One And Done

The Secret Benefits Of Raising An Only Child

Sure, the lower daycare bills and lack of sibling squabbles are nice, but the research reveals even greater perks for singletons — and for their parents.

Happy dad and mom with their cute daughter hug and have fun walking outdoors after their work.
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As I write this, my 4-year-old is lying on his belly in the living room, surrounded by a perimeter of train tracks. He built this tiny town in the same way he conducts a good deal of his play: happily alone. No one will stomp the town to bits, or whine about how he’s hogging floor space. He’s the only child we have, and he will remain so.

No, the grandparents weren’t thrilled to hear our plans, and yes, we’re sure about them. (If I had a nickel for every nosy maintenance person or fellow daycare parent who asked me when he was going to get a sibling…) We’re also not an anomaly. According to Pew research, the rate of only-child families doubled from 11% to 22% between 1976 and 2014. Today, the percentage of families with only one child — the fastest-growing segment of the childbearing population — is estimated to be as much as roughly one-third.

And yet the stigma attached to singletons is longstanding and pervasive, with criticisms lobbed not only at the parents but the kids themselves. The former are selfish (How dare you not give your kid a playmate!); the latter are spoiled wimps (How dare you give your kid everything they want!). Having missed out on the character-building that comes from sharing your bedroom and your parents’ love, they’re supposedly destined to be self-absorbed jerks.

Except the research doesn’t remotely support this. In fact, there are genuine benefits to being a one and only — and nearly as many upsides for the parents. Here are some surprising facts about one-and-doners.

1. They’re just as good at socializing, despite what many think.

A groundbreaking 1987 study seemed to prove that the notion of the introverted, awkward only child was a myth. Only children are just as adept at social interaction, and as prone to extroversion, as anyone else. That finding plays out over the course of their lives: according to a 2010 study, as adults, they also tend to have just as many close friends as people with siblings.

2. They’re closer to their parents.

In recent decades, a growing body of research (including one study published just last year) has found that only children maintain a tighter bond with their parents, even during the teen years. One oft-cited meta-analysis of these studies concluded that only children, or OCs, “surpassed all non-OCs…in the positivity of the parent-child relationship.”

3. They’re go-getters.

A study of medical students in China found that only children (as well as lastborn children) possessed more ambition, more varied interests, confidence, and intelligence than first- or middleborn people. Those qualities seem to set them on an ascending path: a landmark 1980 study found that only children are also more likely than sibling-havers to go to college and have better-paying jobs as adults.

4. They’re better at regulating their emotions.

That same 1987 study found that only children do better at talking themselves through tough times and metabolizing difficult feelings than kids with siblings.

5. They’re less likely to be depressed as teens.

A fascinating 2011 study found that having siblings made adolescence more difficult — and more likely to result in depression. Ergo, having no siblings makes that already tough time a little less hard.

6. They’re more environmentally friendly.

As the global population continues to swell past the 7 billion mark, and access to clean water and available housing dwindles, it’s clear that we’re likely to face a crisis of resources in the decades to come. In a widely reported August 2021 note to investors, Morgan Stanley stated that “Having a child is seven times worse for the climate in CO2 emissions annually” than the next 10 most-discussed measures people can take to reduce their carbon footprint. And a Swedish study from 2017 found that if families in developed countries have one fewer child, it could save around 58.6 metric tons of carbon annually.

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that only children are somehow superior — or that there aren’t downsides to the one-and-done arrangement. (How I long to send my kid off with a sibling sometimes, just to get a break from making various household objects talk.) It’s a given that for some, to be an only is, well, lonely. But then, every kid is different, and surely this isn’t true of all of them.

In the end, the point is this: Whenever someone implies (or just outright states) that you’re doing your kid a disservice by failing to provide them with a sibling, you can rest easy knowing that this is simply not the case. In fact, you may be doing your child — and yourself — a big favor.