The rise of the only child: What’s behind the rising number of single-child families

MADISON, Wis. — In recent years, the number of couples choosing to have one child has risen sharply. A recent Pew Research Center study found the number of women who reached the end of their child bearing years with only one child doubled in the last generation, from 11 percent in 1976 to 22 percent in 2015. Census data shows one-child families are the fastest growing family unit in the United States.

Never before have there been so many choices in family type or size. Our ever-evolving definition of family is broadening and diversifying to include blended families, biracial families, same-sex families and single-parent families.

“We’ve definitely seen fertility rates in the United States declining, and it’s been the general trend that people are having fewer children,” said Sarah Halpern-Meekin, associate professor of human development and family studies in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

As Generation X and millennial women prioritize personal and career goals, and as couples marry and start their families later in life, more parents find themselves debating the financial, logistical and philosophical possibilities of a smaller family.

Halpern-Meekin said another factor is our culture of intensive parenting that has ramped up.

“There are only so many adults in the family that can be taking kids to the myriad of activities that children participate in these days, and that we think they should,” Halpern-Meekin said. “As there’s more and more pressure to do more, there’s only so many children you can invest that intensively in.”

Studies have shown that only children are no different than their peers when it comes to personality, and they actually have some advantages when it comes to academics.

“There might be a slight advantage for only children, and that’s on par with what we see for first-born children who spent part of their childhood as only children,” Halpern-Meekin said.

However, there are still negative stereotypes attached to the idea of only children, including that only children are selfish, spoiled, unsociable and demanding.

“We continue to fervently believe that only children continue to be worse off, but the research hasn’t supported that,” Halpern-Meekin said.

“When they ask people, ‘Are these the characteristics of only children?’ People say yes. When psychologists actually do the personality tests, they don’t find that there are significant differences statistically,” Halpern-Meekin said. “An only child might be selfish and spoiled, but so might a child with siblings.”

There are certain anxieties parents have about an only child being deprived of social abilities.

“Sibling relationships can be wonderful and supportive and they can be stressful and difficult,” Halpern-Meekin said. “They can be both those things. There’s no guarantee that you’re going to have that best friend and socializing influence for your child.”

Being an only child has its challenges, but probably won’t be the thing that defines your child’s life.

“What we can tell parents is that building a rich community around your child of other families, community members of other adults and children who can have relationships with your child over the course of their life is what’s most important,” Halpern-Meekin said.

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