O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith

Lauren Sandler and the Only Child Myth

timecover_small.jpgMy friend Lauren Sandler, a journalist, author, and blogger, wrote the cover story for the July 19 issue of Time Magazine. Lauren, the author of the book Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement, is an only child herself. Her article, “The Only Child Myth,” has gained quite a bit of attention, both from inside and outside the world of faith and religion.


(For instance, this Christian blogger seems to be lumping Lauren in with a “culture of death” rather than the “culture of life” — just for thinking about having one kid instead of a full quiver.)

Despite the fact that she may attempt to woo me toward a dark culture, I asked Lauren if she could shed some light on the article and the one-and-done issue.


Briefly, what was the genesis of your interest in only children and how did that turn into the TIME article?

I’m a journalist, and an only child with (for now) an only child. In considering my choice to have one — or another — I began investigating both sides of the singleton question: what it means for kids, and what it mean for parents; drawing from my own experience, and my parents’, was not enough. I was chatting with an editor about Time about what I was learning about only children–it was quite surprising–and she thought it would be a perfect cover story for Time.


What are some of the misconceptions society has about only children?

We have a rep of being lonely, selfish, maladjusted. A century of studies show that we’re actually not measurably different from people with siblings — except some research shows that we tend to be greater achievers with higher self-esteem. Do social psychologists test for precociousness? Nope. And does that describe me? You bet. But in terms of the deep stigma attached to only children as royally screwed up, unbearable, egomaniacs–it just doesn’t hold water.

What were you surprised to discover in your research?

What I learned about loneliness really surprised me. We have such a visceral response to seeing a kid alone; we think they can’t help but be lonely. I wasn’t a lonely kid myself, but I always thought that was somehow exceptional. In fact, only children tend to have stronger, more developed primary relationships with themselves, and so they tend to experience solitude as loneliness less often. Of course, we all get lonely — it’s part of the human condition. You don’t have to be a French novelist to understand that. But only children aren’t lonelier than any one else, in the aggregate.


I was also surprised to find research that demonstrated that parents of one child tend to be the happiest. (This was found by a father of three, and verified by a few fathers of two.) It follows logic: you get to experience the joys of parenting, and none of the angst of choosing not to have kids, without completely losing yourself in the demands of a larger family: financially, emotional, in terms of the time we allot to others and ourselves. And yes, parents of only children have a reputation for being selfish which derives from that calculus. My parents decided that to be good parents they needed to be happy parents, and to be happy parents they needed to be happy people. Is that selfish?

How much of a role do finances play in the decision to have just one kid?


Lately, a big role indeed. During the Great Depression, when only children were hardly normative, single-child families climbed to 23% – 30%. We’re almost back at that number now. The Guttmacher Institute polled women last year and found at 64% said they couldn’t afford to have another kid in the near future.

There’s a faith angle to this story, too. Are only children less common in religious homes? Why?

I think you’ll find that among the believers, there’s a far greater impulse to say if you ant a bigger family, you’ll make it work. There’s of course the pro-life side to this story, which radically shifts the notion of family planning. And there’s also the biblical mandate, of course, to be fruitful and multiply. It’s hardly just an American Christian phenomenon, though. If you comb the World Value Survey, you’ll find religiosity and fertility go hand in hand, whether in more pious America or more secular Europe. England’s Chief Rabbi in the House of Lords, Lord Sacks, has thundered repeatedly in public sermons that “Europe is dying” because secularists and “neo-Darwinians” refuse to have enough babies to maintain the population.” Likewise, Pope Benedict recently preached to the Catholic world that secularism is responsible for Europe’s sinking native numbers.


In the US, more single-child families are secular, and more large families come form strong faith background. Hey, there’s a reason that Jon and Kate Gosselin were some of the hottest tickets on the Christian booking circuit — until they split up.


Full Disclosure: The kid on the cover, Bryar Moore, goes to school with my kids and his parents are our friends. We introduced them to Lauren and she interviewed them for the article. I’ve got all kinds of bias going on here.

Anyway. Thanks, Lauren, for the interview. You can follow Lauren Sandler on Twitter and subscribe to her blog, “If Only.”

Comments read comments(12)
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Travis Thompson

posted July 19, 2010 at 11:04 am

Thanks for bringing this up Jason, I think it’s an interesting topic, and cool that you know the author.
I haven’t read the Time article, but I definitely would have been one of the people who said that only children were probably lonely and less socially inclined than people with siblings, but I can’t really say why I think that. I guess it’s just been my experience. I think it’s certainly something to think about if you only have one.
I do wonder how many couples truly have selfless motives behind having only one child. I would never assume anyone was doing it selfishly, but its not hard to imagine that a lot of people just think “more kids means less money/vacation/time/stuff for me” and stop at one or two.
The funny thing is I think right now families with more than two kids get judged quite a bit. I have two kids right now, and the question we get is no longer “are you going to have more?” but “are you done?” And then total shock when we say “probably not”. I hear this same thing from several other families who have more than two kids as well. I guess it kinda goes both ways.

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posted July 19, 2010 at 11:58 am

It would be interesting to directly compare stats from single children families and families with more than, say, five children. Also, I’d like to get her take on the effects of going without of aunts and uncles and cousins as a society, not just as individuals. Perhaps that’s in her book/article, and I should just go read them.
Thanks for the interview, Jason. It’s an interesting topic, something I should look into more.
-Marshall Jones Jr.

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posted July 19, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Well – I’m an only child, and don’t really fit into the stereotypes apart from being secular. My parents made the decision based on me being on the brink of death large portion of my babyhood and being justifiably traumatized by the experience. I never criticized them for it, and I never felt like I was missing anything.
I befriended people with relative ease, and while I was perfectly capable to entertain myself without other kids around, I usually was never alone. I was a class clown, and grew up to be a part-time humourist, enjoying crowds and making people laugh.
My wife and I had slightly different views on the amount of children to have; me being okay with none or at most one, and my wife wanting four or more. We now have 2, and we’ve reached an understanding that we’re done.

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Susan Newman, Ph.D.

posted July 20, 2010 at 7:44 am

I’ve been researching and writing about only children and their parents for the last 20 years. Lauren’s analysis is right on…and, finally, possibly only children and their parents will get the respect (less badgering to have more children) they deserve. You can find more information on making the choice to have one child and parenting issues at Psychology Today where I regularly write about “Singletons.”

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beth simpson

posted July 20, 2010 at 6:07 pm

you caught up with me on Twitter and I came over to check it out … great post, great blog … I’ll check for an email option and see you soon. Thanks

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posted July 20, 2010 at 10:00 pm

I wanted to make a couple comments about this post and the Times article. I happen to be the author of the christian blog referenced at the beginning of the post and I have to admit my surprise that it was picked as a representative of the interest that has surrounded the Time cover article. My blog is only read by a small number of people and I would have expected there to be much more “well known” blogs making posts about it. That said, a few comments.
There is a lot more to the discussion of family size than simply, finances, happiness, ease of life, and/or “faith.” There is literally a war going on behind the scenes. It is a war against God. Therefore, discussions on family size actually must start at the very base level – who is your God and whose happiness are you here for? In reality, this question is always answered – even if is not written down or spoken out loud. It determines everything else in the discussion. If God is God, then that is where the discussion starts. If man is god, then man’s happiness and ease is the highest goal. And this is the center of the war. Is God God or is man God?
I believe that God is God and that defines how I look at this. God created the world and He created it for a purpose: to be inhabited. Isaiah 45:18. Not only did God make life, He created man in His image for His glory and He created marriage. One of the reasons for marriage was to bring forth a godly seed: Malachi 2:15. From the very beginning, one who is the enemy of God, Lucifer or Satan, has been at war with those made in God’s own image, seeking their complete destruction – the last thing he wants is a godly seed! The last thing he wants is large, dominion taking families that think multigenerationally. From seeking to tempt man to rebel against God in the Garden by saying that they would become gods and not die, to working to encourage men to rebel against the command to fill the earth after the flood (when men built the tower of babel and were scattered over the earth after the Lord confused their languages), to advancing religions that involved child sacrifice, to seeking to kill the son of God Himself in Bethlehem, and yes, to seeking the eradication of the next generation through the destructive work of abortion and birth control – the devil is at war with God and with man, who is made in the image of God.
Second, from a purely practical standpoint, the blessing of children was not dealt with very well here. Children were viewed in the Times article as a financial burden. The author states she is amazed that anyone can afford a second child, “forget about a third.” This is however extremely short cited and a result of our materialistic, self-centered society. The problems with this view are many but here are a couple. It assumes that Children actually have to be seriously expensive. They don’t. If we start viewing children as economically viable parts of the family as they used to be considered, you don’t have freeloaders for 18, 20, or even more years. Get them out of sports, computer games, entertainments, and TV and give them a vision for real life. We say that youth should lay around because they are kids, God says “Go to the ant thou sluggard.” Start some home businesses or get a garden plot and have your children raise food. Make your child an important part of the household economy. Our entertainment society is killing us.
Also consider the generational impact of one child. One plus one now equals one instead of 10, 12, or 14 like a lot of my ancestors had. in every generation, you shrink your population. And while you shrink the population, you get a larger and larger number of elderly until the point comes that the society collapses. It can no longer support itself. Watch the Demographic Bomb or Demographic winter. That day is coming and recession is already on us. Finally, consider the generational strength of a large family. Statistically, if I have 10 children, and each of those 10 children, and each of those have 10 children, My line of direct descendants will be at 1,000 in the third generation. 10,000 in the fourth. 100,000 in the fifth. At the same time, one child families will be half in overall number every generation. The combined economic worth of a family that is a 100,000 strong is far greater than the economic worth of a whole line of single child families. Having one child by choice is very short sighted and will result in the destruction of a society if it becomes the dominate viewpoint.
I will leave off with this though I could write much more, God says that he will curse a wicked nation in the fruit of their womb by causing them to destroy their own seed in order that they may know He is God. “Because they had not executed my judgments, but had despised my statutes, and had polluted my sabbaths, and their eyes were after their fathers’ idols. Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live; And I polluted them in their own gifts, in that they caused to pass through the fire all that openeth the womb, that I might make them desolate, to the end that they might know that I am the LORD.” Consider well then that the Lord, He is God and the nation which has a low birth rate is under His curse and not His blessing. Children truly are the heritage of the Lord and the fruit of the womb is His reward.

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posted July 21, 2010 at 5:11 pm

Sovereignty – Seems after your comment of children being a financial burden you sure discussed those issues… I don’t know that you are wrong in what you write but shouldn’t having children be about the parents and their well being and the ability to care for the children. Won’t we have a better society if we have parents having children because they want to not because we are supposed to… We don’t live in that society anymore. Children are the fruit of the womb and the Lord’s greatest gift. But look around your own society and you will see some parenting going on that doesn’t reflect these feelings which doesn’t rear children to view that either so in turn a cycle… This was a very one-sided comment to the many sides of having children.

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patty perkowski, csd

posted July 30, 2010 at 1:27 pm

My husband and I, both Catholics, are one of those who choose to have a “large” family and I work with Catholic moms, as a spiritual director, who are seeking to understand G-d’s call in their lives as mother and woman.
What strikes me about Ms.Sandler article is a seemingly spiritual void she is experiencing. Perhaps form childhood experiences, or some other unanswered spiritual need, she has focused not on the spiritual dimension of children and child rearing, the spirituality of motherhood if you would, but rather the material aspect: The cost of ballet lessons, and so on.
Are there burdens to raising children. Of course there are. Are there sacrifices, yes. Do we compromise when we become parents, certainly. But can’t the same be true for any relationship in which we enter. There are many reasons why a couple chooses to have children and how many. I have worked with women who have only been blessed with one child. Some of these moms feel great emptiness at only be able to have one, others have discerned that adoption was something G-d was calling them to, still others discerned differently and feel G-d has only called them to have one and raise that child well and lovingly.
For many having children is a blessing and there are moms I work with who are over joyed with the children they have, no matter the size of their family. These moms see motherhood as the expansion of themselves, not the fulfillment but the expansion, making them stronger and wiser as women.
Children do change us utterly, there is no mistaking that fact, no matter how few or many we have. Children change the way we view ourselves, our relationships with others, our whole being. When we become parents there is a major shift in our thinking, we can no longer be thinking entirely of ourselves. Our priorities shift as well. And these changes can often be quite traumatic for new parents. Even the most “prepared” parent will be shocked at how a small child will change their world and perception of it.
But having children does not deem us to a life of unfulfilled dreams, goals and aspirations. To be good role models for our children we must show them that our G-d given callings are important, and that our callings can and do change over time. Our callings grow and mature, and this growth and maturity often comes with addition of children. As young adults we spoke as a child, thought as a child, reasoned as a child, when as we became parents did we put away childish things.
Instead of focusing on the material, the burdensome, the tiring routine, wouldn’t it have been helpful for Ms. Sandler to point out how children, her child, other families children; helped them become more than they thought they would be? I read recently that having a large family was a “new sign” of wealth; how that would have made a much more interesting cover story.
Read more:

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posted August 17, 2010 at 8:33 pm

First let me start by saying I am an atheist, so this view point is not influenced by any religious dogma. Also, I am the uncle of a “singleton” as my brother and wife have chosen to have only one child for many of the reasons stated in the article.
I read the article and felt mixed feelings. My degree is in sociology and I feel that many social statistics can be skewed to get the desired results. I do not feel that there is an umbrella personality quirk to “singletons”. However, it seems the article was very one-sided and almost defensive. It seems most of the people involved were also “singletons” including the scientists.
Perhaps there is data on this subject to prove “singletons” are not lonely, selfish, and maladjusted, however, as an elementary teacher for several years I have seen several of these issues with only children on a continuous basis. My nephew (a singleton) is very intelligent and very well adjusted, however, in the presence of several other peers he, like so many I have taught in my classroom, has trouble with group assignments and has sharing issues. Was any of this data taken in a large population setting? The article talks about the happiness of the children and parents in these new family structures, however, it does not talk much about the interaction of these children with others that are not related to them.
Obviously, there are greater issues that affect children than being an only child, (child abuse, divorce, death of loved ones, dead-beat fathers) but I would like to see more conclusive data before this myth is totally dispelled. Please note I am not attacking the author, and I feel she has many excellent points. The reality of it is, everyone has a different personality and it is hard to lump people into these stereotypes. In the end it is really the choice of the couple as to how big of a family they want. Myself, I am in my 30s with no wife or children and I am very content.

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Jeff Mueller

posted August 19, 2010 at 10:09 am
Here is a short video that captures the feelings/thoughts of EVERY ‘only child’ at one time or another!

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posted September 7, 2010 at 3:23 am

To sovereignty, and others who believe in the goal to “be fruitful and multiply”, this goal is incompatible with the other Christian mandate to take care of His creation. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15). There are currently too many of us! By century’s end, demographers predict close to 9 billion people on this planet. Couple this with increasing demand for cars and other modern conveniences, and the rest of the biosphere is squeezed tremendously. I tear up when I think about how many of earth’s creatures are disappearing because of our own overdevelopment. Living in Hawaii, I’ve seen extinction with my own eyes. Just a few years ago, a spectacular bird from Maui, the Poouli, was believed to have gone extinct. In fact, little is left of Hawaii’s “garden”, since most of its ecosystem has been replaced by human development and plants and animals that people have brought from various places around the world. I have a single child and am blessed to have her. However, I wish that the world we are leaving her could be as bountiful as the one my grandparents grew up in. But that can’t be possible if “every sperm is sacred”, to quote Monty Python.

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posted September 8, 2010 at 11:29 am

A most interesting story about only children. My mother, myself, my daughter & my grandson are all only children. Oftentimes now I find myself thinking that this was a pretty good idea. Things being the way they are now, it seems our world is eating our way out of house & home. I live in farm country & wonder how much longer we’re going to be able to feed the world before we run out of places to grow that food. Homes are being built at an astounding rate to house all of these children as they grow into adults & need a place to live. That also equates to more pollution as well, as everyone needs a car to get to a job to be able to afford to pay for all of these mouths to feed. The media seems to center itself on city life: take a bus, walk to work, etc. I’m seven miles from any town so that just isn’t going to happen. My little town of eight people is being overrun & polluted by the gravel trucks & side-dumpers going by all of the time to build these houses & roads to get to them. The times they are a changin’ & I’m not to happy about that. Back in the ’70’s many of us were thinking & talking about what was going to happen if we didn’t start practicing population control. Were we wrong? I think not.

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