Posted: Apr 04, 2014 8:00 AM
Debunking the myth that only children are selfish, maladjusted “little emperors,” a prominent journalist makes a funny, tough-minded and honest case for being and having an only child.
Photo credit: Fotosearch/Getty Images

Lonely. Selfish. Maladjusted. These are the words that Toni Falbo, the leading researcher in the field of only child studies, uses to explain our society's image of — and anxiety about — only children. Cutting-edge journalist Lauren Sandler set out to debunk these myths and more with her quick-witted and deep-delving book One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One. We spoke with Sandler about her work, her book, the research and the criticisms and her response to both.

The war

Investigative reporter, travel and culinary writer and regularly featured commentator on gender issues and religion, Sandler was already used to asking — and answering — hard questions. But when she first became pregnant, she quickly realized that the war that needed dissecting was closer to home than she thought. Sandler says, "It didn't take me long to realize that family — especially motherhood and in particular our fertility choices — is exactly the stuff of all that hard matter. Just as women felt called to write about the battleground of sex and its politics and its pleasures in the '60s, so I feel that today's war is fought on the field of family."

Bad science

One and Only book coverPeople ask women when they're going to have children not if, and then when they're going to have more children, again, not if. This line of questioning is dependent on the (mal)assumptions that only children happen by accident of circumstance or personality failure rather than personal choice. Sandler says this is based on bad science. She explains, "Bad scientific reasoning about onlies tends to occur outside the data sets" meaning that research shows that onlies' personality traits are just like those of kids with siblings, but people choose to believe — and replay — the old tapes Falbo talks about.

Sandler says that of all the studies she read and the myths they disproved, the most shocking is the crux of this entire project. She explains, "I couldn't get over the surprise of people continually countering the extensive research that says that only children are fine — hundreds of studies all said the same thing. But the massive bias that people held onto blew my mind. This truth somehow hasn't made it into our bloodstream."

Birth order guru and scientific historian Frank Sulloway told Sandler that Darwin may be the cause of these problems. Yes, that Darwin. Sandler says that our relatives had an evolutionary need to spread their own genes. "The more children a family had — once they were of able working age, by 10 years old — [became] more people [that] could help turn surviving into thriving. Children were life insurance. Infant mortality was high, life expectancies were short. The lesson was clear: parent or perish. That lesson was deeply encoded, and apparently it takes a great deal to decode it. Much more than 500-odd studies which few people even know about." Sulloway says that the solution to maintaining the old messaging was to create this one: Have just one and it'll come out rotten.

Tell me a {rotten} story

And this is, indeed, the belief system that people hold onto about only children. In the book, Sandler debunks these myths and then changes the conversation by asking her own questions. Sandler says, "If parents no longer felt they had to have second children to keep from royally screwing up their first, would the majority of them still do it? What if, for those who didn't feel otherwise compelled to have more kids, they decided instead to opt for greater pleasure and autonomy, for other opportunities for personal advancement and self-fulfillment? If the literature tells us — in hundreds of studies, over decades of research — that my kid isn't better off with a sibling, and it's not something I can truly say I want for myself, then who is this choice serving?"

If parents no longer felt they had to have second children to keep from royally screwing up their first, would the majority of them still do it?

Sandler points the metaphorical finger at our culture and the way many of us mindlessly follow its rules. She calls on parents to make this (literally) life-changing decision a purely independent one saying that doing this might feel different than the overwhelming, all-encompassing feeling that people often describe becoming a parent as. She says, "It might even feel like something people rarely associate with parenting: It might feel like freedom."


Most readers have responded to Sandler's work with interest and curiosity, which is what she was going for. But some have maintained that One and Only is a call for having only children, claiming it as the better family size choice. Sandler addresses this criticism by distilling the book down to one word: freedom. She says, "One and Only is a book about the freedom to make the number-of-children choice based on good information. You'll still have to grapple with the hard question — but you'll do so on your own terms."

Incidentally, Sandler shared that this is exactly the spot she's in right now saying, "My daughter is 6 and our years of cuddly, delicious discovery will soon be over and we both yearn for it. I'm wrestling with these choices for my own selfish reasons." But the rub is that the choice is all hers; she doesn't feel the call of culture to have another child for the sake of the ever-elusive "normal" family or "for" her daughter. This shift in thinking makes the family size decision just that: an informed choice.

One and Only author: Lauren Sandler

One and only

Sandler's book is a well-crafted, quick read that's meant to open minds and dialogue and bring the decision of family planning closer to home. Learn more about Lauren Sandler and One and Only by visiting Sandler's website, following her on Facebook and Twitter and, of course, buying the book.

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Photo credits: Lauren Sandler