Why It's OK to Have Just One Child

Medically Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD on February 01, 2012
3 min read

Let the guilt go, parents of only kids. They're not more likely to grow up spoiled or lonely.

"Is he your only?" Everyone from supermarket cashiers to my parents' friends asks me that question. When I answer "yes," I often get a pitying look -- or worse, "Aren't you afraid he'll be lonely?"

I always intended to have two children, but when my son turned out to be more challenging than my husband and I envisioned, our plans changed. Although my husband has made peace with our decision, I've lost sleep worrying my son will grow up spoiled or lonely. I fear he'll have to shoulder the caregiving burden when my husband and I get older.

Although our culture perpetuates the idea that the perfect family includes at least two children, the number of one-child families is higher now, from just under 10% in 1976 to 18% today. And 58% of U.S. adults believe the ideal family includes two children or fewer. Susan Newman, PhD, a social psychologist, parenting expert, and author of The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide, says the reasons for this include infertility issues (we're waiting longer to get pregnant) and financial pressures, thanks to a sluggish economy coupled with the high cost of raising a child (nearly $227,000 from birth to college).

Still, some of us can't shake the feeling we've done something wrong.

There's no reason for guilt, Newman says. She's reviewed dozens of single-child family studies and finds that only children aren't any worse off than their peers with siblings. "The studies all show that only children are not spoiled. They're no more lonely than other children, and they actually make as many friends as children with siblings," she says.

Having an only child isn't all rosy, though. Instead of solving sibling squabbles, parents must help their lone child fend off boredom and self-absorption.

After being asked the only-child question too many times now, I've come up with a response. "We stopped at perfection," I say. And leave it at that.

Have an only child? Newman offers these tips:

The More, the merrier. Make your house "kid central." Invite neighborhood and school friends to drop by. Sign your child up for activities like band or soccer so he'll never lack for companionship.

Home alone. It's OK for only children to fly solo. "Alone time is a plus because it helps with creativity and learning how to use time productively," Newman says.

No pressure. Don't pin your dreams of being a star athlete or concert pianist on your child -- that's a heavy burden for any kid to bear. Let her pursue her own dreams.

TMI. If you planned to have more kids but it didn't work out, don't share that. "Then your child starts believing he's not enough," Newman says.

Table talk. Include your child in the conversation. Not having sibling distractions at the dinner table gives you an opportunity to enrich her vocabulary and knowledge by involving her in more "adult" discussions.