Does My Child Need A Sibling?

by Susan Newman, Ph.D

For the past 75 years of tracking people’s preferences, the perfect family has always been two children—as expressed in the lyrics from the 1950s song, “Tea for Two:”

“We will raise a family

A boy for you, a girl for me

Oh, can't you see how happy we would be”

In 1936 the Gallup poll started asking the question: What do you think is the ideal family size? The response has been consistent: two children. However, what people say they want and what they do today is quite different. To the surprise of almost everyone, the single-child family is growing faster than other family groupings.

But that doesn’t stop people from telling you that you have to have another child. In an effort to persuade you that their way is right, you may hear comments similar to these: “Every child needs a sibling.” “You can’t do THAT to your child!” “How can you be so selfish?” “You need more than one to take care of you…”

Why the Trend toward One-Child Families

For some women, such prodding brings up feeling of shame and guilt. Yet, you may have good reasons for wanting one child, reasons shared by increasing numbers of parents: You married or partnered later and started your family later. Those who wait until they are older often face infertility or secondary infertility. Age limits for parents can be a significant impediment to adopting a second child, too. And, adoption costs and infertility treatments are steep, beyond the reach of many.

You could have job security and or advancement issues and worry about taking a second maternity leave. The cost of raising children is also a key factor when weighing the prospect of adding to your family.

Although no one likes to put a price tag on children, raising them is expensive. There are those who say, “If you want more children, have them. The money will come.” In this economy, most people are cautious. According to the Department of Agriculture, families with an average income between roughly $57,000 and $98,000 will spend a little over $286,000 (up more than $50,000 since 2008) to rear one child from birth through age seventeen—college not included. About $46,000 of that is for food! And, the more you earn, the more child-rearing costs.

Debunking the Only-Child Myths

Realities aside, you may be bothered by the antiquated stereotypes surrounding the only child: lonely and spoiled. Most myths about only children have been studied and disproven repeatedly. For example, large studies in the US and China concluded that only children have as many friends as their peers with siblings. From early ages, children connect online with relatives, and by the time they are school age, they know how to connect electronically. Technology is the preferred method of communication in grade, middle, and high school. For only children, friends are a mere instant message, call, or click away. Even if your only child were to have a younger sibling, it is a good bet that he would spend much of his time engaged in some sort of “conversation” with his friends, not with a brother or sister.

Spoiled? Look around. In our culture of yes-parenting and parents not wanting to see their offspring unhappy for a single second, so many children are spoiled whether or not they have siblings. Selfish? Look around again and you will find selfish children among brothers and sisters.

We have been brainwashed into believing that siblings are socially or intellectually advantageous—or both.  As a means of insuring positive development and happiness, they are not mandatory. Every child is exposed to an endless array of experiences that will affect his temperament and functioning as a grownup. Having or lacking a sibling is just one piece of the thousands of pieces that contribute to and shape a child’s development…and his or her joy or misery during his formative years. It is parenting more than having siblings that influences how an only child—or any child for that matter—turns out.

New Definitions of Family

The era of getting married and having the requisite two children is long gone. Family has new definitions that include single parents, gay and lesbian parents, multi-racial parents, and, of course, one child. The decline in marriage, the number of single women having babies, women in the workforce, the difficulties and expense of adoption and infertility technology, all point to more one-child families.  

Like China, England is already referred to as a one-child nation—over 45 percent of families have one child. Many other countries—Japan, Portugal, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, for instance, have extremely low birth rates—30 percent of families in some of these countries have one child. The United States has been copying European trends in many areas…and being a one-child family is another way we are doing so.

If you are “on the fence” about having more children and buying into the notion that it may be selfish to have one child, consider this comment from the parent of a singleton: “[to have one child] is “seen as selfish, because children are the ultimate sacrifice. Those of us who attempt to make the best of all aspects of our worlds are often seen as greedy because we want it all. I WANT and love my child more than anything, but I also WANT a career and I really WANT a happy marriage. Adding another child to our lives would directly affect two of the three things that have the greatest impact on my happiness quotient.”

Where do you draw the line between being selfish and having a life that allows you to be a content, happy person or parent? Given the many pressures on parents today, more and more feel that they can be better parents to one. For them, one child is the desired, happy choice and fast becoming The New Traditional Family.

About The Author: 
Susan Newman, Ph.D., social psychologist, blogs for Psychology Today Magazine and is the author of The Case for the Only Child (HCI),Under One Roof Again: All Grown Up and (Re)learning to Live Together Happily (Lyons Press), The Book of NO: 250 Ways to Say It--and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever (McGraw-Hill), Parenting an Only Child, The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only(Broadway/Doubleday),and Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day (Random House/Crown), among others. See: and Follow me on Twitter