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
By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer
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.
Linda Mallory of Oakley likes that she can send her son Josh to private school.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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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 says.
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 one:
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 parents.
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 bit better.
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 subject.
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 life.
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