Only Child Guilt? 5 Reasons It's Cool To Stop At One

Happy family having fun outdoors and smiling
Happy family having fun outdoors and smiling

The British family is shrinking, with almost half (46%) of families in England and Wales having just one child, according to the most recent ONS figures.

And it's predicted that by the end of the decade these single-child families will be in the majority.

Fuelled by financial constraints – economic uncertainty, soaring house prices and exorbitant childcare costs – and lifestyle choices, such as later parenthood and an increasing number of women juggling family with careers, the only child has never been less 'alone'.

Yet the stigma surrounding so-called 'onlies' – and their parents – is still rife.

"I feel that I have constantly been viewed by mums with more than one child as an inexperienced, ill-qualified, mummy-lite," writes Parentdish writer and mother of one, Kelly Rose Bradford.

"Now my 'baby' is nine and I am 39, this has morphed more into wet-eyed, pitying glances, tight smiles and 'bet you really wish you'd had more while you could' low voiced sympathies," she adds.

The view that only children fall into two stereotypes – the 'maladjusted loner, lacking in social skills' and the 'egocentric, spoilt brat' – goes hand in hand with the notion that parents actively choosing to have one child are selfish for depriving their child of siblings.

And this stereotyping only exacerbates the anguish of the many parents who are unable to have a second or third child due to age, fertility or relationship factors.

Nobody is disputing the benefits of siblings. Aside from rivalries and the complex dynamics of birth order, two-or-three children families have long since been viewed as the ideal dynamic.

But with single child families rapidly replacing 2.4 children as the societal norm, we decided it was time to debunk the myths surrounding 'lonely onlies', challenge the stigma pinned on their 'selfish' parents and look at the positive sides of the downsized family unit.

A quick call-out to find only children, and the parents of onlies, willing to share their positive stories for this feature, made one thing abundantly clear: missing out on siblings need not mean missing out on life.

MYTH: Only children are spoiled

"I wasn't spoiled," says Dan, 42, an only child with one daughter, Daisy, two. "I don't think being an only child had much influence on how I turned out. The relationship with the parents is by far the biggest influencing factor."

Sarah, 38, from Cardiff, agrees: "If there is one division of parents dead-set on ensuring their children are not spoiled, it's those of only children," she says.


"My parents went to great lengths to make sure I didn't have life handed to me on a plate. Pocket money and new toys were earned in exchange for help around the house, so I never took things for granted."


And having siblings doesn't automatically exempt you from the 'spoiled' category, points out Ash, 25, from Bristol: "I've never behaved like that, but I know plenty of people who grew up with hordes of brothers and sisters who are among the most self-centred people I know."

MYTH: Only children are lonely

Mixing with peers is an essential part of a child's development. But nurseries, after-school clubs, neighbouring families and the plethora of local child-friendly activities now available to youngsters, mean socialising is no longer restricted to the confines of the family home.

"Somehow even the title 'only child' has a ring of sadness about it – some suggestion there must be something for such a child to overcome," says David, who lives with his partner and three-year-old son, Louis, in Reykjavik.

"We have many good friends who live literally minutes walk away who have kids Louis's age, as well as both older and younger. He is very used to not being the only child around, and to socialising with kids of other ages."

"Besides, being alone doesn't necessarily equate to being lonely," says Jenny, 40, an only child with one seven-year-old daughter, Sophie. "I've always liked my own company, which I think has made me very self-sufficient and self-motivated."

She adds: "There's this idea of a gaping void in the life of an only child. But Sophie has never expressed an interest in having a sibling. She has plenty of friends – and having a dog helps!"


"I am an only child and I've never felt that I've missed out on having siblings. I make my family out of friends," says Suzie, 35.


"My son has plenty of friends at preschool and I make sure he has lots of opportunities to play with them. I'm sure it's lovely if you have a close relationship with a sibling, but there's absolutely no guarantee that you would get on with them," she adds.

MYTH: Parents who choose to have one child are selfish

"Selfish is a word that comes up over and over again when it comes to only children. But being selfish can be a good thing," explains Jenny.

"Endless compromise does no one any favours and a few of my friends have the wrecked relationships to prove it."

Tom, 29, from Sheffield, agrees:


The way I see it, happy and relaxed parents equal a happy and relaxed child.


"Having more holidays, more money, more space at home and more time for each other as a couple, as well as a family, are not just perks for my wife and me. All of these things will give our son Lucas a better quality of life, too.

"As long as we ensure he gets plenty of opportunity to make strong and lasting friendships I don't think we are depriving him in any way."

A close parental bond

Being stuck with 'the olds' might sound boring to those with siblings, but only children can have a unique closeness with their parents.

"I'm really close to my parents – they're always the first people I turn to in a crisis, even if I know what they're going to tell me what I don't always want to hear," says Ash.

"I believe that my strong bond comes because I always had their undivided attention – I never had to turn to other people growing up, as friends of mine often had to because they had a wayward brother or sister who was taking up a lot of their parents' time."

Lucy, 42, mother to Eloise, 3, believes adapting the way you raise your child according to the dynamic, counteracts the potential issues facing only children: "I feel that as long as I make sure that I'm Eloise's friend and companion as well as her mummy, and that her family friends are life long, she wont miss a sibling."

"Being hyper-critical, I could say our son gets spoiled with our love – there's no sibling to make him question anything in this area," says Suzie.

"But is that bad? To have such a secure base to develop self-esteem from? I've absolutely no doubt that parents of more than one child love them equally, but it's got to be difficult for niggling insecurities about divided loyalty not to crop up at some point."

Less financial pressure

Parents spend £9,610 a year feeding clothing and educating each new member of the family, according to a 2010 report. This makes the average cost of raising a child to the age of 21, a whopping £201,809. And that doesn't include uniforms, sports equipment and school trips, which add a further £52,881.

That's almost a quarter of a million pounds in all. So, it's hardly surprising money is a major driver behind Britain's shrinking family.

"I freelance, and can't work for a month in the summer when Louis' playschool is closed. I am also the one who takes care of him when he's sick as I can be more flexible with my time. I nevertheless earn less as a result," says David.

"How can we expect to earn more money to pay for the additional expense of a second child? Work harder? Longer hours? More exhaustion, stress and less time with this wonderful boy?"

Suzie agrees that reducing financial stress can have a big impact on family life. "We have no intention of spoiling Xander, materially" says Suzie. "But it's nice to know it will be easier to provide for him – not to mention, much cheaper to organise childcare."


Holidays would be thin on the ground if we had two," says Jenny. "And then we'd have to find a bigger place to live... and the list goes on.


If the anecdotal evidence of a few happy, single-child families isn't enough to convince you, there is a growing raft of research to support the case for only children, too.

Toni Falbo, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas's Population Research Center, who has studied the outcomes of only children in the US and China for more than 30 years, says, if anything only children have an advantage when it comes to self-esteem, motivation and academic achievement.

And research undertaken at Ohio State University also revealed that being an only child does not make youngsters lonely, unable to make friends, spoiled or selfish.

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