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All for one, The National 24.03.2009

Jo Wadham reports on the growing trend in the UK and US for single-child families and their merits and drawbacks

Much has been made of the new frugality in these tough economic times, and it seems this self-restraint may be extending to family planning. Statistics show that single-child families are on the rise in the UK and US. A drop in the birth rate often accompanies times of economic crisis, and recently, environmental activists have been advocating two or fewer children. However, many still view single-child families as an anomaly. Some see parents of only children as sensible citizens of the world, while to others they are selfishly depriving their offspring of siblings.

Some parents may be unable to add to their family due to physiological constraints, such as secondary infertility. For others, the decision to stop at one child may be the result of lengthy, rational discussion. Statistics released in January by the Liverpool Victoria Friendly Society show that it can cost up to about £193,772 (Dh970,000) to raise a child in the UK. As the cost of child-rearing increases, so does the number of families reliant on two incomes.

It is not just home finances that are affected as a family grows. There are lifestyle changes too – from being a couple with a baby, to having a life which to varying degrees revolves around the children. For many women, the decision to go from one child to two is the tipping point at which they give up their career to be a full-time mum. The idea of moving into a larger home or having to book two hotel rooms when going on holiday can also be changes some parents resist.

For Sara Macedo and her husband, the decision not to have more children was one they came to after much thought and debate. Their daughter, Peta, was born soon after they moved to the UAE and they believed that having another child would not fit in with their long-term plans. “We needed flexibility,” explains Macedo. “We knew we would not be living in the Middle East forever and we like travelling, sharing experiences with Peta.”

Many couples tend to have children later in life now, too, which can influence family size. The older a parent gets, the more physically demanding having another child can seem. Financial goals may also appear further out of reach. Macedo’s husband was in his mid-forties when they considered having another child. “To have a child was an absolute blessing,” says Macedo, “but to have another child later brings out further financial obligations. Planning for retirement goes out the window and you need to hold down a full-time job.”

But what about the effect on the child of being brought up alone? One common complaint from adults with no siblings – which features large on the several only children self-help groups on the internet – is the huge burden of responsibility they carry in respect of their parents. As an only child, not only are they the sole source of grandchildren, but they are the only source of care and sometimes financial support for their parents as they grow older.

This weight of responsibility can be felt even when children are young, as Dr Pat Spungin, the parenting skills expert and founder of the parenting website raisingkids.co.uk, explains. “An only child can feel responsible for things that are not really their responsibility. For example, things that go wrong in the home: the mother being hassled; the father being angry,” says Spungin. This can be exacerbated if the family breaks up. “Boys tend to feel responsible for their mother and will step into their father’s shoes to try to support her.”

Only children may also find life tougher within the family unit. “A single child has no allies against his parents,” says Spungin. All battles are fought alone when there are no other siblings to blaze a trail for them. Whereas in a family of more than one child, there may be a battle when the eldest first wants to go to the cinema on their own, but by the time the youngest sibling asks for the same liberty, the parents are more relaxed and likely to concede. When there is only one child “the child always has 100 per cent of their parents’ attention,” says Spungin, which can mean the parents become overprotective.

Parents of single children may worry that their child will lack the social skills which are learnt through fighting for a place in the family hierarchy, or simply from having to share parents’ time and their own toys. “We are very aware that Peta will always be a single child and guard against ‘single child syndrome’,” says Macedo. “As a result, we are probably slightly harsher on her than we would be if she were one of several children. She has to earn respect from us and her peers. We are not going to hang on her every word.” Macedo is careful to ensure Peta has plenty of play dates. “I want her to learn to share her time and space with others, including us.”

Spungin explains the “single child syndrome” Macedo is fighting against: “They [only children] don’t have the hurly-burly of life in the family and this is not how the real world will be – they won’t have 100 per cent attention from adults. In the classroom they will have to share the teacher’s attention with 29 other children.” Organising plenty of play dates is one way to try to counter this, but Spungin warns against over-organising a child’s life. “With one child it is very tempting to organise that child and try to find them something to do, but it is a good lesson for life to draw on one’s own resources rather than to look to an adult to help.”

There are of course benefits to being an only child. When finances do not have to be shared out there will be comparatively more to spend on education and extra-curricular activities. It is easier to travel and visit places of interest when there is only one child to pay for and keep an eye on. As every parent knows, giving a child sufficient time and attention can be challenging. Not having to share a parent’s time with siblings can have great benefits for an only child. Spungin agrees. “An obvious advantage to being a single child is the amount of parental attention. This can help developmentally. Often firstborn or only children are more academically successful.”

Time and money are not the only scarce resources in the world and environmental campaigners frequently push for single-child families. However, while it is clear that the world’s resources are dwindling and the population is growing, simply having fewer children may not be the right answer. In the UK and Germany, there is an ageing population which needs more workers to pay for its pensions. In developing nations with no welfare state, larger families can work the land and are an insurance policy against penury in old age, as well as a survival necessity where there are high infant mortality rates.

Yet even in developed countries where the economic incentives for larger families no longer apply, people do look askance at parents who choose to have just one child. “People used to look at me as if I was verging on the negligent, that Peta was suffering terribly,” says Macedo. “I am happy to listen to their concerns but it just wouldn’t have worked for us.” How a child copes with their solitary state a has a lot to do with parenting techniques. “Some parents will be [overprotective] whether there is one child or three,” says Spungin. The number of children can be irrelevant if the parents have a clear view on child-rearing. “Their philosophy might be that the child is part of a team rather than the centre of their world. This doesn’t differ with the number of children, but it maybe accentuated.”

Ultimately, the decision on how many children to have depends on a vast array of individual facts and circumstances: financial, emotional, and geographical. Only the parents, privy to all the information, can know the right size their family should be. As Macedo says: “It has to work both for the parents and the child.”


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