By Erin Wisdom
St. Joseph News-Press, Mo.
Lonely. Selfish. Socially stunted. The stereotypes attached to being an only child aren't flattering.
And neither are the assumptions sometimes made about parents who choose to have only one child. Lauren Sandler, the author of the forthcoming book "One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One," describes these attitudes in a column published this month by The New York Times: "The notion that an only child might be a happy one contradicts strong cultural beliefs," writes Mrs. Sandler, who is herself an only child and has a daughter who also is one. "... And negative assumptions about parents who deprive their child of siblings strengthen the general opprobrium against only children. ... When have you heard someone say an only child is better off?"
She goes on to describe data indicating that the negative stereotypes aren't true for many only children. Hundreds of studies have found that in terms of character traits including leadership, maturity, extroversion, social participation, popularity, generosity, cooperativeness, flexibility, emotional stability and contentment, only children score just as well as children with siblings.
Studies also have shown some ways in which only children often are better off. They tend to have stronger primary relationships with themselves -- which actually protects against loneliness -- as well as stronger self-esteem and demonstrably higher intelligence and achievement. Researchers believe the latter two come as a result of parents not having to divide time, money and attention among multiple children.
That advantage is one reason Kristina Hannon and her husband, Andrae, have opted to have only one child.
"We see having one as positive," says Mrs. Hannon, who is the vice-president of behavioral health at Family Guidance Center in St. Joseph. "We get to devote more time to him, one on one. He has free reign to express himself ... (and) more resources to explore his interests."
Dee Anna Kelley sees similar perks to having only one child, 5-year-old Molly, with her husband, Shawn.
"There's just one to worry about, so you just get to put your whole self into her and give her everything you've got," says Mrs. Kelley, who is a counselor with the St. Joseph School District and grew up somewhat as an only child herself, with her only sibling being a half-brother who didn't live with her all the time.
Neither mother expresses any sentiment that having only one child leaves something lacking in her own life, and this contentedness supports Mrs. Sandler's findings. In an excerpt from her book that was published this month by Slate, she cites one study that found happiness within marriages decreases with each child after the first and another study that found, similarly, that the first child spikes personal happiness for a parent, while every subsequent child lowers it.
"In fact," she writes, "social scientists have surmised since the 1970s that singletons offer the rich experience of parenting without the consuming efforts that multiple children add."
Parents aren't the only ones who recognize the benefits that come from -- and to -- only children. Ruthie Pistole of St. Joseph is an only child whose early years fell during the Great Depression, when it was advantageous for her parents to not have to divide already scarce resources among multiple children.
In addition, "I had both of my parents' undivided attention a lot of the time," she adds. She notes downsides, too, to being an only child -- including that she had to make all of her parents' end-of-life decisions by herself. Dr. Scott Killgore, the pastor of Wyatt Park Christian Church in St. Joseph, also mentions this as a disadvantage to being an only child. But he points out that this disadvantage can be an advantage, as well, in that only children are exempt from having to negotiate those decisions with disagreeable siblings.
He also notes other ways that being an only child have influenced him, for better or for worse. But at least in some ways, it is for better.
"I had to learn to entertain myself. That's helpful," he says. "Even now at age 58, I have no problem keeping myself occupied."
Erin Wisdom can be reached at email@example.com.
Follow her on Twitter: @SJNPWisdom.
___(c)2013 St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.)