Only children: Is one the "loneliest number"?

Laraine Bennett

Photo by David Wheeler/Theory - (CC)

I was an anomaly attending Catholic elementary school in the sixties, an only child among large Catholic families.

“You must be spoiled,” was a common refrain, which I vehemently denied. But I was never quite sure. Maybe I was “spoiled,” whatever that meant! 

Time Magazine’s July 8th cover story, “The Only Child: Debunking the Myths,” refutes that particular idea. Only children certainly are showered with more parental attention and opportunities, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into becoming selfish and self-centered, as the term “spoiled” implies.

Lauren Sandler, author of the Time story, cites numerous sociological and psychological studies that put to rest the stereotype of only children as indulged, weird, and maladjusted. Instead, research shows that only children are no different, personality-wise, from children with siblings. On the upside, only children tend to do better academically and to earn more degrees.

Most of my friends were Irish Catholics from large families. My best friend, Janey, was one of nine, and I used to love spending the night at her house! I loved the constant banging of the screen door as kids and neighbors flowed in and out and the low-key, open-a-can-of-peaches style dining. My own house was quiet and formal. My friends would come over and marvel at the silence, order, and pristine butter with no flecks of toast adorning it. “Aren’t you lonely?” they would ask, wonderingly. 

But an only child doesn’t really know what she is missing.

The parents, on the other hand, seem to gain a lot, at least according to Sandler, herself an only child. She writes about her parents’ decision not to have further children. “They wanted the experience of parenting but also their careers, the freedom to travel and the lower cost and urbane excitement of making a home in an apartment rather than a suburban house.”

More things, more freedom, more of what they wanted, without the burden of kids. And, many ask: who can afford even one child, anyway, with the cost of college these days? 

Pope John Paul II acknowledged these difficulties in his "Letter to Families":

“It is true that for the parents the birth of a child means more work, new financial burdens and further inconveniences, all of which can lead to the temptation not to want another birth . . . Does this mean that a child is not a gift? That it comes into the world only to take and not to give?”

Paradoxically, both economic downturns and rich societies contribute to the overall birthrate decline in today’s society. One economics professor flippantly comments that he loves his own kids, but he also loves sports cars and ski vacations. This is why only children are the trend of a rich, some say decadent, society. 

Rich in material things, perhaps. But as Pope John Paul II tells us, the child --especially another child!-- is a gift. “The child becomes a gift to its brothers, sisters, parents and entire family.”

Do we really prefer vacations and new cars, over the gift of love and life?


Photo by David Wheeler/Theory - (CC)

Topics: Culture , Current Events , Family , Parenting

Laraine Bennett co-authored, with her husband Art, The Temperament God Gave Your Spouse and The Temperament God Gave You, published by Sophia Institute Press. Their new book, The Emotions God Gave You, is due Spring 2011. Please visit their website at http://temperaments.sophiainstitute.com/.

View all articles by Laraine Bennett

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