One of the weirdest pseudoscientific beliefs of the Victorian era to have persisted to the present is that, as G. Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychological Association, said, “to be an only child is a disease in itself.” Few people put it quite like that these days, but the idea hangs on that there is something wrong with being an only child—that it’s unfair or even abusive of parents not to “give” their first children siblings and that only children turn out somehow damaged, if not exactly diseased. According to a summer 2023 Gallup poll, just 3% of people say that one is the ideal number of children to have—and just 6% of people with one child say it’s the ideal. That’s framed in terms of “ideal,” but you don’t get numbers that low unless there’s a widespread cultural view that there’s something wrong with it.
Reality is different. There’s a lot of research comparing only children with people from multichild families. And while it’s certainly possible to cherry-pick studies finding headline-friendly differences (only children are more likely to get divorced, according to the headlines on a study finding that the likelihood of divorce drops by a whopping 2% with each additional sibling, up to around seven), studies in general find small differences, and there are conflicting results across studies. As demographer Alice Goisis, who has researched cognitive differences between only children and those with siblings, has written, “We found that only children’s cognitive development by age 11 is more affected by things like their parents’ relationship and their family’s socioeconomic status than whether they have brothers and sisters.” It seems very likely that most of the differences supposedly uncovered by other studies are similarly small compared with other factors.
Then there are the plausible outcomes of growing up in a world that believes there’s something wrong with you or your family structure. As Chiara Dello Joio wrote in The Atlantic in 2022, “It’s tough to distinguish inherent only-child qualities from those that develop in a sibling-centric world.” So this is where (and I’m only partly trolling here) I want to argue that it’s not just that the prejudice against only children and one-child families should go the way of other Victorian pseudoscience. No, we need to be more willing to acknowledge the largely unacknowledged problems with multichild families.
Full disclosure: I’m an only child as well as the parent of an only child. And while some only children report having wished they had siblings (though how much of that is because they got the persistent message that there was something wrong with them?), I ardently wished to remain an only. That said, I maintain that the case for one-child families is at least as strong as the case against, on the merits and distinct from my preferences. Which is to say, different things will work for different people and all family structures can be wonderful, but if the society at large gets to judge my family based on flimsy evidence and a whole lot of sexist views about women as vessels for bearing and caring for children, I get to return the favor and argue that the societal ideal isn’t necessarily so ideal.
Let’s start with the most socially unacceptable arguments: Having siblings isn’t always a great thing, emotionally speaking. We’re told that having a sibling means you’re never alone. As the story goes, you have companions in childhood and, later, partners in caring for aging parents. But siblings can be a mixed bag: “Tense sibling relationships make people more likely to use substances and to be depressed and anxious in adolescence. Moreover, sibling bullying makes a kid more likely to engage in self-harm as a teen and to become psychotic by age 18,” Ben Healy wrote in The Atlantic in 2018.
Maybe the supportive “partners in crime” or “partners in the work of family” storyline plays out for you. But maybe you have a hostile relationship with your siblings, or even one where there’s abuse. Maybe—and this is deeply gendered—one sibling does the work of caring for aging parents, while another expresses opinions without putting in the time or sacrifice.
Then there’s the parent issue. Parents do have favorites, and though children are often wrong about which child is the favorite, favoritism can create a deeply toxic dynamic. In extreme cases, one child is abused while others escape.
These things may not be the norm, but surely, no one can deny that there are families—numerically many of them, given that most families with children have multiple children—in which there’s a golden child and one or more children who suffer in multiple ways by comparison. That there are parents who cannot or will not disguise their favoritism. We all know at least one of those families. And while they may be a minority, they should loom larger in our thinking as we acknowledge that some people who should have only one child end up having more because of social pressure and misinformation, not realizing that the research says that only children turn out just fine.
Then there are the material and logistical issues. Kids are expensive. Most people who don’t want kids just … don't want kids, and more power to them. That, too, should be a more widely accepted and supported choice. But financial reasons also loom large for some. The United States needs affordable child care and health care and readily available after-school programs and so much more, but even if we had all of those things, one child is still more affordable than two or three. If having one child was seen as a more socially acceptable choice—if people weren’t literally told they were harming their child by not having more children—some people who now have two kids might have stopped with one, but also some people who feel that children are not an option for them for material or time reasons might have one.
Lack of affordable, high-quality child care is a key reason women leave the paid workforce. Again, that’s a policy issue that wouldn’t be that difficult to solve if Republicans and a few conservative Democrats would get out of the way. But it’s also a problem that’s exacerbated by the pressure to have multiple kids—meaning long stretches with child care costs for two or more children at once, and more years of either paying for care or staying out of the labor market.
Kids are germ vectors. They get sick, they get their siblings sick, they get their parents sick, and those sicknesses can take over the year. According to a study conducted during the H1N1 influenza pandemic, a family with zero children had a respiratory viral infection rate of just 7% of the year. For a family with one child, it was 35%. For families with two or more children, it was more than half the year, and again, that’s just for respiratory viral infections. Sure, the study was conducted during the H1N1 pandemic, but in case you haven’t noticed, a study conducted during a respiratory virus pandemic is relevant today. More broadly, it’s considered normal for kids to get up to 10 colds per year (average of five or six), have two or three incidents of vomiting per year, and have strep throat once per year between the ages of five and 15. That is a lot of sick time, and paid sick leave is one thing Americans don’t have a lot of. Again, there are policy answers here, but it’s hard to imagine a sick leave policy that fully accommodates a family in which at least one person is sick for more than half the year.
But you want more than one child, you are saying, and who am I to tell you that you can’t have that? I’m not telling you that, of course. I am suggesting, though, that what feels like our innate desires are often socially constructed. And the pressure to have kids and then to have more than one, pressure that extends to rendering unspeakable or even unthinkable the many deep problems to which multichild families are prone, is a fully hegemonic ideology.