February 6, 2016

Why Lauren Sandler has got the ‘only child’ argument all wrong


family at home




American journalist Lauren Sandler feels so strongly that only children are so unfairly demonised and negatively stereotyped, that she has written a book about why the choice to have an only child is better for both the parents and the child.

Sandler, an only child herself and the mother of one, had been due to appear on ‘Lorraine’ tomorrow morning to promote her book, One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One‘.  I was due to be joining them both in order to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of one child versus two or more, but I have received a telephone call to inform me that unfortunately, Lauren has had to pull out and so the discussion has had to be postponed.

Sandler is defending the only.  She defends the only as an only and as a mother of an only, and tries to deliver a supported argument in favour of singletons and a parent’s decision not to add more children to their family, by proving that there is nothing wrong with the personality or character of an only child.  She has it all wrong because there is nothing to prove.  Whether a child has siblings or not does not determine how they are or who they are.  There is no ‘only child vs sibling’ argument.

Sandler’s belief is that a mother needs to well-manage her ‘breeding’, as having more than one child will threaten one’s identity and ‘authentic self.’  In this recent article for Time Magazine, mothers of three or more are referred to as ‘champion breeders.’

Freedom can be maintained by only having one child, she declares.  One child is liberating for the parent.  And, she tells her readers, there is no need to worry about the stereotypes and common misconceptions about having an only child  because having an only child is better!

Sandler claims that her book provides research and studies which will reassure the reader why having one child is not just okay, but better than having more.  In fact, this ‘better than’ theme runs throughout, with Sandler ‘proving’ her theories that only children are more intelligent, happier, more successful… pretty much better than a child with siblings would be at anything and everything in life.

How can such sweeping generalisations be made is my question?  There are children who were raised as only children who were happy to be so, and others who were desperately miserable.  Likewise, there are children raised with siblings, maybe just one or perhaps more, who absolutely loved it and others who look back on their childhoods less enthusiastically.  Only children, two children, ten children – there are advantages and disadvantages to each.  But to claim that one is better than the other is wrong and, quite frankly, disturbing.

Sandler states: ‘My research suggests that only children experience more intensely emotional family lives. The parental gaze is more focused; the love more concentrated. This intensity can be enriching, and also suffocating. Many adult only children told me that they wanted their first child to have a sibling precisely because this kind of intensity was too much for them.’

With a first child parenthood is introduced to a person.  With a second child, it evolves.  The first lesson you received in parenthood changes and never again will it change as much as the transition of going from one child to two.

What deters many people from increasing their family from one child to two is the concern that they won’t be able to love another child quite as much as they love their first.  They fear that the love they have is limited, enough only for a certain amount of people.  They believe that if the number of people in their lives exceeds the amount of love they have to give then it would be detrimental to those from whom they need to take it,  in order to be able to give it to someone else.

Of course, in reality it is very different, yet it’s still difficult for some parents of only one child to comprehend.  How could they possibly love another child as much as this one?  To them, it seems impossible.

Family dynamics change with the arrival of a second child.  It is a huge learning curve for the parents and a time of new discovery.  This is the first experience of learning how to divide yourself between two needy dependents instead of one.  This is the first time you have to prioritise which child’s needs is more pressing at the most inconvenient moment.  Just when you think you’ve got this parenting lark sussed, you realise the rules have changed.

One thing that won’t have changed is the love for your first child.  They will be loved no less than they were the day before the new addition was born.  Love is not finite.  It will not decrease if more people come into your life.  It will not be taken from one person in order to give to another.  A child will not receive less love of your love when a sibling joins the family; your allocation to each child is not limited but infinite.  You do not base the decision on whether or not to have a second (or third) child on the possibility of your love running out.  Such a problem does not exist.

Every child which is welcomed into a family is an individual.  They are a person in their own right.  A second child will not be a clone of your first.  A third will not be a clone of either sibling.  Even an identical twin will be very different to their sibling.  Each child has their own unique personality, likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses.

Sandler has continually stated her own opinions for sticking to having one child.  She denounces the opinion that only children are selfish, yet continues with her own self-centred, narcissistic reasons on why her only daughter will remain so.

Her reasons are focused on her own wants: ‘I want to do meaningful work.  I want to travel.  I want to eat in restaurants and drink in bars.  I want to go to movies and concerts.  I want to read novels.  I want to marinate in solitude.  I want to have friendships that regularly sustain and exhilarate me.  I want a romantic relationship that involves daily communication beyond interrogatives and imperatives – I want to be known.’

Rather than focusing on the joy her daughter brings and by refusing to acknowledge how that joy would be multiplied if she were to have another child, she lingers on how the child would negatively impact her own life, and her own wants.  In her opinion, if her own wants are not met then she would be unhappy, which would then affect her daughter’s happiness.

It is unsurprising that Sandler is unable to look outside of herself.  The only mother she knows how to be has been learnt from the mother she had herself, who admitted to Lauren that, ‘It was all about me.’

The lesson passed down from mother to daughter is that parenting is all about the parent.  What the child wants, feels or even needs does not come into it.  The reasoning behind it being that if the mother is happy then so will the child be.

As a child Lauren experienced the parenting of a woman who clearly felt that children were a burden.  One child could be endured as long as her own freedom was not impinged upon too much.  The possibility of a second was a horrifying thought.

Lauren’s mother told her about the time she suspected she might be pregnant again.  Lauren was three-years-old at the time, and her mother had stayed up through the night writing a list of pros and cons to having another child.  ‘By morning it was clear to me I couldn’t have another kid.’

Is it any wonder that Lauren has continued on the same train of thought as her mother, where a view of children is one of them being overwhelming burdens?  Where such a decision is reduced to a clinical, objective list of pros and cons, rather than any emotional feelings of love of motherhood and a heart-felt desire to have a child?

Sandler seeks to strengthen her arguments by referring to articles, quotes or studies which justify her reasoning.  Each of these is flimsy at best and every one can be de-bunked by opposing articles, quotes or studies which argue otherwise.

Sandler’s claim that ‘Most people say they have their first child for themselves and the second to benefit their first’ is bizarre.  I have never heard that reason given by anyone anywhere.  She offers no proof of who these ‘many people’ she refers to are.  After quoting her I received much feedback from people who disagree with her.  My conclusion, therefore, is that ‘many people’ do not say what Sandler claims.  I suspect that rather than being based on any study or research, this claim is actually based on nothing more than opinion, yet it is stated as fact as so many other assertions are.

Sandler argues that, ‘Endless research shows that only children are, in fact, no more self-involved than anyone else.’

Yet, according to a new study published earlier this year, the findings tell us otherwise.

‘Little Emperor’s: Behavioural Impacts of China’s One-Child Policy’ compares data from before and after the implementation of China’s policy which shows a casual link between only children and negative character traits including being less trusting, less trustworthy, more pessimistic and less conscientious among others.

Who has found the study which proves the true character of onlies?  Is Lauren’s proof correct, or is mine?  Or, could it simply be a case that it doesn’t matter how many siblings a person has, or even they have any at all, but how they were raised, the circumstances they were raised in and the character they were born with, which affects how they are?W  We can find studies and research and quotes for any opinion we could possibly hold.  Why must we pit one family choice against the other?  Why must one be better and the other worse?  Why can’t we just say, ‘This is who this child is.  They are unique.  They are one of a kind.  They are who they are,’ without it becoming a bitter battle and analysis of whether a brother or sister or lackof, will make a child be less or more intelligent, successful, kind, confident, than they otherwise would have been?

Lauren also quotes writer Alice Walker who, when asked whether women should have children answered, ‘Yes, but only one. Because with one you can move. With more than one, you’re a sitting duck.’

Lauren also quotes Alice in an article for The Atlantic titled ‘The Secret to Being a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid’  What Lauren doesn’t mention is that Walker is estranged from her now adult daughter as a result of her parenting style.  A successful writer she may be.  A successful mother?  No.

As for the idea that in order to be a successful writer you should stick to just the one child, well, did anyone tell that to J.K. Rowling?  The most outstanding writer the world has had in a very long time is a mother of three children.  That kind of drops that argument on its head, doesn’t it?

Lauren concedes that differences between only children and those with siblings do indeed occur.  However, she hastens to point out that these differences are only positive ones.  She refers to research by Falbo and Polit, which claims that only children have: ‘demonstrably higher intelligence and achievement; only children have also been found to have more self-esteem. These findings, which have been confirmed repeatedly in recent years, hold true regardless of whether parents of only children stayed together and regardless of economic class.’

Really?  So every, single only child in the world regardless of their socio-economic status, background or class is always more intelligent, higher achieving and more confident than every other child in the world who has a sibling or several?  Could these characteristics not be gained by any combination of other factors?  Parental involvement, for example?  Geographical location?  The child’s own personality traits?  The serendipitous opportunities that life sometimes brings us?  Genetics, even?  Nature or nurture, perhaps.  Not according to Sandler and the once more selective ‘research’ she refers to.  ‘Onlies tend to have higher educational and occupational achievement, whether our parents stay together or not, and whether we are from rich families or poor ones.’  According to her, if ‘onlies’ are different, it is only to be superior to their sibling-burdened counterparts.

Sandling continues to use her research in an effort to back up her theories that only children are brighter, better and have a greater advantage over those with siblings with the following.  She writes: ‘Social psychologist Robert Zajonc, who codeveloped the Confluence Model, which provides the mathematical basis for understanding family size and intelligence, found that as the number of siblings goes up, the intellectual environment of the family goes down, regardless of its education level. Not only do parents speak—and read—less to their kids, but the entire family becomes more “babyish,” operating at the level of its youngest member. Instead of challenging the older child, interactions are dragged backward developmentally to accommodate the younger one. Or, as Blake put it, with a literalism that threatens to rankle, the family “becomes weighted with infantile minds.’

Given that our family does not consist of a group of unintelligent, uneducated, illiterate buffoons it must mean that our seven-month-old is a genius.

Siblings learn from each other all the time and admittedly, it’s not always the good stuff they pass down.  When I asked my children if they would have liked to have been only children they were horrified.  ‘We’d have no-one to play with all the time.  Or talk to at night when you’ve told us to go to sleep!’

‘Or how about to plot with when you’re all up to something?’ I suggested.  The question was met with silent grins.  Yes, that too.

As you might have guessed, Lauren’s opinion on siblings isn’t very high.  She writes: ‘Still, what siblings are good for, simply, is the rivalry, the opportunity to be shaped by that painful tension with them.’

She turns to psychologist Carl Pickhardt for confirmation of her opinion, and seems pleased with his validation that he: ‘ …reminds me that while only children might dream about the companionship a brother or sister might offer, in actuality, “what you miss is the chance to be shaped by competition, comparison, and conflict.”’

Siblings can be friends, they can be enemies, they can be allies and they can be the scapegoat if you need to get out of a fix.  Sometimes they’ll get along and others they won’t.  It’s life.  When you put together a roomful of different characters there will be some who gel and others who just rub each other the wrong way.  It’s true of siblings too.  Just because you’re related it doesn’t mean you are necessarily going to like each other.  This in itself provides a valuable lesson in tolerance and endurance.  While an only child can socialise with friends, a friend is someone they choose and would obviously get along with, otherwise the friendship wouldn’t exist.  Siblings who clash soon learn that going to get along with everyone in life all of the time, but you still need to deal with them whether you like it or not.

Yet still, the bond siblings have is still there regardless, and good or bad, it is one which cannot be replicated with any friendship or relationship no matter what the claims.  To say that friendships can replicate the relationship between siblings is deceptive.  For a start, the dynamics of parenting two or more children is different to parenting one.

Justifying how her daughter’s socialisation with friends rather than siblings is advantageous, Sandler writes: ‘In Brooklyn, I can spontaneously take Dahlia down the block to play dress-up with her friend (while I drink wine in the kitchen with the friend’s mother).’  Somehow, I feel that my parenting might be questioned if I admitted to leaving my children to their own devices whilst I enjoy a lunchtime drink or three in a separate room whenever the mood takes me.  Yet, according to Lauren, this is the difference between our lives.  This is one ‘advantage’ that choosing to have one child has over parenting two or more.  You can drink with a friend whilst your children play together in another room.

Sandler disputes that only children are lonely.  ‘Solitude strengthens character’ she says.  Why then is so much emphasis and concern placed upon the socialisation of a home educated child?

To suggest that one particular family set-up is ‘better’ than another is absurd.  Truly, there are advantages and disadvantages to any one of them, and an accompanying stereotype to go with each of them too.  The only ideal family is one which the parents decide upon together.  For some that may mean one child.  For others it may mean two, three or even many more.  What suits one family and their circumstances will not suit another.  What it does come down to is individual choice, and what the parents are prepared to sacrifice or what they feel they can provide.  It does not make one choice right and another wrong.  All it makes them is different.

Yet to argue that research and studies claim that one choice is very, very wrong whilst the other is very, very right is asinine nonsense.  You can find research to back up any opinion you hold on any subject at all if you look for it.  Parenting is in the attitude of the parent.  You will get out of it what you are prepared to put into it.

As for the children, well, que sera, sera.  Whatever will be, will be regardless of our parenting or how many brothers and sisters they have.  I don’t expect any of mine will be the same, achieve the same things or have the same character traits as any of their siblings when they reach adulthood.  They’re all as different as chalk and cheese to each other now – and they’re related and brought up in exactly the same way!

The attitude that Lauren has is one which says that to give oneself to another is somehow weak or demeaning to yourself.  To be selfless is a negative thing, to be self-centred is a positive thing.  The idea that selflessness and consideration will bring you misery whilst self-absorption will bring you happiness just doesn’t sit right with me.  The notion that the only way to happiness and fulfilment is through nurturing yourself and pandering to your own wants rather than having to consider another human being is alien.  Surely, there is something fundamentally wrong with that way of thinking?  How would the world be if everyone took that approach?  There would be no compassion, no humility, and no consideration.  There would be an abundance of ‘I’m alright, Jack!’ attitudes, and each would be to their own.  A world where everyone looks inwards with no thought for another seems like a very bleak world, and not one which promotes very much happiness.

The reality is that your life will not be the same post-kid as it was pre-kid, no matter how hard you try to preserve it.  Making the decision to become a parent means that you have committed yourself to that child regardless of who is playing in concert, which book you wanted to read, which restaurant your friends are eating at or how much you wanted to travel as the single person you once were.

When you decide to have your first child the decision to leave behind the free and single liberated life has already been made.  You have made a commitment.  You have a new focus and life is no longer all about you and what you want, when you want it.  This is the reality of parenting, and whether your child remains an only or whether siblings will one day join them is irrelevant.

When parenthood comes along, attending rock concerts might not be possible for every single artist you want to see.  Drowning uninterruptedly within the pages of a book might be something that can only be done after your child is tucked up in bed.  Those spontaneous meals out with friends might no longer be arranged on a whim.  Travel plans will need to take another passenger into account.  Having children doesn’t mean you must stop doing any of these things.  Parenthood isn’t a prison sentence whereby your own life ends when your child’s begins. It is possible to be a happy, fulfilled person once you become a mother – even a mother of many. It just means that the arrangements are different because, after all, you now have someone else to think about apart from yourself.  That is what tends to happen when you decide to bring another person into the family.  Freedom and liberation is not something you should be demanding if you have decided to bring a child into the equation.

You do not have a child purely to join the elite that is the Parenting Club.  A child is not a trophy to polish up and show off, and it is not something to tick off the to-do list.  A child is not an accessory and is not something you own.  A child is a life to be loved, to be nurtured and to be invested in by the parent who made the decision to bring it into this world, regardless of whether it is an only child, or a second, or third or more.

Children will change your life.  There is no use pretending they won’t because they will.  They will require you – their parent – to give yourself physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and financially.  Meeting their basic needs is not enough.  That is not to say that we should be enslaved by our children, but we should take responsibility for our actions under any circumstance.  Taking responsibility for choosing to become a parent means acknowledging that sacrifices will and do have to be made.

If you are unwilling to look outside of yourself in order to do that the question should not be, ‘Should I only have one child?’ but instead, ‘Should I have children at all?’

The decision to have a child means that you have decided to be a parent.  That means the good stuff and the bad.  If freedom and liberation is what you want, stick to the single life and don’t bring a child into the equation – not even one.




  1. Interesting, and I agree with you, I don’t think there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way. But……. I do feel guilty that my little boy is an only child. I grew up as one of four, with 3 older brothers, and for the most part my childhood memories are good. Fun, games, getting into mischief, sticking up for one and other, and general family life.
    I too, was always going to have 4 children. For various reasons, this didn’t happen, and then a few years ago I adopted Fred, my much loved little boy.
    Now Fred is, and always will be an only child.
    I worry that he is missing out on so much – pranks behind parents backs, jokes, night time whispering, games, hide & seek, and those sorts of games that only children can play.
    But, does Fred worry? Does he feel he is missing out? I don’t know, but I doubt it!

  2. It never crossed my mind to stop at one child, yet i can fully appreciate why people do choose to, and I also appreciate why people choose to have lots of kids…I’m only at 2 which is quite enough to stick with along with my colony of pets however, i’ll never say never to anymore children :-)

  3. Vicki Goldby says:

    I wonder why Lauren felt the need to write this book. Could it be that there is a feeling of guilt or perhaps the need to justify her life choices. I wonder if she has been on the receiving end of unkind comments about her choice to have one child. Her tone is largely defensive, but who is attacking her? I have no issue with only child versus more, but I am saddened by her apparent insecurity which is evident by her need to defend her choices by attacking other peoples.

  4. I find this woman’s attitude gobsmacking for want of a better word. We should only have children if we want them, and if she wants a child that doesn’t impact on her life then it sounds to me like she actually doesn’t really want a child at all.

    However, I don’t think it’s true that hardly anyone has a second child for the first. Most of my friends who have two, when pushed for a reason, tend to say that they wouldn’t want an only child and that was the primary reason for having a second child. I think everyone is aware that ‘onlies’ are not an ideal world?

    I will stick my neck out and say that I think parents who actually choose and plan to have only one child for no reasons other than selfish ones ARE just that. Selfish. I’m not referring to people who intend to have more but for some reason or other don’t. I mean those who actually plan to only have one.

    I have never before heard of an only child who has gone on to happily, through choice and planning, have only one child. I think this woman is a huge rarity amongst onlies!

    I AM an only child and pretty traumatised by the experience despite having wonderful parents. I was advised not to have any more pregnancies after my first but wouldn’t even consider sticking with only one child and have gone on to eventually have four. My body is now completely kaput but I would not subject a child to the lonely life I had.

    It makes me so furious when people (rarely onlies) say that only children are fine because they ‘have lots of friends and extended family/great social life’ etc. That is like telling a lonely elderly person who lives alone that they must not be lonely because they have lots of neighbours and family living nearby. It is NOT the same. However full your life is, when you’re an only and everyone goes home, that’s it. You’re on your own.

    Each to their own, but I agree, why does this woman insist on her claims that she’s got it ‘right’ and others have it ‘wrong’.
    Ridiculous claim to make, there’s no such thing.

  5. Yes, I agree. Her argument is wrong. And it’s funny that she’s speaking from a very limited perspective. She has no idea what it’s like to have more than one child, so she has no understanding of what is “better”! I also agree that her arguments are purely from selfish motives.

    My husband is an only child and he was very lonely! His mother was also an only child. As soon as we were engaged and began talking about kids, he said he wanted 20! We have 10 now. :)

    Great article!

  6. Great response to the book. I agree with what other com enters have said about her obviously feeling the need to slate other peoples choices as she is clearly insecure about her own.

    I was an only child and my husband was one of four, and I craved a sibling when I was a child and often feel a bit jealous at the memories he has with his siblings. We are at 2 kids now and intend on having more.

    Another factor not mentioned is the burden being an only child puts on the child. I find I have a lot of pressure on only my shoulders as the only one sometimes, and no doubt this will heighten as my parents get older and more dependent on me. I read a great article about chinas one child policy that highlighted the difficulties when there was only one child to care for 2 parents and 4 grandparents as they age. Every number of children has its advantages and disadvantages though as you say.

    I think each family should do what feels right for them, whether that’s 1 child or 20. I hate all this selfish aspect though, really gets my goat when people talk about having kids as a burden that has to be endured. When people act as though having more is horrifying, I often wonder how that’d make their first feel. I hate when people say to me ‘they’ll be at school soon and you get your life back’. Err no, they are my life (and they are not going to school anyway!). I know circumstances dictate for some people too but I was so desperate for another as soon as my first was born as I realised how fulfilling being a parent was.

    L x

  7. Mother of Four says:

    More than Lauren Sandler defending her only child status I am getting a feeling here that the author of this article and all you mothers of multiple children are trying to defend your choices and make yourselves feel better about the choice that you made. Most of your emails just prove exactly what Lauren’s book says. Well you say that people dont have kids for the first child and yet most of you feel that only children are messed up? Dont get me wrong I am a mother of four but I feel one child or a hundred children – every decision is correct based on the person’s capacity and yes even finances. You cant call a mother selfish just because she choses to stop at one. I know many only children who are perfectly happy and hugely successful in their careers. It all depends on your upbringing and parents & the social interactions and experiences you had as a child rather that how many siblings you have. I am feeling rather sad after reading this article and all your comments as to how ancient the thoughts are when the world has come so far and advance so much. Wow! Kudos to all of you including me but please dont defend your point why you had so many children because that just shows how insecure you are.

  8. Katherine Cooper says:

    Sorry about being a Johnny come lately to put in my 2 cents on this but I think Lauren wouldn’t have felt the need to write a book if it hadn’t been for the consistent general consensus over the last half century that only children are to be pitied and that there is something that needs correcting in their personality or social skills because of their childhood! So why wasn’t there an uproar about that?I am a happy, well adjusted, successful and social only child that had a wonderful childhood . I chose not to have children myself but I don’t see anything wrong with either choice!

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