For the penultimate episode of a six-part series on solitude, Peter McGraw speaks to Susan Newman, an expert who has written the book about being an only child. They are joined by Julie Nirvelli, a regular contributor to Solo who happens to be an only child and the mom of an only child. They discuss the reasons behind the rise of only children as a common family structure, the stereotypes and myths of only children, and the benefits of being an only child.
Listen to Episode #82 here:
The Only Child
As part of my series on solitude, I speak to Susan Newman, an expert who has written two books about being an only child. We are joined by Julie Nirvelli, a regular contributor to SOLO who happens to be an only child and the mother of an only child. We discuss the reasons behind the rise of the only child as a family structure, the stereotype and myths of only children, much of which are incorrect, and the benefits of only children for themselves, their parents and perhaps even society. I even discovered a new concept, the only child dynasty, in which an only child has an only child who may have an only child and so on. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Our guest is Susan Newman. Susan is a social psychologist specializing in parenting and family dynamics. She’s the author of fifteen books, including two about only children, The Case for Only Child: Your Essential Guide and Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only. She published The Book of No: 365 Ways to Say it and Mean it and Stop People-Pleasing Forever, which makes me happy because she is on this show. She did not say no, thankfully. She’s a longtime contributor to Psychology Today and has appeared on many shows including the Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS Sunday Morning, and leading news broadcasts. Also, in print discussing family relationships and trends. Susan is researching the changed attitudes about an altered landscape in one-child families. Welcome, Susan.
It’s good to be here.
I feel lucky to have you here. We are joined by a returned co-host, Julie Nirvelli. Julie was born and raised in San Jose, California and earned her college degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. She’s lived in Colorado for over sixteen years as a strong, independent, fun and loving person. Julie embraces the solo life. You know this because you’ve heard her in previous episodes such as Making Remarkable Friends. She is also an only child and the mother of an only child, which makes her especially valuable for this episode as I am neither. Welcome back, Julie.
Thank you. It’s always great to be here. Nice to meet you, Susan. I’m looking forward to our chat.
This episode is part of a six-part series on solitude and its costs and benefits. There’s been a lot of myth-busting that has gone on about solitude. People don’t think much about it. When they think about it, they think about the negative things and yet there are a host of positive elements to solitude. Some of those benefits are obvious in hindsight and others are lesser. You probably know them by now if you’ve been reading. I thought of this topic of only children being one and/or having one. I suspect there’s going to be a lot of myth-busting here, right, Susan?
How did you get here? How did you become an expert on this topic? What was the path?
The path started with marrying a divorced man who had full custody of his four children. I went, “This is a lot of laundries.” It got me interested in the parenting field. We got divorced and I had one child. Everybody said, “You can’t do that to your child. That child needs a sibling. It’s not fair. You are being selfish.” My son is an adult so we’re talking about ancient history. That’s how I started exploring the topic and wondering, “This is crazy. It can’t be that only children wind up defective. It doesn’t happen.” That’s how I got to where I am.
Let’s talk about this topic right out of the gates because I have it on my list already. I don’t know if asymmetry is the right way to say this, but I find it fascinating how comfortable people are at telling single people or parents about how you should behave in certain ways.
First off, everybody is judgmental. The other thing is they’re happy to tell you how to live your life and the other point is that they don’t know what’s going on in your house, but they think what they’re doing is the ideal and the number of children they have is the perfect number. I don’t think you can stop that. That goes on with whether you breastfeed your children or you don’t breastfeed your children, what you feed your children and how you let them play outside alone. People judge virtually everything. The number of children is a great starting off point for people who have 2 or 4 children and want you to be as miserable as they are.
Julie, have you had people weigh in on you on your one child decision?
I haven’t. One thing that I could contribute here that’s interesting is a family member had been married and she had a child. She and her husband were trying to decide if they wanted to have a second child. They interviewed me about being an only child and they were trying to make this decision, “What if it’s an only child? It would be lonely.” They have two children. They went for it. It was on their mind in terms of, “Should we have another child or should we not?” They wanted the only child perspective on that.
Susan, I agree with you that people are judgmental. I am, I know. We all are. There’s a difference between being judgmental and feeling free to share your judgments and prescribe your judgments to others. I agree, we can’t stop that. What we can do is figure out how to respond to it. This has come up with the backhanded, “Susan, you’re great. Why are you single?” People feel comfortable doing that. The SOLO readers have a good response to that, which is simply with a question, “Why do you say that?” What is the right response if someone says, “You can’t have one kid. You got to have at least two.”
You can be quite flip about it and say, “I don’t ask you about your personal life. Why are you asking me?” You can say, “We’re thinking about it.” Be quite frank, “We don’t want another child. We can’t afford another child. My career is important to me. I feel like I can do both. I can be a mom or dad and I can do my job. I can succeed. I don’t feel as if I can do that with 2 or 3 children.”
Some of this stuff naturally puts you on the defensive and a little bit off-balance. No one says, “Julie, when are you going to stop having children?” That is not okay to say.
I’m in the middle of a new research study and I’m finding that the questions and the judgment only come from great-grandmothers. Younger people are not feeling the pressure to have more children than in previous generations. That makes it much easier for parents who want one or can only have one. There’s a whole dynamic around infertility that’s limiting family size. Women are starting to have their babies later and for many women, it’s more difficult. There’s the expense of fertility treatment. All those reasons factor in and take the pressure off people who are considering one child or have one child. It reduces the judgment factor to a large extent.
What are the percentages of one-child families? This is a number that’s going up. You’ve identified some of the reasons. Are there other reasons?
It’s going up dramatically. The statistics always shocks me. In Seattle, 47% of families are one-child families. That’s a huge number. In major cities like Los Angeles and New York, the number is hovering close to 30%. It isn’t just in major cities. It’s a lot of other places where people are deciding that one is comfortable. They don’t need a bigger house and more space. They like how portable one child is. Frankly, for the moment, you can say, “We’re taking a road trip.” You can put the kid in the car. It’s much harder if you have more children because somebody has a Little League practice and the other one has a dance recital. It’s easier to have one child and avoid the struggles of scheduling.
I see this trend. I can look at my life. As an adult, I rarely meet other only children adults. Most of my friends have siblings. My daughter’s friends, most of them are only children. You can see between my generation and hers that it’s a huge difference.
I was talking to a woman from the South who had an only child and she said, “I live in the South. Everybody has a big family. I don’t know any only children and parents of only children.” The next day, I got an email and she said, “I started thinking about it. There are four of them right on my street, families with one child.” That points to another issue that it’s hard to tell who’s an only child. She didn’t even know or didn’t realize how many only children were right in her neighborhood because only children are blending in. They are much like and almost identical to children with siblings.
What I hear you saying is some reasons are later marriages and women getting pregnant later. You run up against a time limit there, especially with some challenges around fertility. There are some utilitarian elements of having a smaller family is less expensive. It’s easier and more convenient to be a parent to one rather than more than one. Are there some other reasons in either of your experience or your research, Susan, that would lead people to make this choice?
In terms of later, people are going back to school for more education. That’s delaying starting a family. Student debt is a huge factor in the cost of raising children which is around $233,000 to get your child through high school. That doesn’t count college. That becomes a factor. On the job front, there is a penalty for motherhood. Women are paid less in general. When you take time off to have a baby, and then you want to take time off again and take another maternity leave, that factors into your career path. That’s an issue. I talked about needing a bigger house. Those are the main reasons why we’re seeing this trend in one-child families which is the fastest growing family unit.
Are only children more likely to have only children like Julie? Have you found that in your research?
I didn’t find that in previous studies. In this new study, which is over ten years since the last study, I have found what I call only child dynasties. Like Julie, somebody is an only child and is having an only child. There are a couple of families but one in particular shocked me. The grandfather is an only child, the mother is an only child, the father is an only child, their son is an only child, and he has an only child. That’s a big dynasty. Julie, your dynasty is so small.
Neither of my parents is only children.
I was quite surprised in this study on how many men and women out there are like Julie who are only children and they decided to have an only child.
I’m heavily involved in this new social media app called Clubhouse. I have these SOLO clubs on Clubhouse. When I was interested in this topic, I opened a room one day called Only Children or Are You An Only Child to have a conversation with only children. I’m curious what Julie’s reaction to this was. One of the fascinating things was how much the only children in the room liked being an only child. These are adults. These are not four-year-olds. They talked about their time as only children fondly, how much they liked their parents, and how much their parents were supportive of them. I thought that was interesting because the stereotype is the child who’s like, “I need a sibling. I want a baby brother. I want a baby sister.” They have missed out on all these things about not having siblings in some way. Julie, I’m curious if you had been in that room, would you have thought and said the same things?
I would have. I have a close relationship with my parents who are both divorced and remarried. I have four parents and I have a close relationship with all of them. What’s interesting is of the four parents, I’m the only child. Their spouses never had children either. I do see people who have close relationships with their siblings like you, Pete and your sister are close. I also see people who have headache relationships with their siblings. I can choose my friends and not have to be forced into a sibling situation. Being an only child has afforded me a lot of cool opportunities as well with my parents. I’ve been to Europe 6 or 7 times with one set of parents or the other. If there were multiples, that may have been less affordable.
Two things come to mind. I have a friend who has four kids and he said, “I used to buy seats on a plane. Now I buy rows.” That highlights the expense there. I adore my sister and we’re close but that hasn’t always been the case. When we were teens, it was terrible. It wasn’t disliked. It was hate at times. It was a chaotic and difficult household. We did not become close until we both were in our twenties. As much as I adore her now, I can’t say that I felt that way. I was protective in ways as a brother might be but I didn’t like her and she didn’t like me, and that idea of sibling rivalry and so on. Sometimes, we look back and put a nice bit of paint over those relationships that weren’t there before. Susan, what’s your reaction as you hear this?
It’s quite startling how many sibling relationships are not good and even into adulthood. My brother and I got along famously the second he left for college. He walked out the door and from then on, we were great friends. Before that, it was much like your relationship with your sister, Peter. We did not get along at all. The idea that you’re having a second child so you can give your child a sibling, that’s a horrible reason to have a child. You have a second child because you want a second child. I had a 100-year-old grandmother who used to say everything was a crapshoot. This is a crapshoot. No matter how many kids you have. If you’re having more than one, are they going to get along? Are they going to like each other? Is every single minute going to be a tug of war? I used to tell my four step-kids if they were fighting, they could fight all they wanted but they had to go outside. When you live in the northeast and you have to go outside in the winter, it’s not that level of the playing field.
I grew up in Jersey, I know. Julie, in psychology and statistics, there’s this concept called interactions. When you have two variables, they’re their relationships are clear. One might influence the other. When you start adding more and more variables to this, you get an exponential chance of what we call interaction. The idea is two parents and a child. There are three ways that they interact. If you add another one, now you have many more. What happens is you add 1, 2 or 3 more children and then the chance of something going awry goes way up. When you put all three kids together, it becomes even more of something. It could be more of something good but it can also be more of something bad.
It seems like with dogs, maybe it makes more sense to have another one.
That might be right.
Dogs are a great idea for only children.
It teaches the child responsibility. You have to feed the dog and walk the dog. It adds another dynamic to the household while you’re eating dinner and the dog is trying to climb up on your lap. It helps a child be empathetic and caring, ideally and usually. It doesn’t have to be a dog. It could be a rabbit or a cat. I happen to love dogs so I’m choosing a dog. It does make a difference and it adds to the family if you’re feeling you need more diversion in your household, which I don’t think many people need now. Pets are a great idea for only-child families.
That also teaches patience, having to care for a pet. When you may fly off the handle at a sibling and yell, scream and throw things. With a pet, the kids are more likely to figure out how to get the pet to do what they want or need more calmly. We don’t have a pet at home but she rides horses. She has that opportunity to work with another being and has to be patient, keep her cool and things like that.
Especially for SOLOs, we’re finding pet ownership more these days. The thing about animals is they love machines, particularly dogs. They are much more reliable and cooperative than humans, especially if you’re the one feeding them.
Pets are not key but they’re a great addition. The key thing is their friendships. As a parent, you want to build a strong sibling substitute like friendship for your child. Many parents with one child make their house central. All the kids come over there. Don’t be jealous when your child wants to go and stay over at Jeremy’s house and Jeremy doesn’t want to stay at your house. You feel like your child is always out. That’s a plus for the child.
People talk about only children not developing social skills, when in fact, they’re out in Jamboree, parent-baby groups, preschool, nursery school, and then they start school in the elementary school age. In those 6 or 7 hours, they are getting more than enough socialization and learning to share, take turns, and care for other people. A kindergarten teacher once told me that when she asked a question, “Who wanted to go to the front of the line. Who is the leader?” Everybody’s hands are pushing and shoving, but not the children who are only children. That is because only children at home always get their turn. Kids with siblings don’t get their turn. They have to fight to be first. They have to fight to sit in the front seat of the car. They have to fight to get the last piece of cake. Only children know because of always having their turn that their turn will come so they don’t have to shout louder and push harder to be at the front of the line.
I want to get into some more of these stereotypes and you myth-busting them. Julie, with an only child, is there anything special that you’ve done along the lines of what Susan is saying? There’s suddenly this thing called playdates that didn’t exist when I was a kid. What’s going on?
I do focus on that, especially with her. She would tell you that she’s more comfortable around adults than kids. She’s a teenager so the friend thing is a little bit of a challenge. With the farm we go to, there’s a group called Pony Club. There are girls in that and I try to get her with them as much as possible. I let her get a phone earlier than I had planned through the pandemic. My main reason was so she could have a connection with those girls when she wasn’t able to see them. That is something that I focus on for her especially.
I know Julie’s daughter. She’s incredibly bright and comfortable with adults in a way that makes it fun to interact with her. I always find that when you have kids who play well with adults, how much more enjoyable they are because you can tease them and make jokes. That’s what I do. My friend’s kids tend to like me because I don’t treat them like kids. Suddenly, they’re like, “This is different. This is fun.” I’m not surprised to hear that. We’re painting this picture that might go against people’s intuition, these only children who are socialized who looked back on being only children fondly. They don’t feel like they missed out on life, this idea of having close connections with their parents. Susan, what are the stereotypes? Why is it that the world tells you, “Don’t have one. You got to have at least two.” What’s going on there?
It’s like stereotypes about ethnic groups. The idea that you have 2 or 3 children is baked into our culture. It will take a long time for us that baking. It’s a standard. Although when you look at Pew Research, the ideal number of children keeps dropping. It was always 3, 4 or more. Even when it was 3 or 4, a lot of them were still having one child. Now the ideal is 0, 1 or 2. The image in the culture is changing. That’s good. We like that.
I’m in the zero category to go on record. Pew Center, know that I’m the zero guy.
Talking about the stereotypes, Susan, the one I get the most when you meet an adult is like, “Do you have any siblings?” “No, I’m an only child.” They’re already making all these assumptions and stereotypes about me as an only child that I’m selfish.
People think that only children are selfish.
Selfish, bossy, aggressive and lonely. The lonely one is huge. Alone time is fabulous because that is the nub of creativity and you get your best ideas when you’re by yourself. I get great ideas in the shower. That’s where my ideas come from. A friend of mine was telling me that when her daughter was young, she had a big closet and a dollhouse. Her daughter and only child would go in there and play for hours. You could hear her talking to her Barbie dolls and playing with her blocks. Her mother, who was one of seven, felt guilty. She would go and knock on the dollhouse door. This kid at age 3, 4 or 5 would wave her mother away and pull the door shut and she’s like, “Leave me alone.” The guilt factor that parents with one child have is misplaced. In a lot of instances, children do not need siblings to be mature, empathetic, happy and content people. They do quite fine by themselves.
Those parents who have the guilt must have siblings. As an only child, I have no guilt about my daughter being an only child. I think that that’s the way to go.
The dollhouse mother had seven siblings. Her guilt level was high. The idea that only children are bossy and aggressive, think about it. If you’re an only child and you want friends, the sure way to push friends away is to be bossy and aggressive. You’re going to back off because you want to be in that group. That wipes out the bossy and aggressive stereotype.
Let’s talk about loneliness for a moment because this is part of a series on solitude. Julie, I don’t even know if you know about this concept. I didn’t know about this concept. There’s a counterweight to loneliness and that’s called aloneliness. It’s also a problem. Being lonely that is wanting to have social connections, romantic connections and being unable to have them. Having them that is satisfying is deeply troubling and an issue. There’s a counterweight to that and that is aloneliness, which is you don’t have enough time alone. That’s stressful. It can also be a problem with regard to development. It can certainly be a problem with what Susan was talking about with regard to creativity, self-reflection, and a chance to restore and renew.
For example, being alone helps people regulate their emotions. We’ve all been in fights where we go, “I just need to be alone right now.” It tends to decrease, especially negative emotions that are there. Only children have the benefits of solitude in that way and are less likely to have this aloneness problem. Our childhood home was a townhome and maybe it was 1,400 square feet. There were times where I had to lock myself away in my bedroom to not have conflict and so on. Julie, did you have any particular go-to things that you did as an only child along the lines of the dollhouse story that Susan told?
I remember listening to music was a big thing for me. I was a tomboy. I was always outside riding bikes and playing with the neighbors. I’m a social person and always have been. You like your alone time more than I do.
I have found myself leaning to alone time much more as an adult, in part because of what you were talking about, Susan, the creative work.
The creator of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda is not an only child but he said, “Being alone is the font of creativity.” Steven Jobs, who you would think would want us all connected and constantly in touch with each other said, “There’s nothing like boredom to get you going and thinking creatively. I invented all the stuff that keeps us connected but boredom is a good thing.” Boredom/alone time helps develop ideas and rejuvenate. I’m agreeing with you, Peter. We all need time to rest and rejuvenate. We can’t keep going on a treadmill. Being alone is super valuable.
When my daughter says she’s bored, I say, “Good. That means you’re about to discover something new.”
I’m reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. In it, she makes this case for why women throughout history haven’t contributed especially in writing and the arts. For lots of history, it was impossible for a woman to have her own money to be able to support herself, and then also to have solitude. She was made to work in the house and hence the title of the essay, A Room of One’s Own. Virginia Woolf famously said that women need that, artistic women in particular. I want to push back on this notion of selfishness and I want to find out more from Susan.
I have a previous episode on Solo Caregiving. One of the things that emerge from the research is that single children, children of parents who are single, carry the lion’s share of the caregiving of their parents as compared to their siblings who have families. The dynamic is the sibling who has a husband or a wife and kids says, “I can’t do it. I’m tapped out. I don’t have the money, time and energy.” The single sibling steps up to do that. In the case of only children, they’re the only ones who the parent could potentially look to in order to help. My suspicion is those children step up. They’re the opposite of selfish in those cases.
They step up because they feel as if, “My parents have given me every advantage. My parents have helped me. I owe them that.” They want to do it. The idea that siblings step in and share the responsibility equally doesn’t happen. For only children, you think, “They’re doing it alone.” They’re not because they have friends. Those siblings, like substitutes we talked about earlier, have stayed with them their whole lives. Only children are quite loyal. They have friends. They have a spouse. They have aunts and uncles.
What I’ve noticed when I asked the question to parents, “Do you worry about who’s going to take care of you?” When I asked the only child, “How do you feel about what’s going to happen when your parents are ill or aging?” Parents have become much savvier in this department. What they’re doing is they’re preplanning. They’re setting money aside if they can for their caregiving. They’re deciding where they want to be and what they want help with. Somebody steps up and helps the only child. The notion that they are going to wind up doing this by themselves usually doesn’t fly. In all cases, will that happen? Absolutely not.
In most cases, there are friends and other families who will come and bail you out. The only children want to do this. Do they worry about it? They worry about it. That’s a central worry. It’s like, “Will my child be lonely? Does my child need a sibling?” One of the key questions is who’s going to assume this caregiving role? A lot of people feel that caregiving split siblings apart. In many families, they’re fighting over lampshades, silverware and money. Somebody said, “I’m glad I don’t have to do that.” When a sibling doesn’t step up, the disappointment level is huge. You feel horrible, “How can my brother not help me?” Caring for your parents or having your adult-only child care for you isn’t as huge an issue as people think it is.
If your retirement aging plan is to have children who are going to take care of you, that’s a bad decision in general. It’s a crapshoot.
Even your only child, you can’t depend on somebody coming to take care of you. It’s much more likely that an only child will be there and siblings won’t be fighting at the end of your bed. The fantasy that parents have is, “My children are going to rally around my bedside.” It doesn’t happen.
Especially if you’ve been a shitty parent, that makes it even less likely to be the case. The alternative is you take all that money you save on that 2nd or 3rd child or even the 1st and you put it into a mutual fund and then squirrel it away have a high-end nursing home. That’s my plan, at least. Julie, what are your reactions as you hear these stereotypes, bossy, aggressive, lonely, only children in your own experience?
I don’t buy into those at all. The bossy one when we were talking about it, siblings would seem like they would need to be more bossy and aggressive to get their way whereas only children don’t. I consider myself a giving and non-selfish person. Those don’t resonate with me. I don’t know that many adult-only children. Susan has the data. I have limited experience. Through this discussion, we’ve been highlighting why only children would not be those things.
In terms of the stereotypes across the board, putting them as a group, when you talk to adult only-children now and they’re in their 30s and 40s at this point, they will say, “I knew they were out there but I missed them. I thought they were silly. They didn’t apply to me. No one ever told me I was bossy or aggressive.” It’s a generational thing. This newer generation from age 50 and down of only children don’t feel stigmatized. They don’t feel labeled. They feel the myths don’t hold up. They’re quite antiquated.
It doesn’t wash with today’s only children or their parents. Parents who are aware of them and older go out of their way not to raise that only child that people think we know, which doesn’t exist. This happened with my son but it’s not just him. It’s not anecdotal of one. People are surprised when they learn that Julie is an only child. It’s not as if only children are walking around with tattoos stuck to their forehead that say, “Only one. It’s just me.” They are well integrated by their parents into society to be exactly like children who have siblings. This is heavy-duty research. They have as many friends as kids who have siblings.
In one instance, the pandemic, everybody was worried about the only children being lonely. It turns out, somebody told me, “We prepared our whole lives as only children for this.” They’re used to being alone. They know how to use their downtime. In today’s world, kids are connected. They have iPads, computers and cell phones. The idea that you will have a lonely only child is highly unlikely. If you watch a group of preteens or teens in person, they don’t talk to each other. They sit and clicking on their devices. I look at that and I go, “Wait a minute.” I had a niece visiting and she never put her cell phone down. Since I wasn’t her parent, I didn’t want to say, “No cell phones at the table.” Normally, if it were my child, I would. They’re connected that it’s no longer a factor to weigh into the how-many-children should I-have equation.
I was thinking about the only child and the solo lifestyle. I’m wondering if there’s any correlation there. I did a little research about only children and the positives were ambitious, well-adjusted, independent, strong character and intellect. I wonder if that independence and strong character create more of a solo lifestyle angle because you’re not as dependent on having a network of people in your home necessarily. Pete, I was thinking about that crossover of personality traits.
It seems to me that that relates more to your temperament and genetics than it does to your sibling status. There are people with siblings who can be lonely in a sea of siblings. It’s more on your temperament and how you feel about engaging with other people. I’m not sure that that is specifically an only child thing. That’s my opinion.
I wouldn’t think it was specifically an only child. The independence piece, if you’re not an independent person, the solo lifestyle is not going to work because you need that typical relationship. I wondered if only children would be more likely.
Only children are more likely to be independent because they don’t have a sibling defending them, protecting them or introducing them to their friends. They need to get out there and forge their way. Also, back to that alone time. Being alone, they independently learn how to fill that time, how to reach out to other people. They would be good as a solo person out in the world because they lean towards being independent. Their parents aren’t always around. They have to learn how to make dinner for themselves. There are a lot of little things that we don’t think about that factor into independence.
I want to comment on what Susan had talked about and you’ve talked a little bit about, Julie, which is around this belief that siblings help socialize you. People are much better at socializing, being polite and working well with others when they’re not family. There is laziness around behavior and politeness oftentimes when it comes to family members. I’m amazed by how mean family members can be to each other because they have the bond of family. They’ll say things and do things that they would never do to a friend, a stranger or a co-worker in that sense. The idea that because you have a sibling, you’re now going to be better socialized, because the nature of that relationship is specific, it’s different than our typical ones. I don’t see it in terms of the face validity of that.
A teenager was asked how come she’s mean to her brothers and sisters. She said, “Because I can get away with it.” That’s exactly what it is. You’re linked to your family members and you have to be at least civil. You can’t get away with being mean to your friends.
Before we wrap up, I want to lean a little more into this creative idea. I wonder, Susan, is there evidence that only children do excel in creative pursuits?
There was a brain study done on whatever goes on in your brain. That suggested that only children are more creative than children with siblings. They did 10,000 people that may be different but it was a strong indication. Having this independent alone time also feeds into creativity. The idea that you don’t have a sibling telling you what you’re going to do next, “You’re playing Monopoly with me whether you like it or not.” It gives the only children more timeframe to pursue their passions. Look at golfers like Tiger Woods and McIlroy who were only children. They had this huge expanse of time to do exactly what they wanted. In the creativity department, that applies to a lot of our celebrities in the arts like Elton John, Robert De Niro or Charlize Theron. All of them are only children.
Who are the famous only children in the world?
We don’t have enough time for all the famous only children in the world.
Besides Julie, of course.
I’m famous for the SOLO podcast.
What we say all the time is it’s not a big deal. It is a big deal because of the time, attention and in some instances, depending on where your creativity leans, the extra financial backing and resources that are available. All those things help only children be creative and follow something they love. I’m glad you brought this up because we have the wrong narrative in society. We’ve already talked a little bit about it. There is one particular path that is accepted. We know it’s accepted because people feel willing to comment and prescribe when you’re deviating from it, whether that be getting married, the number of kids you have and so on.
Societies benefit from people pursuing diverse paths. We don’t want everybody going into science. We don’t want everybody going into art. We want some people going into science and we want some people going into art because those two things complement each other rather than a society that does one versus the other. We want great scientists and great artists regardless of the path. It’s hard to be a great scientist. It’s hard to be a great artist. It takes incredible dedication, resources and focus. Sometimes people make choices, which make it hard to dedicate that time, attention and focus.
I do want someone locking themselves away and writing great pieces of fiction or nonfiction. I want people who don’t have to come home to dinner to their family working on our next vaccines. We live in a world where we don’t want everybody doing that, in the same way we don’t want everybody necessarily having a family because having a family doesn’t work for everyone. Hence, this show supporting those folks who decide to do something unconventional.
To add to that point, what’s expected of us is we will get married and we will have children. Our numbers are climbing for single men and women, particularly women who are going solo.
Solo parents having one kid.
About 1/3 of families are single-parent families now. A lot of women are saying, “I’m doing it alone. I’m having a baby.” That is going against what society, at least for the three of us, had expected of us.
We have to talk about the one-child policy in China. In my life, it was a big deal because I’m not Chinese and I know all about it. For those folks who don’t know the one-child policy, what is it? What have been some of the implications for that policy both in China and then also globally?
China instituted a one-child policy I think in 1979. They had horrific punishments for people who disobeyed and had a second child. They did force abortions. In China, you had to have a boy. Flash forward, many women were lost. They weren’t enough to get married. Into the ‘90s, China realized that the policy was not a good idea and they abandon it. What’s fascinating about that is when they release the policy and said, “Go ahead and have a second child.” There weren’t enough people to take care of the older generation or there wouldn’t be. That was one of the worries. Most of the young people starting families said, “No, thank you. We’re not having a second child.” In France, they set up a system where they would pay you $4,000 to have a second child because their birth rate dropped. It wasn’t working for the same reasons that people in this country are having more children. It’s too expensive.
It’s also more difficult to have more because you’re waiting longer.
Also, it’s because of fertility issues. Primarily, it’s because of the cost. The big thing was women wanted to work. That’s the big issue. Particularly in this country, for some of them, their mothers but mostly their grandmothers and great grandmothers did, which was to stay home, make dinner and clean the house. Our generation of women is putting our feet down and not doing it.
There have been some unfortunate outcomes of the one-child policy. I don’t know the exact number so don’t quote me on it. There are 40 million extra young men in China and it’s causing problems, especially in the rural areas where you have farms that get passed on to children and so on where these young men don’t have lives. They’re either going into the cities to try to meet women, work in factories, or they’re having to consider going to other countries to meet women like Vietnam, the Philippines and so on to do this.
It is interesting how simultaneously, there are some countries with population problems, too many people so to speak, India and China. The one-child policy came out of China in an attempt to deal with overpopulation. You have “underpopulation” like in Europe, Italy and so on. To me, there’s an easy solution to this, which is you allow people to immigrate from China to Italy and you solve the problem. We have other problems around that. Anybody that says to me, “We need more babies because of growth.” I always say, “No, we need immigration to solve these problems.”
A number of those countries are already being called one-child nations, Canada, France, Korea and the UK. They’re all being labeled one-child nations because their populations of one-child families are approaching 50%.
Julie, you’ve had a chance to meet Susan. I have wanted to have you on for obvious reasons besides the fact that you’re such an outstanding guest and co-host here. Is there anything that stands out to you? Has this reinforced your existing opinions? What is your reflection on this conversation?
I had not given being an only child a ton of thought. When you said you were doing an episode about it, I thought, “Does being an only child impact someone’s personality or the way they behave that much to be talking about it?” I did a little research and Susan has written books about it. It’s been interesting for me to give it more thought. It’s been such a normal part of my life that I don’t question it or think about it. I have a neighbor who has three children. His life is work and children. All three play sports and he has nothing else going on. For me, having an only child allows me to mountain bike and do all these things and I still provide her with great opportunities and take her horseback riding. I do all these things for her but I can also have my own time, which makes me happy and makes our household less stressful. Our household is less stressful than one with three kids when the parent is fried and giving the kids every opportunity they can.
Susan, you’ve experienced both.
One of the important points about what you’re saying is a lot of people I’ve talked to for this new study I’m doing say in different phraseology, “I can have one child but why should I?” It’s because of what Julie’s saying, “I don’t want to be running ragged.” If they have a partner, “One of us is in his softball game and one of us is at her softball game.” In a lot of ways, having multiple children does splinter the family a good part of the time. Even with one, this could happen. Your kid is eating dinner in the backseat of the car because you’re driving home from the last tennis match. It’s hard. One child may not be right for everybody but it’s the solution for more people.
I want to end with a joke. I’m always cautious of telling jokes, especially other people’s jokes but it hammers home this point that you two were talking about in terms of the challenges of multiple children. I know we’re not supposed to talk about Louie CK because he’s now a bad person. Louie CK has a great joke where he talks about taking his family on vacation. He has two daughters and a wife. He’s now divorced. He loads up the car, gets everyone in and closes the door on his wife’s side of the car. He walks around the back of the car and he says, “That’s my vacation.” That joke doesn’t work with an only child.
It doesn’t happen.
Julie, thanks for returning. You are in a fight with Shane Mauss to be the most common guest on SOLO. I’m not sure where you’re at but it’s always lovely to hear your voice.
He has more hair than I do now.
Susan, thank you for taking time out of your busy academic schedule. I know how much you have going on with your research or teaching and then all those terrible Zoom faculty meetings. I hope that this has been a welcome reprieve.
It has been fun. Thank you, both.
I appreciate the work you’re doing. The Solo community will benefit from understanding this topic, which doesn’t get talked about a lot.
I don’t know if any of those only children who responded to you in Clubhouse would want to be part of this study.
I could easily open up a room and recruit people for you if you wanted to.
18 to 80-plus.
That’s where they are, closer to 18 than 80. This is great.
That would be good. Thank you.
Thanks, Susan. Thank you, Peter.
- Susan Newman
- Julie Nirvelli
- The Case for Only Child: Your Essential Guide
- Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only
- The Book of No: 365 Ways to Say it and Mean it and Stop People-Pleasing Forever
- Making Remarkable Friends – past episode
- A Room of One’s Own
- Solo Caregiving – Past episode
- The Case for Only Child: Your Essential Guide
- Parenting an Only Child: the Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only
- The Book of No: 365 Ways to Say it and Mean it―and Stop People-Pleasing Forever
- Singletons – Psychology Today Article
- Sign Up For Dr. Newman’s Family Life Alert
About Susan Newman
Susan Newman is a social psychologist specializing in parenting and family dynamics. She is the author of 15 books including two about only children: The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide and Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only, and most recently,The Book of NO: 365 Ways to Say It and Mean It—and Stop People-Pleasing Forever.
She is a longtime contributor to Psychology Today has appeared on many shows including The Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS Sunday Morning and leading news broadcasts and in print discussing family relationships and trends. Susan is currently doing research on the changed attitudes about and altered landscape in one-child families.
About Julie Nirvelli
Julie Nirvelli was born and raised in San Jose, CA and earned her college degree from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. She has lived in Colorado for 16 years. As a strong, independent and fun-loving person, Julie embraces the solo life. She is also an only child and the mother of an only child.
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