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It was one of those nights that didn't go so well. Maybe bedtime came a little late, maybe she was hungry. Whatever the reason, our wonderful and capable and smart and kind daughter sat in her room sobbing, unable to cope with putting on her pajamas. We finally got her tucked in, finally got the stories told, the songs sung, finally repaired to the couch for the postmortem. There is nothing so strong in my life as the desire that my daughter be happy, healthy, whole; no worry as profound as that I may somehow screw her up.
Compared with the other prejudices that haunt our age, the bias against only children seems hardly worth mentioning. No one is denied a job for being an only child; no one moves out if one moves in down the block.
And yet the lingering suspicion that only children are likely to be "different" -- selfish, spoiled, maladjusted loners -- carries real consequences. When surveyed, parents say the single biggest reason for having a second child is to provide their firstborn with a sibling. It's a hardy piece of folk wisdom; even parents like my wife and me who decide to stick with one worry that growing up alone will warp our children. It makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, after all -- with so many more hours spent in the company of adults or by themselves, you'd think that only children might be bookish or asocial or a little odd. Stereotypes can grow from truths.
So I needed to find out for sure. If it's true, if only children really are damaged by the experience of growing up without brothers or sisters, then even compelling environmental arguments about the size of our population will go unheeded. What parent would volunteer to make their child miserable in order to reduce infinitesimally the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? If it's true, then maybe Sue and I need to think more about another child. If it's true, then this book would be nonsense: given a choice between a nation composed of 230 million selfish brats and 400 million well-adjusted people, I know which I'd choose.
And anyway, it makes for a pretty good detective story.
It's as rare to see the birth of a prejudice as it is to watch the birth of a star -- most come from so deep in the past that it's hard to imagine there was a time when they didn't exist. But the idea that only children are damaged seems to be of modern provenance. Until recent times only children were a rarity. Perhaps a small family represented a problem for the parents, those semi-barren unfortunates who would have to depend on a single young man or woman to support them as they aged. But very few people paid much attention to child psychology, to child development. It wasn't until the end of the last century that an American researcher, a man named G. Stanley Hall, declared that "being an only child is a disease in itself."
Granville Stanley Hall, born in 1844 in a Massachusetts farming town, is one of those figures who has sunk beneath the waves of history. And yet in his day he was a mighty eminence -- the creator at Johns Hopkins of the first American research laboratory in psychology, the leading educational reformer of his time, the founder of one of the nation's first research universities. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him, Freud, for instance, first came to America at Hall's invitation. (Jung came along with him and on the trip claimed to have witnessed Freud wetting his pants; his attempt to analyze the event for the master led, Jung said, to the break between them.) Soon after Freud and Jung arrived at Hall's house, William James, an old friend of Hall's, knocked on the door with his suitcase.
Hall cared most about understanding the growth of children, and he launched and nurtured a vast national enterprise known as the "child-study movement." In 1882 he urged the by-now-obvious idea that the stages of a child's development "must be the basis of methods of teaching, topics chosen, and their order." The next year he published a pioneering study, "The Content of Children's Minds," that tried to figure out what kids might be "assumed to know and have seen by their teachers when they enter school." He made serious study of children at play, introduced eye and hearing tests as a standard part of the school program, and spread the gospel that "constant muscular activity was natural for the child, and, therefore, the immense effort of the drillmaster teachers to make children sit still was harmful and useless." He even, as part of his early studies of cliques and groups among children, "defended the street gangs of the slums as wholesome if they could be diverted from their criminal activities."
He was, in other words, well ahead of his time. And he was greeted with great acclaim -- there were even Hall Clubs to spread his work. He was a sort of Victorian Dr. Spock. But these were also the earliest days of the social sciences, before fields like psychology had settled down to what we consider the routines of research. People were still feeling their way. William James, for instance, was obsessed with what we'd now call the occult, the New Age. When he arrived at Hall's house to greet Freud, he was carrying reprints of his recent article about a series of séances conducted by the professional medium Mrs. Leonore Piper. Hall, to his credit, was skeptical of all that. He tried hard to do real research. The trouble was, no one really knew how to do research yet.
After months of searching, in a cavernous basement of the State University of New York library in Albany, I finally came across the bound volumes of the first journal Hall published, the Pedagogical Seminary. The dry, cracked leather of the bindings hadn't been opened in many years, but they were utterly fascinating to read -- a portrait of a profession in its earliest years, before graduate students and professors had learned what to study and what to leave alone. Whatever an academic published in the Pedagogical Seminary was likely to be the first work ever written on the topic. Footnotes are few and far between, grand summations common. Most of the authors appear to be Stanley Hall protégés, many from his newly founded Clark University. G. E. Partridge, for instance, writes a monograph on "second breath or second wind," based on some survey responses "turned over to me by Dr. Hall." ("Case 4. Female. 16. 'I have been to receptions when I have danced nearly every set until about 11 o'clock. When I stopped I would feel as though I couldn't dance another set, but when asked to dance the next, I accepted, and danced until my tired feeling left me.'") There are papers such as "Memory in School Children" ("It seems that memory power for boys culminates about the beginning of the high school period") and "The Child and the Weather" ("abnormal movement of wind, as shown by maximum velocity, seems to increase misdemeanors twenty percent") and on a hundred other topics of interest to educators.
But the blockbuster piece of research, the gold mine that yielded numerous papers, including the findings on only children, was entitled "A Study of Peculiar and Exceptional Children." It began innocently enough. In 1895, Hall mailed a questionnaire to college instructors in several states, asking them to submit reports on unusual children. These did not have to be current pupils; teachers were also invited to "think back over your own childhood," to "consider if you have any friends" who were exceptional, to ask their better students to "describe one or more such cases in a composition," and even to report "any exceptional children you ever read of, whether fact or fiction." He then assigned a graduate student, E. W. Bohannon, to digest the results, which soon numbered 1,045 cases -- 850 from Miss Lillie A. Williams of the New Jersey State Normal School, others from Farmington, Maine; Evanston, Indiana; and "35 or 40 from personal sources of friends. Every report bears evidence of sincerity, and practically all of thoughtful, careful preparation."
This data base, enormous for the time, was divided into those children who were peculiar and exceptional for physical reasons ("exceptional beauty or ugliness,...conspicuous scars or traumatic lesions...clumsiness and deftness, etc.") and for psychical reasons ("daintiness or gluttony,...frankness or secretiveness...a buffoon; a restless, fickle, scatterbrained or tenacious child; a dignified or self-poised child," and so on). Each child's nationality, age, sex, complexion, and temperament were also listed, as well as the reporter's assessment of whether the trait is hereditary, how far back it can be traced, and how marked it was in the ancestry."
Hall's protégé Bohannon then digested many of the reports, so his readers could see for themselves the value of the data. Under the category HEAVY, for example, we find an account of an eight-year-old who weighed a hundred pounds ("Girls often call her 'Mutton Chops' on account of her stoutness"); under SMALL a ten-year-old boy who weighed 43 pounds ("One day when a strong wind was blowing he did not reach school until late, because he had to wait until some one found and carried him in"); under STRONG an eighteen-year-old fair-skinned girl who "lifted a corner of the piano up while her mother put the leg in," and under DEFT a "generous and good-natured" ten-and-a-half-year-old who "made 175 peach baskets in nine hours." For sixty pages he describes the CLUMSY ("Mother had some small ducks and chickens in the yard, and every time K. went out she was sure to kill one by stepping on it"), the UGLY ("F. 9 yrs. old. Light. Nervous. Ugliest person ever seen. Looks like a monkey"), the DEFORMED ("right ear is simply a roll of cartilage about one inch long and no opening"). Some children have BIRTHMARKS ("A very decided spot on her left hand. She found that by rubbing it, it might be made to disappear for an instant, and will sit rubbing it by the hour"), while others have SENSE KEENNESS ("M. 4 yrs. old. Could smell onions in the house where they had been cooked day before") or SPEECH DEFECTS ("M. 10 yrs. old. American. Florid. Inclined to leave out unimportant words in speaking....Father a butcher and boy probably eats much meat") or are NERVOUS ("harsh words affect her deeply").
On the list goes, through the CLEAN, the DAINTY ("won't eat any kind of pie but pumpkin"), the OBEDIENT, the DISOBEDIENT, the DIRTY ("M. 5 yrs. old. Eats dirty grass, pretending to be a horse"), the DISORDERLY, the BUOYANT, the TEASING ("M. 4 yrs. old. Took the lemon squeezer out and put a kitten in it. When kitten mewed, he laughed") and the BUFFOONS ("F. 14 yrs. old. Dark. Rolled her eyeballs so as to show only the whites"). Some of the children sound about as unexceptional as it is possible to sound: under SELFISH there's a thirteen-year-old with light skin who, "several times when she had candy given her,...ran upstairs and hid it where none but herself could find it," and under SYMPATHY we read of several children who cannot stand to see animals suffer, as well as one who is "always picking up bugs and such things." Some are ILL-TEMPERED ("when sick would dash away medicine in a fury"); some are LOQUACIOUS; some are TIMID ("M. 6 yrs. old. American. Very bright and well-formed. Afraid of toads"); some are COURAGEOUS ("F. 8 yrs. old. Norwegian. Will go to bed in any room, no matter how dark. Her mother never allowed her to be told any ghost stories or to hear of hell, hence she knows no fear"). He concludes with the GLUTTONOUS ("F. 1 1/2 yrs. old. Light. Saw her eat two dishes of apple sauce, oysters, crackers, milk, and cry for cheese and bananas").
All of these children are duly catalogued, arranged into neat statistical tables that demonstrate beyond all possible nineteenth-century doubt a number of important conclusions. For instance, immigrant children are overrepresented among the peculiar -- "over half the non-American element is found in the group having disadvantageous traits," a danger that increases if two parents who have immigrated from different countries make the mistake of marrying.
For our purposes, however, the most important finding is that 46 of the 1,045 total cases are only children, "a number entirely out of proportion to that found among children generally. The only child in a family is therefore very likely to be peculiar and exceptional."
So peculiar, in fact, as to warrant further study. A year later, Bohannon returns to the pages of the Pedagogical Seminary with a more detailed breakdown of the data in his article "The Only Child in a Family." He sends out across the nation for more case studies; again Miss Lillie Williams of New Jersey provides more than half the cases. The only children are grouped by their HEALTH ("takes cold easily and cannot stand much hardship"; "subject to severe headaches, and in the winter time to bronchitis and croup"), their RELATION TO SCHOOL ("He did excellent school work, but instead of playing he would sit in the Navy Yard and examine machinery"), their PLAY AND SOCIAL LIFE ("F. 11. American-Jew. Nervous. At home she places books on chairs as her pupils and, with another book in her hand, she addresses the chairs as her pupils"), and of course their MENTAL AND MORAL PECULIARITIES ("When she plays with other children she gets along with them reasonably well, but she does not care to run or take part in active sports"). From these, many conclusions are drawn: not only do only children frequently contract a disease called "St. Vitus Dance" and display an uncommon number of harelips, flat feet, and pigeon toes, they also tend to get along badly with others, not do well in school, and create imaginary companions. Mr. Bohannon ends with the following helpful epigraph, from an article in the November 7, 1896, issue of the Spectator.
|It will be noticed that all creatures which have large families, whether beasts or birds, have less trouble in rearing them than those which have only one or two young. Little pigs are weeks ahead of young calves, and the young partridge, with its dozen brothers and sisters, is far more teachable than the young eagle.|
I've not discussed this study at such length because it's so intellectually powerful -- it obviously violates every rule that any modern social scientist would observe. It is ANECDOTAL, LAME-BRAINED, and MEANINGLESS. But for more than thirty years it was the only piece of research on the question of only children, and hence dominated the field by default. When Norman Fenton of the California Bureau of Juvenile Research wrote a paper in 1928 for the Journal of Genetic Psychology, the sole scholarly study he could find was Hall and Bohannon's. And he could trace its influence in every popular discussion of the issue in the intervening decades. Books written for parents and teachers cited the study and went on to say things such as: "The only child is greatly handicapped. He cannot be expected to go through life with the same capacity for adjustment that a child reared in the family with other children can be." Or, "If through some misfortune there can be no other child in the family, another should be adopted in order that the child may have a companion." The year before Fenton published his article, the mass-circulation magazine Liberty ran an attack on only children illustrated with a drawing of a boy seated on a throne with a scepter in his hand and the enslaved family doing homage. "It would be best for the individual and the race if there were no only children," concluded one expert.
Those thirty years were crucial; the idea of psychology seeped into the public mind for the first time, often as a series of persistent caricatures. And so the notion that only children were psychologically abnormal sank in deeply: "The belief that being an only child is a significant handicap appears to be so generally accepted that academic psychologists suggest it is a 'cultural truism' -- an unchallengeable given," reports researcher Judith Blake. The attitudes persist through the present day: As U.S. News & World Report wrote in 1994, "child-rearing experts...have never been hesitant to warn parents about the perils of siring a single child." (And who, in fact, did the magazine quote? G. Stanley Hall, almost exactly a century after his original study.) Susan Newman, in her book Parenting an Only Child, reports that virtually all the parents of only children that she talked to reported being pressured to have a second; in fact, she listed the nine most common pitches that friends and grandparents employed, ranging from "He needs a brother or sister" and "Give him a playmate" to "What kind of parents are you to deprive your child of a sibling?" and "You're being selfish." A past president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America said she experienced more pressure to have a second child than to have her first.
When people found out I was writing about population, they often said they thought that "priests" were the problem, that religious injunctions against birth control prevented many from even considering small families. As I will explain in some detail later, this is almost certainly not the case; and in any event, the religious arguments are often more subtle and interesting than the standard caricatures. It's not the priests, I think -- it's the psychologists. A century of repeated warnings have turned those early studies into conventional wisdom. By now, everyone more or less knows that only children are likely to be lonely oddballs. And knowing that, of course, they can find lonely oddballs to confirm their idea. So the question is, can so much conventional wisdom be wrong?
And the answer is yes. Beginning with Norman Fenton's paper in the late 1920s, almost from the moment that psychologists began to do reputable studies of only children, the data began to undermine old Dr. Hall and his baroque collection of the Peculiar and the Exceptional.
The twentieth century saw many explosions, of course, but few more dramatic than the explosion in People Studying Things. As a result, for example, we can state with considerable confidence that babies who will eventually turn out to be only children move, cry, burp, and sneeze more at three months of age than children who will later acquire siblings, although they are somewhat less likely to be fed by spoon. ("These differences were significant for spoon feeding [Z = 2.20, p =.03].")
Let's look at the most basic measures first, the statistics that for better or for worse mark virtually every student who's set foot in a schoolhouse. A twenty-year tracking study of 3,000 high school students demonstrated that only children have higher IQs than their peers with one sibling -- in fact, "there are marked negative effects on IQ of increasing sib size." If you test the vocabularies of only children, they'll score nine points higher than children from families with seven or more children; "only children remained significantly superior in average vocabulary performance to children in all other family sizes," even those with just two kids.
As with intelligence, so with achievement. Those from small families go about a year further in school, on average, than those from large families, and only children finish 13.5 years of education, compared with about 13.2 years for the kids with one brother or sister. Not only that, while they're in class they're more confident: when singleton high school sophomores were asked "How do you rate yourself in school ability?" their "index of confidence" was markedly higher than those of any other children. Once they've graduated, they do just as well in the real world -- their "occupational prestige" and those of their spouses revealed no significant difference. Not only that, they make as much money. If you want anecdotal evidence, which is to say if you want to play G. Stanley Hall, here's some of the highest grade: disproportionate numbers of only borns have had their faces on the cover of Time.
It's easy to guess some of the reasons only children do well in school. With lots of kids, reports Judith Blake, the overall intellectual level of the home becomes more "childlike....Children may saturate the environment in large families so that it may be rare for adult conversations, vocabulary, and interest to hold sway." And since effective studying "typically requires concentrated periods of solitude, the development of a tolerance for being alone at an early age may be helpful to the academic development" of only children.
But the biggest reason -- and the most difficult one to discuss, for it makes parents nervous -- is that as more children enter the family, there's a dilution in resources. Money, yes, but more important, the parents' time and emotional and physical energy. Everyone tries to give their second, third, or fourth child just as much attention as their first, but there are only so many hours in the day, only so much stress a father can tolerate, only so many Frisbees a mother can throw. I grew up down the block from a family of six -- the older boys were among my best friends, and the family was as solid and successful as any I've known, an argument for having lots of kids. But I remember that when the youngest asked to see pictures of himself as a baby, there weren't any around. (Happily, he looked a lot like his older brothers, so their early snapshots could be pressed into service.)
Clipboard-toting researchers have followed mothers around as assiduously as biologists tracking grizzlies, and their exhaustive studies confirm what any new mother of a second child could tell you for free. "The birth of the second child was associated with a decrease in the frequency of the mother's initiation of periods of joint play, attention, and conversational episodes, and with an increase in the frequency of prohibitive commands." That is to say, the VCR becomes increasingly useful when you're trying to nurse a new baby, and you're more likely to just say "No!" when you've slept two hours the night before. Firstborns react by becoming more demanding, and with "increases in sleeping, toilet, and feeding problems." That is, all of a sudden your carefully trained three-year-old suddenly wants to wear a diaper again. On the other hand, "increases in autonomous behavior were also found." Which is to say, with less of you to go around, they figure out how to amuse themselves.
Some of the findings are more specific. Children from small families are read to more than those from large families, "in spite of the fact that children from large families presumably had siblings who could have performed this service." (Having spent approximately ten seconds of my childhood reading to my younger brother, this does not entirely surprise me.) Poring over the records from a health clinic, one researcher discovered that while only borns were just as likely to be referred there in the first place, they were twice as likely to be brought back for follow-up visits.
And then there is my favorite study, titled "Some American Families at Dinner." Two Rutgers professors asked families to run a video camera at mealtime, explaining that "we were interested in recording the kinds of things they did at mealtime and...to try as much as possible to go about their 'normal' business, as if the camera were not present." (Predictably, this request met with varied success. "For example, one father became quite angry when his son took a long time eating and was fooling around with his food. The father raised his voice and said, 'Stop messing with your food!' and then after a pause during which it appeared he recalled the camera, he began speaking again -- 'And the reasons why you should not...'" Younger children were less inhibited by the camera. "For example, one 3-year-old target child announced in the middle of the meal, 'Daddy, I have to go make.' The mother said, 'I knew this would happen,' while the father was obliged to take his son to the bathroom.") Once they'd gotten the tapes, the researchers diligently coded "the amount of time each family member spoke to and received vocal input from every other family member." At first, "the coders found it difficult to watch the families larger than size 4 because of the great amount of speaker overlap and general chaos," which probably should have told them something right there. Also, a good deal of time was spent not talking but eating."
The researchers persevered, however, and they did make some interesting discoveries. First of all, the length of "dinnertime itself does not increase as a function of family size," even though "one might have suspected that more people would talk more and take more time to eat." (One might have expected it, unless one considered the Cub Scout Meeting Effect and the Soccer Playoffs Syndrome.) Neither did the "duration or amount of conversation at dinnertime increase with family size." Everyone talks less and gets talked to less; this "decrease in the quantity of dyad conversation may be related to verbal stimulation level in the parent-child subsystem and may in part be responsible for the finding of an IQ decrease with increasing family size." Keep all that in mind as you dine tonight.
What happens in a family as you have additional children? Psychologists say that the oldest is "dethroned," knocked off the pedestal where she's been -- well, where she's been her entire life. This is not such a terrible event; many of us have survived it, and in the process learned certain lessons. But it is a boot camp, no question, and the child's first reaction is to become more, not less, dependent -- in a "free play laboratory setting" they cry more and cling to their moms. It's hard for kids, and it's hard for parents, even those thrilled about a new baby. "The anguish with which parents face this question of giving up the love affair with their first child in order to share it with a second is surprisingly painful," writes T. Berry Brazelton.
If it is so painful, asks Susan Newman, author of Parenting an Only Child, then why do it? There are dozens of answers, many of them quite good. Some concern the parents -- their happy memories of brothers and sisters, their intuitive sense that their family is not yet complete, or that all their eggs are in one basket, that an only child is simply "too precious." We'll consider these eventually, in the last chapter of this book. But there are other reasons, too, these having to do with kids. Parents often have second children to help make sure that their first will turn out normal. Most parents, after all, aren't really concerned about IQ or vocabulary scores or reading levels. They want to know: Will my child be happy? Will my child be weird?
All things being equal, I'd like my daughter to go to Harvard. But what do I really care about? That she's able to mix with the other kids when she goes to camp.
Cheaper by the Dozen is one of those books so delightful that everyone who's read it can remember scenes: Frank Gilbreth, the efficiency expert, teaching his brood of twelve children how to bathe in under a minute, or pretending he was the superintendent of an orphanage, or blowing his whistle for family assembly. "We're going to have a wonderful life," he told his bride Lillie on their wedding day. "A wonderful life and a wonderful family. A great big family."
"We'll have children all over the house," Mother smiled. "From the basement to the attic."
"From the floorboards to the chandelier."
"When we go for our Sunday walk we'll look like Mr. and Mrs. Pied Piper."
"How many would you say we should have, just an estimate?" Mother asked.
"Just as an estimate, many."
"Lots and lots."
"We'll sell out for an even dozen," Dad said. "No less. What do you say to that."
"I say," said Mother, "a dozen would be just right. No less."
You could not read Cheaper by the Dozen and not long for an enormous family of your own. And you couldn't watch The Brady Bunch without thinking it looked like an awful lot of fun. Not to mention The Partridge Family, Eight Is Enough, The Waltons, and a dozen other tributes to the large family. It's fine to have single parents on TV, but single children are scarce -- call it the My Three Sons rule. Those images define normalcy for us, so it's no wonder that we worry kids who grow up without siblings might be different, might be strange. Compared to the Brady Bunch, a desk full of psychological studies are so much gossamer and fluff.
And there are plenty of concrete reasons to worry, too. After all, only children miss some experiences. They never have the chance to care for a new infant, or to be taken care of by an older brother or sister. "Interactions between a firstborn child and a new sibling as young as eight months old are found to be complex, varied, and different from the interactions that children have with their parents," said researchers from the Rutgers Institute for the Study of Child Development. Hell, I've seen amazing interactions between children and their siblings when those siblings are still in Mommy's tummy. Even from the viewpoint of an environmentalist, it's good if people figure out as soon as possible that they're not the only ones in the world.
Only children probably acquire adult ways of behaving more quickly than kids with siblings, simply because they hang around more with their parents. This is a mixed blessing. Breathes there a parent who hasn't said, "Grow up"? Breathes there a parent who hasn't thought sadly that their child was growing up too fast? The only child may have playmates, but they aren't exactly like brothers or sisters -- she has "no prior emotional claim for attention or support" on them. Researchers find only kids have "a more internal locus of control"; with the "constant reinforcement" of attentive parents, they develop "a strong tendency to take responsibility for outcomes." On the other hand, their relationship with their parents may be more tense -- Mom and Dad are by definition first-time parents, both anxious and ignorant about child rearing. And if Mom and Dad have decided that they're stopping at one child, they may be all the more likely to smother their kid. "You're so connected to your single being that you feel every hurt, every slight," writes Susan Newman. "Neighborhood teenagers knocked over her snowman and broke her sled; she wasn't invited to a classmate's birthday party....If you have a singleton, you can immerse yourself totally in her distress." And you can immerse yourself totally in her success as well, "hothousing" your child, pushing her with premature challenges. In the words of a psychologist who is an only child and the mother of an only child, "if you put all your eggs in one basket, you want the basket to be special."
The point is, both psychological theory and common sense would lead you to believe that only kids should be different, at least a little. Not necessarily worse off, not necessarily better -- the differences cut both ways. (He has no sister to play with; he has no sister to fight with. She doesn't learn to share Dad; she doesn't need to share Dad.) But different. So the question is, do these differences lead to trouble? If you look carefully at only children, do you find them to have been damaged by the experience? Are they very different, and in ways that make them unhappy? Are they weird? Are they spoiled?
Toni Falbo and I met for a drink in the lobby of the Washington hotel where the Population Association of America was holding its annual meeting. Around us swirled academics, on their way to symposia about everything from welfare reform to suburban sprawl. Falbo was giving her own lecture the next day, but at the moment she was talking about herself. "My father came from a very big family, and a very poor one, in Minnesota. My mother was an early daughter of divorce. She had to quit college to help raise her siblings. Both of them thought, Hey, without the younger siblings I had to take care of, I might have pursued a different life." Falbo, therefore, found herself growing up without brothers or sisters. So when she got to the University of California at Los Angeles as a graduate student in psychology, she decided to study only children. "It was the early 1970s, and what we were all interested in was stereotypes. Stereotypes about men and women especially, and also blacks and whites. It struck me that one of the small stereotypes in our culture was about only children."
In an earlier day, she says, that prejudice was understandable: "If you want your ethnic or religious group to prosper, you need large numbers. And if you have fifty percent mortality, you need a big base rate. If you just had one kid, you were underachieving." In the empty, agricultural United States of the nineteenth century, "the more kids the better." And in the first part of the twentieth century, as efficiency experts like the father in Cheaper by the Dozen came to the fore, "mass production really permeated the American culture." But by the 1970s, with the publication of books such as The Population Bomb, more children didn't necessarily seem better to Falbo. "My gut sense when I began was that these kids were not as bad as people said. After all, I was an only child."
Trained in experimental psychology, she set the stereotype as her hypotheses: "only children are selfish"; "only children are spoiled." And then she set out to prove them. "We used typical college student populations, gave them paper-and-pencil questionnaires." It didn't take long to sense that the stereotypes didn't hold up very well -- that they were seeing a lot of ordinary onlies. Meanwhile, Falbo and colleagues began the long process of examining all the other studies done since the 1920s on only children. These studies tended to be small, obscure -- "you'd get a Canadian mental health center, a German clinic for nailbiting" -- and they'd been mostly ignored. But by the mid-1980s, with her colleague Denise Polit, Falbo was ready to publish a review of all the data she'd been able to find, 141 studies in all. They'd covered every aspect of "personality development" from self-esteem and autonomy to maturity, generosity to contentment, peer popularity to relations with parents. And they found -- this is pretty much the punchline to this chapter -- that "only children scored significantly better than other groups in achievement motivation and personal adjustment" and were in all other respects indistinguishable from children with brothers and sisters.
As interesting as their findings was their reasoning. Earlier researchers, still under the spell of G. Stanley Hall, had expected to find problems with only kids and hence their hypotheses revolved around "sibling deprivation." The unusual thing, that is, about only children was that they lacked brothers or sisters. But by the time they'd examined all the studies, Falbo and Polit concluded "the most parsimonious" explanation for these kids' success was something they did have -- undivided parental attention. "Because only children receive more attention from their parents, they are likely to exhibit more 'character' than other children, character here consisting of such traits as maturity and cooperativeness." And since they spend more time "under the concentrated surveillance of their parents, we argue that they are more likely to develop a sense of personal control than other children. Personal control means here the belief that one has control over one's life outcomes." It was all in the language of social scientists -- a metaanalysis of independent variables, with endless discussion of parental attention mechanisms" and weighted samples and statistical significances. But drily, patiently, methodically, it finally demolished -- for anyone who happened to be reading the Journal of Marriage and the Family -- those stories about the DEFT and the STOUT and the BIRTHMARKED and the CRUEL. As the authors noted in their final summation, "These findings contradict the notion that a country populated with substantial proportions of only children would be a country whose character would be substantially altered."
Their data also fit with a burst of other studies on more limited aspects of the life of only children that have appeared in the last two decades. Pretty much any worry a parent might suggest has been looked into.
Are only children lonely? Not really; studies of undergraduates show only children have the same number of friends, and report feeling no lonelier. In fact, one psychologist suggests that children from small families seem to feel more "urgency" about finding outside playmates, while the data shows youngsters from large families can be "more parochial and limited in their understanding of a variety of social roles."
Are only children unpopular with their peers? That's been studied too -- when teachers chart who is chosen first when kids are picking sides for a game, only children are the most frequently chosen.
Are they shy, unable to stand up for themselves? Not really, perhaps because they now have plenty of chances to grow up with other children, even if they're not in the same house. "In day care and nursery school, young children learn how to compete, how to share," said one psychologist. "These preschool lessons accomplish the same things as interaction with siblings. Nursery school isn't 24 hours a day, but six hours is enough to learn how to get along with other children."
Are they spoiled? This is what we really want to know -- if there's any stereotype that sticks in almost everyone's mind, this is it. A huge pile of presents under the Christmas tree -- all for him! The little prince! It's a little hard to tell, of course, since we live in a culture where almost everyone is at least a little spoiled, where spoiling children underwrites a significant part of the economy. In my house, even though there's no TV pushing products, there's nonetheless an irreducible rubble of books, blocks, trucks, cars, dolls, and stuffed animals -- they seem to generate spontaneously. So the real question is, are only children spoiled rotten. Are they made extra selfish by the extra attention that comes their way?
The studies seem to show that the answer is no; different researchers report "either that there are no differences by number of siblings, or that the differences favor the only child," according to Judith Blake. She speculates that the spoiled only child is a myth spread by parents in large families, who tell their children when they complain about a lack of privacy that conditions in small families spoil children, making them self-centered and aloof. "Since so many more people come from large families rather than small ones, it's not too surprising that prejudices against small families have been widely transmitted."
In fact, you could argue that it's easier for children to share if they don't spend their entire lives in constant battles for parental attention. A kindergarten teacher told one researcher: "It's the ones who have been jostled and have had to compete who are always trying to push someone down, to be first in line, or yell louder in order to be heard. Onlies have always been heard and therefore function in a very calm way. They are very easy to deal with in a group because they feel confident that their turn will come because it always has....When they come in at the beginning of the kindergarten year, they are really modelling very good behavior for the others." This squares emotionally with my experience. My life as a (not very nice) older brother didn't teach me much about sharing; it taught me a good deal about how to jockey for everything from the biggest helping of pot roast to the biggest dollop of praise. I had a hard time sharing the back seat of the car. I'm glad I had a brother, but I somehow managed to end up spoiled nonetheless.
People lodge other complaints against the possibility of only children. "They'll be too mature," some say, as if this was really something to fear. It's true that only children deal more easily with adults because they spend more time at it; but this is a society where adolescents get pregnant, take drugs, die because they haven't matured. Whatever maturity represents, say the researchers, it's not something that plagues only kids -- they score slightly better on an "anomie index" (questions measuring the feeling the world is uncaring, "going to the dogs") and a resentment index (feelings of being cheated, getting a "raw deal").
Only children may have some other real bonuses in their lives, too. Several studies suggest that singletons have more flexible sex-role orientation, which is to say that researchers find boys playing with dolls and girls with trucks. Some speculate it's because their parents make up for only having a boy or a girl by letting the child develop positive traits of both genders. "The professionally successful daughter or the emotionally nurturant son could sufficiently satisfy the needs of both parents in a way that might reduce the need for gender diversity." This effect seems particularly pronounced for girls, perhaps because more parents continue to hope for a boy than a girl, and so if they have an only daughter tend to raise her as a tomboy.
In the effort to study sociability, researchers have investigated everything from basketball teams to hunting licenses. Differences between kids are slight, but only children are more likely to be involved in extracurricular activities in general, in clubs and hobbies, and in acting, singing, and dancing. They take more pictures, play more music, raise more animals, and collect more stamps than non-only children, who play more sports, especially on teams, hunt and fish more often, and do more woodworking and cooking. Even when socioeconomic status has been factored out, only children show more interest in science, music, math, and literature, while kids with siblings care more for office, mechanical, and technical work, skilled trades, and labor. (They were equally interested in sales, whatever that means.) One researcher compiled the lovely-sounding Index of Richness of Past Experience, and discovered that onlies were more likely to have danced, smoked, sent an entry blank to a contest, ridden a pony, ridden on a merry-go-round, and cashed a check.
But what, you ask, about self-esteem, the chief goal of any self-respecting modern? Here, it must be reported, onlies fall somewhere in the middle of the pack. Firstborn children have the highest sense of themselves, because, say researchers, "they are generally more capable, larger, and more skilled than their siblings," and so come to regard themselves more favorably. Lastborns, being smaller than everyone else and unable to do as much, develop the least self-esteem. Middleborns and only children score about the same, but for different reasons. Middleborns are bigger than some of their siblings and smaller than others; hence, so are their egos. "In contrast, only children do not experience a sibling comparison, and consequently their self-esteem development is unaffected by the comparison process." They're simply who they are.' And in any event, they seem to be functioning -- at least three studies indicate that only children are underrepresented among psychiatric or other clinical clients.
Only children end up marrying at the same age as everyone else, and their divorce rate is no higher than anyone else's (which, admittedly, isn't saying much). Even their politics have been studied. To judge from the fifty-two singletons who served in Congress from 1981 to 1983, and the fifty-six who served between 1985 and 1987, they are identical to politicians as a whole -- no more or less favorable to the MX missile, equally likely to support solar energy, indistinguishable in their attitudes toward the contras, neutron bombs, clean air, due process, abortion, and "nerve gas development."
What's most telling about this tidal wave of research is that it often measures the childhoods of an earlier age -- the 1950s, the 1960s, or, in the case of some of the congressmen, the 1920s. If you were going to find any huge differences between only kids and kids with siblings, it would have been back then, before the spread of day care and preschool, before almost every child had a social calendar as thick as a Parisian debutante's. "For G. Stanley Hall, growing up in rural New England, running around and playing all the time was childhood," says Falbo. "And who would you play with, how would you learn to interact, if you didn't have siblings? Women of the class he was interested in didn't work, and maybe he was right to think that it wasn't healthy for a kid to be stuck with her alone all day, to be overprotected and overindulged. You can see it. But look at now. Most mothers of young children are working -- they can't be overprotecting them because they hardly get to see them. Most kids are in some kind of day care. Very early on they have plenty of peer experience."
Only children, in other words, are no worse than any other kids. On most measures of achievement and personality, they score slightly better than other children, but the emphasis should be on "slightly." "When you can find differences," says Falbo, "it's no more than a two percent difference. It only shows up when you examine very large numbers. You can't sit on an airplane and tell whether the person in the next seat is an only."
Falbo sits back on her chair, sips her drink, sighs. "I tell you, I've done this research up one side and down the other. Believe me, my career would have taken off -- it would have been Nobel Prize stuff -- if I'd found that only kids were sick, sick, sick. They're not. The conventional wisdom is wrong. But this still hasn't sunk in."
Copyright © 1998 by Bill McKibben
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