The Only Child
ERIC Identifier: ED256475
Publication Date: 1984-00-00
Author: Steiner, Karen
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
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:
ARE ONLY CHILDREN DIFFERENT FROM CHILDREN WHO HAVE SIBLINGS?
- 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
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:
ARE THERE ANY ADVANTAGES TO BEING AN ONLY CHILD?
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
This Digest was prepared for the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, 1984 with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under OERI contract. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or the Department of Education. ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.
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.
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