THE ONLY CHILD

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 children

--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 summarized below:

Intelligence

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" intellectual environment.

Achievement

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.

Affiliation

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.

Peer Popularity

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
popularity.

Self-Esteem

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.

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.

This Digest was prepared for the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early
Childhood Education, 1984.

Author: Steiner, Karen
ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, Urbana, Ill.

THIS DIGEST WAS CREATED BY ERIC, THE EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES INFORMATION CENTER.