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Having an Only Child

Updated on April 17, 2015
Cari Jean profile image

Cari Jean resides in North Dakota, where she works as a freelance writer and blogs at Faith's Mom's Blog.

Oftentimes when people meet our daughter for the first time they ask, "Is she your only child?" When I respond, "Yes, she is." I leave it at that. Usually I feel like they are waiting for an explanation as to why we only have one child. This is understandable. As one who grew up with four siblings, I too question why parents decide to have only one child.

There are many reasons couples may decide to have only one child. For me personally, there are a couple of reasons that Faith is our only child. She was born early for unknown reasons and has special needs as a result. Because of her special needs, all of our energy went towards her and we couldn't imagine trying to take care of her and another at the same time.

By the time things became less stressful for us, I was older and my cardiologist recommended that I not have another child. (I have a congenital heart defect with which there are several risks in going through a pregnancy). At one time, I would have gone through it all over again in order for our daughter to have a sibling. My husband, however was not so willing. Eventually, I came to have peace with the fact that Faith is our only child.

Me, my husband and our only child.
Me, my husband and our only child. | Source

How Many Children Do You Have?

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Only Child Statistics

In 2003, a Current Population Survey showed that single-child families outnumber two-child families (20 percent versus 18 percent).

According to a 2007 Gallup Poll, from 1936-1967, most Americans preferred larger families, with over three children. In 1973, the numbers changed and more Americans began to prefer smaller families. The number of Americans who prefer a larger family has been declining ever since.

That same poll showed that six out of ten Americans believed that the ideal number of children was two or less. This includes 56% of Americans think it is best to have a small family of one, two or no children. Three percent of that 56% believe that one child is ideal.

According to Carolyn White, co-founder of Only Child Magazine, there are currently around 20 million only children in American households. And according to Wikipedia, 40% of New York City residents have only one child.


Stigmas of The Only Child

Even though the number of only children in the United States is increasing, there are still stigmas attached to the only child. Some of these include:

  • The only child is selfish and spoiled
  • The only child is lonely
  • The only child is more aggressive
  • The only child has more of a tendency to play with imaginary friends
  • The only child is sickly
  • The only child is needy and clingy
  • The only child will have problems socializing

Some of these stigmas date all the way back to 1896 when psychologist G. Stanley Hall said, "Being an only child is a disease itself." These stigmas continue to stick despite years of research that suggests these stigmas are false.

Traits of an Only Child

When it comes to birth order characteristics, only children tend to have the same traits as the first-born, but to a higher degree. The only child tends to be:

  • Close to parents
  • Self-controlled
  • A Leader
  • Mature
  • Dependable
  • Demanding
  • Unforgiving
  • Private
  • Sensitive
  • Mature beyond their age

Carl Pickhardt, PhD, author of The Future of Your Only Child says that, "Three distinctive characteristics separate only child families from those with multiple children." These characteristics include:

  • The only child feels they have an obligation to do right by the parents. Usually, the only child family is not very laid back as everyone is trying hard to please one another.
  • The only child receives all of the social, emotional and material resources their parents have to offer. And because parents typically make a high investment in nurturing and providing for the child, parents have high expectations and they expect the child to turn out well. In response, only children tend to want to perform well for their parents.
  • Because the only child has no siblings with whom to connect, to be compared to, to compete against, or to do conflict with, the child becomes "adultized" (socially and verbally precocious) from identifying with and interacting with these primary parental companions.

After reviewing over 100 studies on only children, Dr. Toni Falbo, a professor of Educational Psychology and Sociology at the University of Texas states, "These children tend to score slightly higher in verbal ability, go farther in school and have a little bit higher self-esteem, and a lot of this just has to do with more parent involvement and uninterrupted time with adults.”


Parents praying with their only child.
Parents praying with their only child. | Source

Some Parents Thoughts on Having an Only Child

Despite all of the research that proves how well only children can do in life and the advantages of being an only child, there is still a tough reality that some parents face when dealing with having just one child.

On the Berkeley Parents Network under the topic Having Only One Child, several parents discussed their concerns including this one from a mom who is torn between having just one child and adding another to their family:

I have struggled with this over the last year and felt paralyzed by conflicting emotions of guilt for not giving my only child a much wanted sibling and the fear that adding another through adoption (our best option) will greatly increase my stress level which may in turn negatively effect my otherwise happy, if not perfect, marriage and the very close bond I have with my daughter. My husband is happy with one child and is ambivalent about a second. When we talk, he brings up finances, college funds, retirement, etc.. All fair/rational concerns. We're equally concerned about the effects of increased stress.

The main issues that come up on this site for having an only child include:

  • Guilt for not giving their only child a sibling
  • Struggling with trying to get pregnant with a second child, thinking about adoption or in vitro fertilization
  • Questions about how to raise an only child
  • Hard to reconcile not ever having another child
  • One spouse wants another baby, while the other spouse doesn't
  • Rude remarks from others when telling them you're only having one child
  • Pressure from family and friends to have more than one child
  • Tired of people asking when you're going to have the next child
  • Finding peace with having an only child
  • Discovering only children who were not very happy being the only child
  • Hard for parents to accept their child being alone after they die

According to research, only children have more help reaching their goals.
According to research, only children have more help reaching their goals. | Source

Disadvantages and Advantages to Being an Only Child

These disadvantages and advantages were posted by only children on various websites:


  • Too much pressure from parents to perform well
  • No one to grow up with - it would be more fun with brothers and sisters
  • Loneliness
  • Too quiet in the house after being outside playing with friends
  • Worried about being the sole caretaker of elderly parents
  • Pressure to have children to carry on the family name
  • Overprotective parents
  • Harder to make friends
  • Will never have nieces or nephews


  • Glad to not have to deal with siblings
  • Have friends who are like brothers and sisters but don't have to live together
  • Very attached to parents, have a great relationship
  • More awareness of self
  • Have more help pursuing goals
  • More independent
  • Have parents undivided attention
  • Don't have to share
  • Don't have to compare myself to siblings
  • Don't have to fight parents for conversation

Reasons for Having an Only Child

There are several reasons couples decide to have an only child. We know in some countries, such as China, they are prohibited from having more than one as a means of population control. There may be some in this country who agree with the thought of having an only child in order to help control the world population. But more common reasons for Americans to have an only child include:

  • Women marrying later in life
  • High divorce rates
  • Prioritizing career
  • Infertility issues
  • Personal health issues
  • Finances
  • Emotional issues
  • Personal preference
  • Fear regarding pregnancy
  • Age
  • Family stress

As you can see, there are many factors that come into play with families who have an only child. While some struggle with the fact of having an only child, others are perfectly happy with their only. While some kids like being an only child, others dislike it. In the end, no matter what decision is made regarding having an only child or more than one, the decision is up to the parents and they shouldn't feel guilty in making that decision or be made to feel it is a wrong decision.


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