Commentary Magazine


The Happiest Number

One and Only:
The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One

By Lauren Sandler
Simon & Schuster, 224 pages

Just a few pages into her new book, One and Only, Lauren Sandler cites Alice Walker on the question of whether women should reproduce. “They should have children,” Walker told an interviewer, “assuming this is of interest to them—but only one….Because with one you can move…. With more than one, you’re a sitting duck.” Walker is used here to endorse Sandler’s own position, which is that having only one child allows women to have it all.

By this formulation, children are simply one part of a balancing equation for women—no more or less important than work or pleasure, friendship or romance.

In a 2008 article in the Daily Mail, Rebecca Walker, Alice’s daughter, wrote about how this view affected her upbringing: “You see, my mum taught me that children enslave women. I grew up believing that children are millstones around your neck, and the idea that motherhood can make you blissfully happy is a complete fairy tale.” Rebecca was left alone with relatives for months so her mother could travel. The girl depended on friends’ parents to help her with homework or take her shopping for clothes. “I came very low down in her priorities—after work, political integrity, self-fulfillment, friendships, spiritual life, fame, and travel.”

This list is similar to one Sandler offers: “Here are some things that I want: 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—I want to be known.” Oh, and at the end of the list, “I want to snuggle with my daughter for as long as she’ll let me.”

Sandler, an only child who herself has an only child, thinks more women should consider bearing only one child because it will allow them to have more of what they want. There are any number of reasons to have one child—emotional, financial, practical—but as Rebecca Walker’s experience demonstrates, living out the feminist dream should not be one of them.

The knock on only children is that they are less happy, less socialized, and more self-centered than their peers with siblings. The research, as Sandler presents it, simply doesn’t bear this out. First, only children (like first children) tend have higher levels of academic achievement. According to data from the General Social Survey as well as large-scale studies such as Project Talent, only children tend to have higher IQs and “find greater success in school and work.”

Most of the research Sandler cites seems sound and the scholars have good reputations, but occasionally she makes some questionable leaps. She cites a study by two British psychologists who find that mothers interact with only children twice as much as they do with youngest siblings. Then she notes that children who are spoken to more often tend to have higher IQs. Finally, she concludes that since onlies have higher IQs, it must be the result of living in a “rich verbal environment… one that is more adult and therefore more cerebral.” But there are a few problems with her assessment. First, the researchers didn’t study fathers’ interactions with children. Second, youngest children tend to hear a lot of conversation that onlies do not. Siblings talk to them (even if it’s bossing them around), and parents talk to their siblings in their presence. And the fact that onlies have higher IQs doesn’t necessarily mean that they had more words spoken to them. Maybe they simply spend more time reading.

More surprising, perhaps, Sandler finds that onlies are doing fine socially. According to John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, only children mimic the mature behavior of their parents rather than the bickering of their peers: “You know you can’t exploit other kids, you know you have to attend to other people, and you tend to take greater responsibility in those relationships.”

Sandler spends some time in China trying to learn about the results of the one-child policy and concludes that these millions of only children are not all spoiled brats. Many of them, she reports, would decide, independently of the government policy, that they should have only one child for economic reasons. What is missing here, though, is any sense of what it means to live in a society without extended families. No aunts, no uncles, no cousins. Surely that has some effect on social ties and civic life. Sandler doesn’t think to ask.

As for the benefits siblings provide, Sandler suggests they’re overblown. For instance, she writes that while many parents believe their children learn how to share from having younger siblings, this “pro-social behavior,” as child psychologists call it, actually begins in all children around age two, regardless of whether they have siblings. But because of how siblings are spaced, we tend to attribute it to the addition of a younger brother or sister to the family.

Sandler makes a powerful case that the negative attitude so many people have toward only children is based in fallacy and falsehood. But whether women should consider having only one child in order to participate in their own “actualization” (Sandler’s word) is another question.

Sandler is aware that there is a problem with this notion. She labors mightily to make the case that being an only child is actually better for the only child than being one of a few or several. Seeing to it that her daughter has a higher IQ, for example, should lead her only child to greater satisfaction in life. “If Dahlia is likely to have an easier time with her vocabulary quizzes and term papers and performance reviews,” she writes, “I can’t help but think it might aid in her happiness.” If there is a correlation between IQ and happiness, however, no one has ever found it, and no one ever will.

The problem, as Sandler sees it, is that women cannot have it all in the United States without limiting the number of children they have, largely because the U.S. government doesn’t provide free quality day care. It doesn’t mandate enough maternity and paternity leave. Alas, our society is built on backward patriarchal principles to suit religious zealots like the Duggars of reality TV’s 19 Kids and Counting fame. “When it comes to supporting families,” she writes, “Europe’s institutional infrastructure makes our family-values governed one look like it was developed in the legislative quarters of a developing country.” Sandler points excitedly to Germany, which is simultaneously debating austerity measures for the whole country and a bill to offer an additional 190 euros per month to families that want in-home child care!

But this is illogical in the long term. Sandler doesn’t bother to explain how we’ll be able to pay for this larger welfare state if we have fewer children. All she does is suggest we “reject the binary” of “mother versus wage earner” and “capitalism versus socialism.” That’s nice for her, but math is math, and fewer taxpayers means fewer tax dollars.

Then, of course, there is the monstrous effect of all those children (aka carbon-emitters) on the environment. “The more children we have, the more we speed up the earth’s destruction; the more time we spend parenting to the exclusion of all else, the more we close ourselves off to that reality.” As if having children isn’t bad enough, they’re taking our attention away from the impending environmental apocalypse. Thus, an argument that only children should not be stereotyped morphs into an argument that parents of more than one are destroying the earth.

While Sandler’s roundup of the studies on only children does provide a useful challenge to some of our commonly held stereotypes, her poor grasp of science, public policy, and the basic math of demographic decline is suggestive of the book’s larger failure. One and Only really is, in the end, more an exercise in self-justification than a production of the “meaningful work” Sandler longs for.

About the Author

Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author, most recently, of ’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America (Oxford).




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