ERIC Identifier: ED256475
Publication Date: 1984-00-00
Author: Steiner, Karen
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
The Only Child. ERIC Digest.
Popular thinking often paints an unflattering picture of only children,
portraying them as self-centered, attention-seeking, dependent, and
temperamental. Despite these negative stereotypes, smaller families in
general--and the one-child option--are growing in popularity.
HOW HAVE TRENDS IN FAMILY SIZE CHANGED?
Recent figures from the National Center for Health Statistics indicate that
the fertility rate for the entire American population has declined. Although
families in 1970 averaged 2.5 children, families today average 1.8. The figures
additionally show a strong general trend away from large families and an
increase in the percentage of families having only one child: In 1970, 18% of
American families had only children, as compared with 21% in 1981 (Kline 1984).
WHY ARE MORE PARENTS CHOOSING TO HAVE ONE CHILD?
Changing family patterns, economic concerns, and new roles for women may
contribute to parents' choosing the one-child option:
--Divorce rates (higher than ever before) and the tendency for couples to
marry later in life may contribute to shorter marriages and potentially fewer
--Inflation and high unemployment, contributing to reduced family income, may
encourage parents to have smaller families
--The majority of women are now employed before they have children. The
benefits of this added income and involvement in careers may lead women to
postpone childbearing and bear fewer children
ARE ONLY CHILDREN DIFFERENT FROM CHILDREN WHO HAVE SIBLINGS?
Research on intelligence, achievement, affiliation, popularity, and
self-esteem suggests that many popular beliefs about the only child are
unfounded (Falbo 1983b). The results of some of these investigations are briefly
Although report findings conflict, only children, like first-borns, generally
have been found to score slightly higher on measures of intelligence than
younger siblings. Diverging results of intelligence research may be explained by
focusing on factors within the family unit that affect intellectual development.
Such experiences might include, for example, parents' provision of an "enriched"
As is the case for intelligence, achievement (both academic and other kinds)
in only and first-born children appears to be slightly greater than for
later-born children. To explain this phenomenon, theorists have considered the
specific relationship between parents and children. Presumably, achievement
motivation originates in the high standards for mature behavior that parents
impose on their only and first-born children.
Some research indicates that only children may be slightly less affiliative
than their peers. Specific research findings have shown that only children may
belong to fewer organizations, have fewer friends, and lead a less intense
social life. However, these investigations have additionally noted that only
children have a comparable number of close friends, assume leadership positions
in clubs, and feel satisfied and happy with their lives.
Research on the popularity of only children also has been mixed. Some
findings suggest that, because only and first-born children have no older
siblings with whom to interact, they acquire a more autocratic and less
cooperative interactive style than do other children. Other research has
indicated that likability ratings from same-sex grade school classmates were
highest for only and last-born children. Again, researchers speculate that
parents may play a role in the development of behaviors influencing peer
Like peer popularity studies, investigations of self-esteem in the only child
have netted mixed results. Different investigations have variously indicated
that children in each of three groups (first-borns, last-borns, and only
children) possess the highest level of self-esteem. Consistent findings may
prove possible if further consideration is given to the types of self-esteem
measures used, the age of the subjects, and parental and sibling contributions
to the development of self-esteem.
ARE THERE ANY ADVANTAGES TO BEING AN ONLY CHILD?
Most current data appear to indicate that only children have a slight edge
over children with siblings on measures of intelligence and achievement--and
that they suffer no serious interpersonal deficits. In fact, only children may
have some advantages as a result of their special status: more attention from
parents, freedom from sibling rivalry and comparison, and access to more family
resources, to name a few.
WHAT CAN PARENTS GAIN FROM CHOOSING THE ONE-CHILD OPTION?
Reduced conflict in dividing time and attention among children, greater
financial flexibility, and a more closely knit family unit may encourage many
parents to limit their families to one child.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Falbo, Toni. THE ONE CHILD FAMILY IN PERSPECTIVE. Ann Arbor, MI: ERIC
Clearinghouse on Counseling and Personnel Services, 1983a. ED 236 504.
Falbo, Toni. "The Only Child in America." In SIBLING RELATIONSHIPS: THEIR
NATURE AND SIGNIFICANCE, edited by M. E. Lamb and B. Sutton-Smith. Hillsdale,
NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1983b.
Houseknecht, Sharon K., ed. "Childlessness and the One-Child Family." JOURNAL
OF FAMILY ISSUES 3 (December 1982):419-593.
Jones, Charlotte F. ONLY CHILD: CLUES FOR COPING. Philadelphia, PA:
Westminster Press, 1984.
Kline, Gilbert. Telephone conversation, 15 March 1984.
Maynard, Rona. "The Good and Bad News about Parenting an Only Child."
CHATELAINE 57 (May 1984):38 and the following pages.
Rosenberg, Merri. "The Only Child: Separating Myth from Reality." AMERICAN
BABY 45 (January 1983):48 and the following pages.