The Joy of Only Children

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Lauren Sandler, an only child and the mother of one, makes a humorous and honest case for being and having an only child. In One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One Sandler looks at the larger societal costs of having more than one child and examines what the rise of the single-child family means for our economy, environment, and families.

Who do you think is better off—only children or children with siblings?


Lauren Sandler

Comments [44]

jgarbuz from Queens

Once again, I repeat:

"All the reason why in the not-too-distant future, children will be manufactured in factories ala "Brave New World." The "Age of Families" is grinding to an end. "Marriage" and "family" are anachronistic, shipwrecked institutions creating more problems than solutions today."

Jul. 01 2013 12:31 PM
jennifer from iowa

My dad was raised an only son born to an older italian catholic mother. He was spoiled by his indulgent mother and verbally abused by his overbearning father. He maintains that his childhood was lonely. But extended members of his family discribe him as a spolied brat. He always wanted a brother and therefore desparately wanted sons. My mother was born the eldest daughter of a large farm family. She maintains she was used, abused and neglected. She exibits a lack of interest in other women sighting the old misogynistic excuse most agrarian girls sight...she doesn't trust girls and maintain more guy friends than girlfrieds. She also rejects all things girly, including me. If you can believe it, these two people got knocked up w/ me and I suppose under the pretence that they would be having a son...go married. They were both disappointed when I arrived. Dispite my dad's man child lack of ambition, they continued to have two son's after me. I was used, abused and neglected for most of my childhood and all of my adulthood, just as my mother was; but she never had the love or compassion for me to break the cycle of misogynony for her daughter. I watched as my parent practiced double standards and denied the truth when I tried to call them out. I ended up moving out at 18 and ironically out performed my brothers academically, professionally and financially. After years of therapy, I still feel slated having grown up in a family that didn't want or value me. I still struggle w/ the scars of having been teased by my younger brothers about my gender to the point of tears. You might think that as a minority my mother might have taken up for 'team girl'...but no, she enjoyed the game of undermining me as much or more then my brothers and father. I can say w/ out an ounce of uncertainty, my life would have been much better w/ out brothers. I'm so grateful to have had a daughter and I'm too scared of having a male child too risk having getting pregnant again.

Jun. 24 2013 10:46 AM
Jo from Manahttan

I was an only child for better & worse. Being born right at the end of WWII I had the benefit of a father who was around enjoying doing grad.wk.during my early yrs. However, as much as my mother wanted to enjoy our time together it was always a struggle because it seems in retrospect that she was mentally ill- a rageaholic who should have had professional care. It was understood that she was too stressed to have a 2nd child, so I had quite a lonely young life. Tho I was outgoing and tried to make friends, my family was too wierd and drove kids away or to outright bully.(Conformism ruled in the 50s). I was not physically well enough to have a child, or even to find a fulfilling relationship.
I lost my father early and taking care of my raging mother at the end of her long life was a struggle, and now I worry about being alone in my old age.
But many aspects of my life are wonderful and I might never have experienced if I had been busy with husband or children. So I see it all as circumstance and trade-offs, but I don't really envy the idealized "perfect family" which I suspect rarely or never exists.

Jun. 13 2013 09:23 PM
T from East Harlem

If you have no kids, you are selfish and will be alone. If you have one, you are being cruel to that child. If you have three or more, then you are just crazy ... sounds like we are being pushed to have 2 by societal standards, that just seems such a narrow view. I don't buy it.

Jun. 13 2013 12:49 PM

I'm an only and, on the whole, it isn't a pleasant experience, though I do understand that in many ways it has allowed me to live a more privileged life than if my parents had to spread their resources between more children. We moved around a lot when I was a child, and my parents fought with each other. I didn't have a person "on my side" in those tough times nor an ally to relate to and play with at home when I was the new kid at school. I'm 30 now and my parents are nearing retirement. My mother is sick. It's on me and only me to take care of them. It would be nice to have someone around my age in my family to chat with and to share the burden of their care.

Jun. 13 2013 12:16 PM
Jennifer Wright

Only children have long faced bigotry. I am in middle age now, but I distinctly recall teachers saying rude, judgmental things to me when they discovered that I was an only child -- and I was a good student. It amazes me that this bigotry is still around! It's not about how many children you choose to have or not have, but how you raise them. If you have a large family and are not able to support the family, there will be problems. If you have a small family where the children are treated with obsession or weirdness, they might turn out badly. It's not about the number of children. She's absolutely right that the bigotry against only children at its root is misogyny.

Jun. 13 2013 07:54 AM

I read the comments and not one person has mentioned that WE ARE 4 BILLION over populated. Having 1 to 2 children should be mandatory.

I suppose we shall have to leave this to the Chinese to control, which it will when this country falls apart, partly because of an over populated and under educated populace.

It doesn't seem like people care about the planet or water or anything else.

Jun. 12 2013 11:01 PM
gozohh from Forest Hills

For me, it was a very unhappy. lonely experience, being the one and only. To this day, that pit of loneliness is in there still, deep. Although, I am happy with my life, for the most part. Never had my own kids, largely because I did not have a good childhood experience. Done right, it could be okay, I suppose. There are lots of factors involved. But having 2 very rigid, overly protective, critical parents, is not the best. Would have liked someone there, to deflect some of this attention, and to see that "it was not me, it was them". All those years, I doubted myself and my own perceptions. Later, I saw things alot differently.

Jun. 12 2013 10:19 PM
Liz from Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ

I am an only child who has a 3.5 yr old son. My husband and I are older parents (I am 44 and he is 49). We are contemplating adopting a 2nd child but are really struggling with this decision. My husband has 2 siblings and they have a great relationship that has gotten better with age. It's a joy to be a part of their large family gatherings. I have always wanted a sibling. My parents and I lived far away from extended family when I was growing up, so holidays were lonely, quiet affairs and the house was never noisy and boisterous. Even though I had lots of friends, it wasn't the same as having a brother or sister.

My husband and I would really like to expand our family, but we fear that we are too old. I also worry about having to support 2 children on my own if something were to happen to my husband. This is a very hard choice and I can see the benefits (and drawbacks) of both options.

Jun. 12 2013 09:23 PM
pam from CT

As an elderly Only, I now wish for the sibs I never used to miss. There's no contemporary family to relate with; friends and my own three kids just aren't the same. My husband was a 7-year Only & not close to his brother, who died at 49.
There's a wonderful sister-in-law, but she lives a day away. She has (or has lost) 8 sibs & has close connections with the living ones. I observe her family, my survivor in-laws, and have 1+2+6 great-nephews & -nieces who are almost One Big Happy Family. Shows me what I missed.

Jun. 12 2013 01:31 PM

It is great you are talking about the pros of only children. I have 2 but almost had an only due to troubles getting pregnant again. And the pressure socially made me very worried about it. I will recommend this book to a few friends

Jun. 12 2013 01:00 PM
David from Fredericksburg, VA

@ tom LI - my aren't we self absorbed!

Jun. 12 2013 01:00 PM

LUV being an only. in a long relationship with an Only, have many friends that are ONLY...LUV it had a great life. Did struggle w/taking care of Mom and Dad when they got sick - but, that was my job. I handled it with the support of friends. I am happier than a lot of my friends w/brothers & sisters. It is what it is.

Jun. 12 2013 12:57 PM
lori sender from south orange, NJ

Secondary infertility has made having one son (now 13) very difficult. But he has so many friends, actually too many, but still it does haunt me. I have lots of friends with only children who chose it, and that makes all the difference.

It's been tough, it was tough when he was little, and still it remains hard.

Jun. 12 2013 12:57 PM
Doreen from NJ

I have a daughter who is 3 1/2 right now, I always thought I wanted 2 but I've been so content with one. It's been quite a struggle trying to decide on whether or not to have a second that my husband and I talk about all the time. It's nice to see all the viewpoints out there. I'm pretty obsessed with researching it right now and can't wait to read your book!

Jun. 12 2013 12:56 PM

When I started Kindergarten in 1964, kids would ask me how many brothers or sisters I had. I didn't have any, and this was the first time I felt lacking. How could I get one of those? Now, I work in a public school, and I see so many more onlies I am surprised there is still a prejudice! Also, there are many more twins. I happen to have two of them and am sometimes surprised when they don't appreciate having each other as a companion or ally.

Jun. 12 2013 12:53 PM
tom LI

Yawn - more nonsense from the Cult of Children Obsession.

Adults defined by children and how special they think the whole thing is...

Jun. 12 2013 12:52 PM

I grew up as an only child for 46 years only to discover recently that I have 2 younger siblings who grew up together. Our experiences as children are extremely different as a result. I feel as if my life has been very liberating in my choices and thinking. On the other hand, they both have said their choices felt pre-planned and structured. They are happy to have discovered me, while I am apprehensive now finding myself in the role of older sibling. They both have two children each while I have none.

Jun. 12 2013 12:52 PM
Johana from Union City

I would like the guest to address how race and class affects the experience of the only child. As an only child coming from a poor single-parent home, I will have greater responsibility for my mother as she ages under the current unstable social welfare environment, than those children with siblings.

Jun. 12 2013 12:49 PM
Carol from Park Slope

My brother was born 9 years after me. I've always said that I was both an only child and a sibling. I agree that my primary experience is as an only child. I have one child and he is not unhappy at being the only one. When he was in school his teachers always said that he had the most worldly knowledge of anyone in the class. I attribute it to his spending so much time with adults.

Jun. 12 2013 12:49 PM
David from Fredericksburg, VA

It seems to me that single children tend to be spoiled - that parents need to be careful not to be overly permissive with them.

I know several only children that simply can't conceive that any point of view other than their own is valid. The concept of worrying about what someone else wants in a relationship is beyond many.

I also know many multi-children people who are highly egocentric - I just think it can happen more easily with single children.

Jun. 12 2013 12:47 PM
Facta from NYC

can't we all agree that people reflect the environment and circumstances they were raised in. People raised in big families think they had a great and unique experience, while those raised as only children think they had it good.
It's so subjective and speaks to a subjectivity in forming our outlook, not the actual reality of things.

Jun. 12 2013 12:36 PM
fuva from harlemworld

Folks, thanks so much for sharing these diverse thoughtful perspectives. As an only child currently confronting related challenges, I really appreciate it...On another note, why give Glork a thumbs down for expressing her opinion? Is she not contributing to the discussion?

Jun. 12 2013 12:32 PM

Even though I fought with my sister hen we were little I know I learned a lot about sharing an competition from being a big sister. And most important, was having a buddy at family events. Then, all disagreements were put aside because we had to be allies in whatever craziness surrounded us.

Jun. 12 2013 12:19 PM
fuva from harlemworld

Siblings do thicken the skin.

Jun. 12 2013 12:19 PM
fuva from harlemworld

PLEASE ASK if the guest can recommend online (or BAM) support groups/message boards for only children.

Jun. 12 2013 12:17 PM
Rose from Nassau County

I'm the middle of three siblings, the (working) mother of an only and married to an only child. I always wanted more than one child, but age and infertility ended that hope. I've found that having one is fantastic - all the fun of motherhood without having to mediate fights and lose myself in the demands of mothering multiple children. We're able to travel, go to cultural events and have a satisfying family life, things that would be unaffordable or difficult with more than one. Our son started daycare at 3 months, so he's used to sharing and being with other children. The assumption is that having siblings - any kind of sibling - is better than none. I disagree - we ran the risk of having a seriously disabled child after he was born, and decided to stop with one healthy child. Furthermore, I love but don't particularly like my siblings, and wish that I'd had more of my parents' attention when I was a child. Counterintuitively, helping my elderly parents is harder than helping my demanding and narcissistic mother-in-law, because I have to check in with my sibs before doing anything. My husband makes decisions and executes them. It helps that I defer to, and openly support, him regarding his mother and her care.

Jun. 12 2013 12:07 PM
Anne from Sparta,NJ

I'm an only child and the mother of an only child. I am so grateful for the opportunities and experiences being an only child afforded me. I was always around adults, probably the reason I relate to people one generation ahead of me more easily than I do my peers. When I was a little girl, and to this day, I had a motto..."I am often alone, but NEVER lonely."

Jun. 12 2013 11:16 AM
sarah from new hampshire

I am a widowed single mom raising my son, who will in all likelihood, be an only child. Though we did not consciously choose our circumstances, I still feel guilty all the time that my son won't have sibs. I worry that he is/ will be lonely; I worry that I am not able to pay enough attention to him; I worry that he will struggle socially because he doesn't have siblings to "toughen him up" at home. Growing up, I had always wanted to be an only child, but I am so thankful for my brother as an adult.

Jun. 12 2013 11:11 AM

Single child or child with siblings, which is better? It's apples and oranges.

What I don't appreciate is your radio announcement this morning of this forthcoming show, which didn't say "chime in with comments and discuss", but instead asked "which is better?". This question is far more inflammatory than asking for a discussion, but I guess that was the point. Get people on the defensive and they'll leave more comments.

Jun. 12 2013 11:06 AM
ELB from brooklyn ny

I'm an only child and the mother of an only child. I wouldn't trade my happy childhood - or my strong relationship with my parents - for the world, and I hope my daughter will have a similar experience. I know that whether or not she does is almost entirely up to me and my husband - - my parents treated me like their child, not their pal, and structured my life in a way that gave me reassuring consistency. There was no question of being "spoiled" or lonely - my parents made sure I was not indulged, and that I had happy friendships. Crucially, they arranged for me to have time away from them (starting from age 8) to learn how to be independent and how to handle confrontation with other peers. Sleep-away camp is key!

Jun. 12 2013 11:06 AM
Alison from Brooklyn

I read Ms. Sandler’s piece in the Times the other day and I have to say I was irked by one particular line: “…as the mother of one child, I enjoy more time, energy and resources than I would if I had more children. And it is hard to imagine that this isn’t better for my family as well as for me.”

This kind of myopic statement is rampant in opinion articles about just about every social issue written about these days. The authors are so absorbed in their certainty about their own decisions that they ‘can’t imagine’ alternate approaches might be “better.”

I have five kids. I’m exhausted a lot. I find it incredibly demanding to juggle five different personalities and a constant stream of emotional, developmental and logistical demands. None of the kids gets nearly as much on-on-one attention as their friends who are only children. I am almost never alone or with time to sit quietly and reflect. The kids fight a lot. And then, they make up a lot. They negotiate. They play together and make music together. They entertain each other and challenge each other. Our family dinner table crackles with wit and laughter every night. The older kids have to step up and help with the younger ones. The younger ones have been sharing and waiting their turn from day one. They know chaos will ensue if everyone doesn’t keep our collective needs in mind. And when it all clicks, it is pure joy.

Is this “better” than families with only one child? What a silly question. There is no “better.” And even though I have a large family, I certainly CAN imagine the benefits to Ms. Sandler of having only one child. I bet her child is happy and well-adjusted and her family is loving. I bet she is less tired, less harried and less freaked out about college tuition than I am. And I bet her child and my children, and Ms. Sandler and I, would all tell you they wouldn’t want their family any other way. Neither way is better than the other.

Jun. 12 2013 10:56 AM
Jean B from Greater New York City

I am an only child raised by a single mother and my grandmother. For a while in my Minneapolis childhood my aunt and uncle and two male cousins --near my age lived with us. It was great to have faux brothers. But they are not brothers and in adult life we have little connection--emotional or physical.
People with siblings don't realize how much of the fabric of their lives is interwoven with their sibs. And as an "only" I have always felt very much alone in the world. As a mother, I vowed that I would have more than 1 kid--was so thrilled to have been able to raise three lovely boys who are now lovely young men. My husband and are comforted that they will have each other to lean on as their lives unfold. They will have tribe!
One of the main drawbacks of the only child is that she doesn't learn skills of arguing, bantering, "fighting," if you will--that sibs learn from one another. That has been a real handicap in the larger world of work--knowing how and when to promote one's best interest in non dramatic, emotional way! But I am learning!!

Jun. 12 2013 10:48 AM

I'm an only child who was raised by a single mother. For a while when I was very young I wanted an older sister, and when I would misbehave my mom's nuclear threat was "stop that or I'll get you a little brother!"- after dealing with the little brothers of friends, I couldn't imagine a worse punishment.

Does being an only child make you better or worse off? I think it depends on so many other factors. I feel like I'm a very independent person who isn't afraid of being alone; some of that is probably attributable to being an only child. On the other hand, I've known some "onlys" who are (I think) very spoiled, self-centered, and way too reliant on their parents for someone their age. Of course, I've known some siblinged people who are the same, so who's to say?

My parents are in their mid-50s, so I haven't had to deal with their failing health yet- it's not something I'm looking forward to (obviously), but after watching them go through it with their own parents while arguing with my aunts and uncles about who should be responsible for what, I don't really see any intrinsic value in having siblings involved.

Jun. 12 2013 10:43 AM
Meghan from Brooklyn

I agree with other comments that the true problem with being an only child comes when your parents are older, especially if they have medical or other problems. I often wish I had someone to share with who understands my parents the way I do.

Jun. 12 2013 10:30 AM
Naomi from Essex county

It depends on the family. My two children (boy and girl, two years apart) are so close, such good friends, that I worry about my younger one when the older one goes to college in September. They spend hours talking and laughing together, and are allies in culture and humor. Of course, if they were indifferent to each other I would think that one child would be fine.

Jun. 12 2013 10:30 AM
pordy from Madison NJ

I found the first 18 months of raising my child so demanding (and the fact that I've never been close with my brother) that one was plenty. I changed my mind and now have a 2.5 and 4.5 year old and really see the benefit of having siblings.

Jun. 12 2013 10:24 AM

I was pleased to read this in the Times this weekend! As a child, I never knew the difference because I had many friends to play with. As I get older and wish I had someone to share with about my parents, I realize there's no one who knows them in the same way. On the flip side, I see homes where siblings don't even talk with one another for years, which I'd find hard to believe if they were raised the way I was. My point is, I think it's better to have siblings, but if you can't, you can't; what could you do? By the way, everyone's always shocked when they learn I'm an only , so i agree with the article, the business about selfish, spoiled, blah blah is wrong.

Jun. 12 2013 06:02 AM
Wilma from Manhattan

I am the only daughter of parents with a total of three siblings, born in the mid-50s when my parents were in their mid-30s. As Depression children, they never spoiled me except to give me attention. To compound my only-ness, my father's employer transferred him from one place to another, often across the country, roughly once every five years throughout my childhood. I only learned how to make friends much later. I had my psychological problems (that I am reluctant to blame on any one factor), but never felt deprived by not having siblings. Curious, but not deprived.

I never married or had children, which I can't say I regret in view of the freedom lack of those responsibilities allowed, not to mention never knowing what the road not taken was like. But I've had a great ride and achieved much, and I think being an only child helped me be resourceful and self-reliant, probably willing to take risks and reinvent myself more easily than people tied to family or place. After all, I had no one to blame or congratulate but myself. When my mother's life ended after fifteen years in dementia, I didn't have the support of family, but I was able to make decisions without the awful conflicts I see friends with siblings who are facing the same problem endure. And I am still able to be solitary - not lonely - and interested in what's going on in my own brain and directing my life independently.

Jun. 11 2013 11:53 PM

I am an only child, and only for about one year as an 8 year old did I wish otherwise. I have a great relationship with my parents, which seems increasingly important as they age (I'm in my mid 30s). My husband is one of five. I love his family, but they can be overwhelming. My husband actually envies my situation. When his father was sick and dying, the siblings fought constantly over the right course of action, and ended up making few decisions as a consequence. It made a challenging situation more difficult. While I know that I alone will have to deal with my aging parents, I know what they wish for, and I feel empowered to make decisions for them.

I don't believe there is one "right" sized family, but the pity that people heap on me as an only child is tiresome. Oftentimes, it can be easier.

Jun. 11 2013 08:49 PM

Children with siblings are infinitely better off in a myriad of ways and certainly over the entire lifespan. As the only child of two older parents,I grew up as an "old child", surrounded by large, multigenerational families who were held up as the ultimate Catholic image of the fifties and oh! how I yearned for inclusion into...some kind of group, something more that "they" all had and "they" all belonged to.
By my early fifties, not only was I an only child but an "orphan" and a widow as well,crushing in its singular isolation. I am blessed with five wonderful children of my own (and wished for even more!) since they have to be their own cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents.
Please reflect thoughtfully before visiting the solo status on the child you love so very much; your child might "need" someone; parents are not eternal and to raise a loving family is joy- beyond measure.

Jun. 11 2013 07:11 PM
Mary from uws

I would say children with siblings. Particularly as parents age. I was lucky enough to go through failing health and death of my parents with the love and support of my siblings. I have several friends who are only children going through it alone. I can't imagine handling that burden on my own.

Jun. 11 2013 02:15 PM
Brian from Riverdale

With the real risk of overpopulation and lack of sustainability globally (resources, water, etc.) as well as an awareness of the number of children without parents, it seems far more ethical to ask if indeed one should have even have children (let alone two or more). Why not adopt or choose not to have children at all?

Jun. 11 2013 01:50 PM
jeanne from long island

my mother & father in law are only children. I hate to make a sweeping statement, but they are so spoiled & still, as grandparents, only think of themselves! it's pretty amazing & upsetting to their children (my husband, brother-in-law, & sister-in-law) not to mention the constant surprise the grandchildren experience, who are now adults as well.
I don't care, I take my in-laws as they are and don't expect anything. But as examples of only children, they are a poor representation of what is a diverse population.

Jun. 11 2013 01:37 PM

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