the judgment, and also stunned that when I started looking into the basis for that judgment, the sensibility behind it, you know, just based on erroneous information. It's like the last living stereotype that political correctness couldn't abolish.

NEARY: Well, you tell a story about a woman you ran into in a supermarket who gave you a hard time. Tell us the details of that story a little bit.

SANDLER: Honestly, I could tell dozens of stories like this. But, you know, this was a moment when my kid was probably - I'd say Dahlia was about two or three, and she was dancing in the supermarket. And as people do when they see a cute kid dancing, would smile and chat me up and say: So, do you have another one? No. Well, are you planning to? No. I'm not planning to right now. Oh, you wouldn't do that to your child.

And it's amazing to see those smiles just harden and the notion of my daughter of I as incredibly happy and, you know, me as a very nurturing, joyful mother just changes on a dime when people hear that I actually might not have another child.

NEARY: Yeah. And you also start the book by talking about your own mother's decision. Tell us a little bit about what she has told you about why she decided to have an only child.

SANDLER: Well, my mother was very committed to her work and very committed to a certain degree of personal freedom. She and my father really wanted to live in the apartment that they moved into in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which I know you've seen, Lynn.

NEARY: I have.

SANDLER: And as you know, it's not a very big apartment. And they thought, you know, we have this great life where we can walk out onto the street and buy a really good cookie and see street theater. And she could devote herself to work that meant a lot to her, and they could travel. And it felt like a tradeoff that wasn't quite worth it to them.

And, you know, it was an era in the '70s when feminism was potent and part of the culture, and environmentalism was potent and part of the culture. And those twin movements really pushed a conversation about how many children we would have, what motherhood should look like, what the planet was reconciling.

And because of that, I think that it was actually a little easier to make this choice in the '70s than it even is today, all these years later.

NEARY: Well, what was interesting about that little section is one got the sense, just a little glimpse of the fact that perhaps your father wasn't entirely sure about the decision, or it was a little harder for him.

SANDLER: That's true, and I actually didn't know that until I spoke to him in a conversation that begins my book. But I think that the issue is that, you know, the issue in the having-it-all conversation, so to speak, is not an issue of never compromising. It's an issue of which compromises we will make. And so for my father, the compromise was to say, OK, I will support this, and I'll be really happy with my family. And he was, just as I think a lot of parents right now are saying: We are stretched so thin between working more than ever and parenting more than ever and the economy, you know, in the tank here. And so what are we going to compromise? Because you can't both have one child who you devote all your resources to, and more children who can offer sibling competition and companionship and time left over for oneself.

So those, you know, they tend to be three different lives there. And we have to do the best we can by making choices, I think, that make us happy people, to make us happy parents, and therefore good parents.

NEARY: So when it came time for you to begin having a family, did you know right from the start, I really only want one? Or did that - is that something that came on you and your husband gradually? I mean, how did you arrive at that decision?

SANDLER: Well, I think of children as, you know, something that happens one at a time. I, you know, I think that because I'm an only child myself, it's normal to me, and it didn't feel like such a huge jump to make that choice. So we started with one, and then we saw where we were at, and where we were at was a very, very happy place. And that's where we continue to be.

NEARY: Yeah. And is that something that could change? Or, I mean, I don't mean to say, are you going to have another one? Because that's the question you hate, right, or think shouldn't really be asked.

SANDLER: No, no - I mean, hey, I wrote a book about this. I am opening up that question.


SANDLER: I feel like, you know, my womb is now fair game. It's not the supermarket anymore. At the moment, it's not a plan that I have. And I really do believe that for the three of us, this is a really great way of living. That said, you know, I'm 38. My body hasn't decided for me yet. Maybe when it begins to, that will start feeling different. I really don't know.

NEARY: When did you turn 38?

SANDLER: I know.

NEARY: OK. Anyway, move on from that. But so we should say it's not a memoir. It is not all about you. You did a huge amount of research for this book, as well.

SANDLER: Well, it was interesting. A lot of my research was just looking at other people's research. I was stunned by how much material has existed on this topic for decades and decades - I mean, hundreds of studies. So I combed through that material, but then I also traveled the world interviewing only children and parents of only children and demographers and environmental scientists and various people who could help illuminate the complexities of this conversation because, you know, the data tells us one thing, which is that only children are really no different than anyone else.

You know, we tend to have higher achievement, higher intelligence - I know that sounds like a very only child thing to say, but it does bear out in the numbers. But we also have a different experience, and that experience is something which you really need to connect with people to understand, because it's totally different for a kid who lives in a rural place where there aren't a lot of other children around or, you know, someone who has happily married parents.

I mean, it's a different dynamic for everyone. The thing is that if you're an only child, that tends to be a bit of a totalizing narrative. It tends to be the story that either other people use or you use yourself to explain various things about you. If you feel lonely, it's because you're an only child, even though everyone is lonely in the world.

NEARY: And if you're a big success, it's because you're an only child.

SANDLER: Exactly. And I think that it just becomes a story that we tell ourselves that isn't always based on as much as we think it is.

NEARY: Let's take a call. We're going to go to Amanda, and she is calling from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Hi, Amanda.


NEARY: Go ahead.

AMANDA: I was just calling because, actually, I have two only children.



AMANDA: I have a 17-year-old stepson that I married into when he was six, and we took over full custody when he was eight. And he's 17 now. And then when he was 16, we decided to have one more. So I think of them as two only children, because by the time my stepson moves out, my baby won't even remember ever living with him.

NEARY: And that's true. And I think, Lauren, you talk about the fact that there can be, in a sense, two only children in one family.

AMANDA: Oh, sure. I mean, defining what an only child is - today especially - is so difficult when there are so many blended families, and there could be so many different factors that go into people's fertility choices, and the timing of all of that. It's interesting, in the data, looking at personality traits, if you have lived alone in a house with your parents for seven years as a kid, then you're technically an only child.

But I do think that, often, for people who have step relationships or that sort of distance, they tend to get the best of both worlds in that they have all of that devotion and attention that only children get, and then they also have another family member, which can be a beautiful thing.

NEARY: And Amanda, I gather you come from a big family? Is that right?

AMANDA: Yes. I come from - I'm the oldest of six.

NEARY: So why did you decide you wanted to have an only child after coming from such a big family?

AMANDA: Because being the oldest girl, I did a lot of work, and my younger siblings, a lot of the - a lot of times, especially the youngest one, kind of look at me as a second parent. And I was always the person they called to babysit when they started having kids. And so I knew what sort of work it took. And so when I took on a stepson, I didn't want - I didn't want my focus to be split.

I didn't think of it as being selfish. I thought of it more as being able to focus on what he needs. And when he actually reached a point that he was more self-sufficient, around 16, suddenly my husband and I looked at each other and thought: Do we want to be done? And that's how we decided to have a baby.

NEARY: All right. And how old is your - how old is the second one now?

AMANDA: He is 10 months.

NEARY: Ten months, a little baby, OK. Well, good luck with that, Amanda, and thanks so much for calling us.

AMANDA: Thank you. Bye.

NEARY: OK. And, again, Lauren, Amanda a good example of how families are changing, how there are so many different ways that a person could describe themselves as an only child. We're talking with Lauren Sandler about her new book "One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One." If you're an only child, we want to hear from you. Give us a call at 800-989-8255. And we'll have more in just a minute. I'm Lynn Neary, and this is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. There are a lot of stereotypes about only children, and our guest Lauren Sandler, author of "One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One," points out in her new book that pop culture loves to reinforce those stereotypes.

Think about horror films - "The Shining," "The Exorcist" and "Friday the 13th." They all hinge on only children. So, too, do many superhero stories. The heroes are often only children: Superman, Spiderman, Batman and Iron Man. That sounds complimentary, but in fact, says Sandler, they fit the misfit, loner stereotype, quote, "incapable of truly connecting with citizens of the real world."

And the cultural assumptions in those fictional tales can make being and having an only child look unappealing. But as Lauren, an only with one child of her own, points out, much of what we assume about only children is wrong. So if you're an only child, we want to hear from you. If you're a parent or thinking of becoming one, will you consider having an only child? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Or send us an email at talk@npr.org. And you can also chime in on our website. That's npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Lauren, let's go through some of these stereotypes, maybe take maybe the one that you think is sort of the most pernicious that you've seen through research isn't true but that people just won't give up about only children.

SANDLER: Well, I think that there's the concern that only children are lonely children. And I think that when parents consider having a second child as a gift to their first, that is probably the thing that they are most often concerned about, which I understand. I think that we have a very visceral response to seeing a child alone in a sandbox.

But it was interesting, speaking to psychologists about the experience of loneliness for only children, a lot of them believe that we have the strongest primary relationship with ourselves, which is incredible armor against loneliness; that for a lot of only children, being alone is the experience of solitude, which is a very rich thing, instead of loneliness, which is a very painful thing.

And so that's something that I think we tend to get wrong. You know, when studies have been done about how many friends kids tend to have, only children have as many friends as anyone else. And I know that for a lot of us, you know, for me I spent a lot of time reading. And that may seem kind of nerdy and sad, but honestly I loved it. I loved having time to read and then also having time with friends.

So that's one of the issues. Another one is, of course, spoiling. But, you know, my feeling about that is only children don't spoil themselves. Parents spoil kids. And you can spoil two kids or three kids as much as you can spoil one. And part of the issue of having the totality of what it means to parent an only child, our conversation is just that you shouldn't do it and not let's have a mindful discussion about how to do it.

And yeah, you have to be careful about some of these things, but I think that we have to be careful about all aspects of parenting.

NEARY: See, you can tell you don't have a sibling because anybody with a brother or sister would say no, my brother or my sister or the two of them, they're the spoiled ones, I'm not, I didn't get spoiled, they did.



NEARY: But anyway, you do also point out that, you know, because onlys lack sibling relationships, they actually tend to sort of seek out really strong relationships and make a lot of close friends outside of the family and that in fact they're sort of choosing a different kind of family. And I've seen that with a lot of people I know who are only children. They seem to be people who - I mean, I have one very close friend who's an only child who was very attached to my family but has very strong relationships with so many people.

And I always attribute it to the fact that she is an only child and wanted to, you know, have those other kinds of relationships.

SANDLER: And it's interesting as an adult with those sorts of friendships. I mean, I think that that's part of what I don't really want to sacrifice in cocooning myself more domestically the way that I think a lot of parents tend to do when they have more and more children. You know, it takes a lot of time and energy to maintain adult friendships and adult relationships, and they're very important to me.

And I think they're also important to my daughter. It's wonderful for her to grow up in a community of people who have chosen each other, who love each other. And I'm really gratified by that aspect of our lives.

NEARY: All right, let's go to Molly(ph), and she's calling from Spokane, Washington. Hi Molly.

MOLLY: Hi there. My comment was that we need to look at what this kind of pressure is (unintelligible) adults. I'm an only child of an only child. I'm expecting in December with my husband and my first child. And we made the conscious decision to have more than one because of this pressure later in life, adult only children.

My parents decided to get - well, my father left my mother after 33 years, eight weeks before my wedding, and there was no one to help my mother. She didn't have any siblings. And so it was all of a sudden me trying to be my own person and create this new life and yet also be there, you know. And the whole time through it, I had these amazing friends that were supportive of both me and my mother and my new family, but I really wanted that sibling.

And I think that we need to look at the pressures because it's great when they're under 10, you know, you can take them anywhere. Resources, money, time, energy can be devoted to this child. Of course they're going to be smarter with that, you know. They get all the homework help. They don't just get half of it.

And so I think that after 10, then what happens, you know? In college what happens? There's nobody to kind of spread the pressure and the focus around to. And then as my parents age, I'm now looking at that. Well, who's going to help my dad in one place and my mom in another? Who's just going to listen to me vent? You know, and it falls to my husband.

So I would like this conversation to steer towards that adult population of only children, too, and maybe why they decide to have bigger families. So thank you.

NEARY: That it gets harder as you get older. OK, thanks so much.

MOLLY: It does. It does. Thank you very much.

NEARY: Thanks for the call, Molly.

SANDLER: I think that's right on. I think that we imagine only childhood in terms of childhood and not through a whole life experience. In terms of people who I've interviewed who have chosen to have more than one child, it's often because of anxiety around what those older years will be like, what it means to have one child taking care of two parents who are facing the end of their life.

And there's no doubt that that is a very, very difficult thing to reckon with. You know, my parents are incredible pragmatists. They have long-term health insurance to help with this. I too am a bit of a pragmatist. I can reassure myself to a certain point that it tends to be the closest residing sibling who does that elder care.

But there is also an emotional weight to it, and that is a really difficult thing to reconcile. Also the pressure, you know. The fact is that an only child family is intense, and it is an amplified experience. And there are beautiful things about that, and there are aspects of that that can be a little tough. But that's another thing that I think that we can tend to reconcile through mindful parenting.

I don't think that anything is a perfect choice, and I don't think that there's a choice that fits all families. I just think that people need to be able to be led by their hearts just like that caller was to say for her family having more than one is going to be the right answer.

NEARY: All right, we have an email here from Samantha(ph) that takes this aspect of the conversation even a little further, and I'd like you to respond. Samantha says: No way. I was an only child, and my parents were alcoholics. There was never a day that I didn't feel alone and afraid and desperately wanted to have someone by my side to share my feelings with or feel strong with. Not only that, but when my parents fought, they would try to divide my sympathies, and that was emotionally draining.

Being an only child may be OK if your family situation is balanced and healthy, but if it not, yuck, too much of a risk. What's your take on that, Lauren? You do seem to have come from a family of - your parents seem to be very pragmatic, very strong, you're a very close family, not dysfunctional to the degree that I can understand it, certainly not this kind of situation. So what's your take when somebody says that?

SANDLER: I mean, my heart breaks for whoever wrote that letter, just as, you know, my heart breaks for anyone whose father leaves just before their wedding. These are terrible situations. I think that these tend to be terrible situations, no matter what family size it is. And possibly having a sibling would help in those situations. You really don't know. It depends on the sibling. It depends on the dynamic.

I always assumed that, before I started researching, that in cases of divorce it was so much easier to have a sibling. And I understand people being pulled by that impulse. It was interesting, in my research I found that it actually tends to be easier on only children because their parents don't play the same games with them as they tend to with two children. And also it tends to be so much easier on parents that they get through that cycle in an easier, more loving way.

And so I think that we can imagine how things would be, but we also tend to idealize how things would be when we imagine it. And that is just simply hard to know.

NEARY: All right, let's see. Let's take a call from Nicole(ph), she's calling from Boise, Idaho. Go ahead, Nicole.

NICOLE: Hi. I'm an only child, and enjoyed being an only child. I was not ostracized. I have tons of friends, well adjusted. But I - and I wanted to have one child, and I got a two-for-one. I have twin boys. So sometimes it is hard to relate, having not grown up with siblings. You know, is this normal sibling behavior? Is this how siblings interact? Is this OK?

My husband has a huge age gap with his siblings, so he's almost like an only child in that way, but I'll ask him. So I just wanted to point that out. But the last few comments, you know, would it be better to have a sibling? And I'd never even thought about, you know, my parents aging and I'm "all alone," quote, unquote.

But, you know, if you don't get along with your siblings or they're not helpful, as is the case in - with my husband's family, some of the siblings maybe are not even in the picture. Then does it really matter? So, you know, the grass is always greener, right?

NEARY: Right.

NICOLE: I never regret - I never regretted my parents' choice to have me as an only child. They did divorce. It probably was easy, because it was just me, but I don't see a problem with it. And I have had adult friends ask, you know, questions about being an only child that just kind of floored me, that, really? I hadn't even thought about some of the things that people with siblings ask you. So I think this is a great discussion.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for calling and adding that to the discussion, Nicole. I appreciate it. And, you know, Nicole brings up an interesting point, which I think you make in the book, which is - and you said earlier, too - that part of the problem is the only child becomes just a stereotype in itself, and so people make judgments through that prism about your life.

Whereas, you know, when siblings don't get along or, you know, one sibling turns bad and one wins the Nobel Prize, it's not attributed to the fact that they came from, you know, a family with more than one child. Yet that is always the reason for why a - an only child succeeds or doesn't, and I think that Nicole made that point yet again.

SANDLER: Sure. I mean, you would never hear someone say, well, you shouldn't have had that second kid. But we hear people say you should have one all the time.

NEARY: Yeah. Yeah.

SANDLER: They're both pretty absurd, right?

NEARY: Right, exactly. So let's take another call. We're going to go now to Wathi(ph), and Wathi is calling from Berkeley, California. Hi, Wathi.

WATHI: Hi. I've been looking forward to this show, because I've been an only child for 78 years. And I was - you know, almost died when I was infant. My father died when I was one-and-a-half, so I didn't have a father.

My mother was a teacher, and she just devoted so much time to me. She was a den mother to - I couldn't get into a Cub Scout group in one place, so she became a den mother and formed a new, little den for me. And she would take me on trips out to observe airplanes, because I was an airplane spotter during the war. And she would take me to parks and church. She tried to teach me how to box, and she considered me her little man.

And I actually am sometimes happy that maybe I didn't have a father from what I see friends of mine who have these abusive fathers. My mother was very clean, and so I didn't grow up with any problems with alcohol. And I read a book, "Alone," by Richard E. Byrd when I was about eight or 10, and it just was so much of a formulation of the way I lived my life. But I did get married, and I do have two sons, and they're wonderful guys. And so life has been great, and I was happy being an only child.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for calling, Wathi.

WATHI: OK. Thank you.

NEARY: I appreciate the call.

WATHI: Love the show. Thanks very much.

NEARY: Good.

WATHI: OK. Bye-bye.

NEARY: And I just want to remind listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

One thing, Lauren - and it's sort of coming out a little bit, I think, in this show that you bring up in the book a lot - and that is that no matter how much research you might sometimes tell a person there is on only children and what the results of that research is, that the stereotypes persist.

There was one story where a friend of yours, who was an only child and said that she had been lonely as an only child, she finally said to you - and you said, but, really, you know, the research shows that's not the case. It's not because you're an only child. And she said, just own up. You're going to have to own up, Lauren, to what it is you're doing to your child. Tell us about that story and the effect it had on you and what it reveals about this whole question of only children.

SANDLER: Well, everyone has a different experience of this, and I think that for some people, like that friend of mine who had a painful experience as an only child, you know, that's something that they carry with them, and it's hard to overcome that. I mean, you can present as much data as possible, and yet as someone understands their own lives, they're going to understand their life in that way.

And I think that that's a real theme which has come out amongst all of these callers, that, you know, in very unhappy families, it feels like that was made so much more unhappy by not having something else, or in very happy families, it was made so much more happy by the circumstance that it was.

I mean, it is one of these stories that we tell to explain so many things about ourselves, but it doesn't necessarily add up. We can't really generalize about it, because we know, through all of these hundreds of studies, that there is no common story. There is no common trait, but there are ways that we tend to explain ourselves.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call from Emily, and she's calling from Lawrence, Kansas. Hi, Emily.

EMILY: Hello. Thanks for taking my call.

NEARY: Go ahead.

EMILY: I cannot wait to read this book. I'm eating this all up with a spoon. I'm an only child as well, and I am the parent of two children and chose to do that. I loved being an only child. I had a great life. I was treated very well, you know, got to do things. But I was not spoiled, and, you know, you guys alluded to this a little bit. But, I mean, my whole life - and even still now as an adult - when people find out that I'm an only child, I've had people just look at me and point-blank say: Are you spoiled? And I'm like, who does that? Why do we need to, you know, do that? No, I really was not. I certainly had some opportunities. I had everything I needed and I had some opportunities, but I had an allowance. I had to work when I was a teenager to, you know, help pay for my car, all these things.

So the whole thing about spoiled - the most spoiled people I know are people who happen to have siblings. So - and my kids definitely are not spoiled. They're going to be treated very much the way I was. But it's been so fascinating for me. And a couple of your other callers have said the same thing, to, you know, to watch my children be - interact with each other and love each other so much and have such a great experience and play together, I mean, all the time. And I didn't, you know, I didn't have that. That's the one thing I didn't have. But I think other than that, I mean, being an only child was a great thing. And I know it's become such a thing, with the recession and things like that. A lot of people are choosing to have only children, and I think it's wonderful. And I'm so glad that your caller has - that your guest has written this book for all of us to be discussing today, as well.

NEARY: Well, thanks so much for calling, Emily. And I think we're going end on that note, Lauren. Obviously, this is a topic that people are very interested in, especially lots of only children, I think. Great talking with you, Lauren.

EMILY: Thank you.

NEARY: And good luck with the book. Lauren Sandler is author of the brand-new book "One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One." She joined us today from our bureau in New York. We'll have more after a short break. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.