The war on only children

Smaller families are becoming the norm. So why are we still so quick to judge people without siblings?

Topics: Parenting,

The war on only children (Credit: via Shutterstock)

I was making small talk with a woman I’d just met when the inevitable subject of family came up. “Do you have any brothers and sisters?” she’d asked. “No,” I’d replied. And there it was: the subtle change in her expression, the quick reassessment, the pinched face I’ve seen a thousand times before. “Well, that must have been nice for you,” she replied. “You must have been so spoiled.”

It’s one of the standard responses we “onlies” get — near strangers denigrating us because of our parents’ reproductive habits. Nobody ever says, “Youngest of four? So you’re really immature, right?” or “You’re a twin? Wow, you must be a total dick.” But I didn’t answer, “Yeah, after my dad left my 21-year-old mom when she was pregnant with me, you can imagine what a cosseted, pampered existence this princess had.” That’s because I didn’t want to get the other classic reaction: unbridled pity for my no doubt sad, lonely existence. Hi, what year is this?

Growing up in my mostly Irish-Catholic neighborhood, I understood that I was an anomaly. Hell, just having parents who were divorced was considered exotic. Back then, I generally shrugged off my dubious reputation as both wildly pampered and horribly starved for company, content with my childhood claim to fame as The Girl Who Didn’t Have to Share.

As I grew older, I met other onlies. It wasn’t always easy to find them – shockingly, they look a lot like everybody else. We exchanged stories of our similar bad and sad reps, but I noticed we almost never expressed a longing for a different fate. We were just a contented if misunderstood minority. But times have changed. There are now roughly 20 million only children in America, representing nearly a quarter of all our families. You’d think those swelling ranks would have changed those misconceptions.  So how come if we don’t smoke in bars anymore, we’re still dissing only children?

Whether you’re an only yourself or the parent of one, you’ve likely experienced the stigma. As my friend Anne recently recounted, “A pregnant mom, whose son is in my son’s class, was chatting with me one day, and remarked that she was so happy and relieved to be pregnant because she really, emphatically did not want her child to be an only child. She said this to me as if it were the worst fate that could befall a child. I guess she didn’t realize that she was talking to the very happy parent of an only child. Or maybe she did.”

You Might Also Like

Yet only children aren’t so tragic. They not only tend to do as well or slightly better academically than their siblinged counterparts, they also have just as many friends. And in a 2010 Time magazine story, Lauren Sandler mentioned a groundbreaking study that showed “the personalities of only children were indistinguishable from their peers with siblings.” The study, by the way, was published 25 years ago. You’d think it would have sunk in by now.

That’s why it’s so stunning when my fellow adults still make assumptions about my upbringing or personality based on the fact I had to outsource my childhood noogie-getting. Because when you think of people like Betty White, Al Pacino, Lance Armstrong, Daniel Radcliffe, Mahatma Gandhi, Selena Gomez and Rudy Giuliani, you can totally see how only children are all exactly alike! Yet the sweeping generalizations about antisocial freaks persist. No wonder my friend Jessica admits, “I take it as a compliment when people are surprised to find out I don’t have siblings.”

It’s even more bizarre when the subject turns to our offspring. There’s a difference between a natural curiosity – how many kids do you have? — and a judgment, either stated or not so subtly implied, about it. I love my two girls, and can’t imagine either of their lives without their touching sisterly bond. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to nod my head in quiet assent when some yahoo goes on about that “helicopter mom” of one who doesn’t “get it” about what parenting is really like, or how “entitled” her kid is. I’ve seen your children too, folks. They’re all pretty equally cranked up.

It’s especially galling to hear the contempt for onlies – that vaguely snide attitude that the real selfishness is on the part of the parents – coming as it does within a culture in which the subjects of infertility, pregnancy loss, deferred child rearing, and divorce are the stuff of idle playground chatter. If a child you know has no siblings, chances are you know the reasons why. It’s rarely because the parents are such big jerks. But whether it’s by the hand of fate or conscious decision, who’s to knock another’s choices, anyway? Why be a self-appointed Goldilocks of family size, bloviating that one is pathetic, five is pushing it, but two or three is juuuuust right? As my friend Anne’s mother once sagely told her, having one is a long way from the worst thing you could do to a child.

It’s true that we onlies are a different breed. My girlfriend with three sisters will never understand my horror around peeing in front of other people. It’s not an accident that I work in solitude. But like my friend Judith says, “I’ll never know the joys of a sibling, but I’ve chosen the people I want as close family. And I don’t experience the rancor of siblings, either … Sharing? Do you know how much easier it is to share as an adult when you didn’t have to protect what’s yours as a little kid? …  It’s easier to give away a big slice of pie when you’ve had all that extra pie to yourself for so long.” The number “1″ is neither an automatic ticket to a childhood of indulgence nor a guarantee of miserable adult isolation. It’s just another configuration of a family. And if you think you know what we onlies are really like, ask us to split a pie with you sometime.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>