Only children, and the parents who bring them into the world, have historically been viewed with suspicion. In the past, when a family's survival depended on the number of hands available to plant and harvest food, big families were prized. While that's still the case in certain parts of the globe, technological advances for the most part have eliminated the need for (and the inevitability of) multichild families.
Still, demographers tell us that the majority of Americans, given the choice, would have more than one child. Single-child families have nearly doubled in the United States over the past 15 years. (See chart, p. 14) Yet despite this startling increase in only children, the negative stereotype of the spoiled, maladjusted loner continues.
Bill McKibben, environmentalist, author, and father of a 4-year-old daughter, debunks these prejudices in his new book Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families (Simon & Schuster). For personal and environmental reasons McKibben and his wife, writer Sue Halpern, were inclined to have just one child. But like many parents, they worried about the emotional and social repercussions. McKibben did some research to answer his own personal questions and came away assured that single-child families don't harm kids. (Indeed, dozens of studies point to the fact that only kids actually fare better in measures of achievement motivation and social adjustment.)
In addition, McKibben concludes that families stopping at one kid may be the best -- and only -- way to counteract a world population explosion that is spiraling out of control. While certain industrialized countries - among them Japan, Spain, and Italy -- are seeing negative population growth due to dramatically shrinking family size, McKibben notes that global population continues to boom. More American women, for instance, may be having just one child, but the population base from which these single-child families spring is so large (and the percentage of only children still so small) that at current rates, the number of people in our country alone will double by the year 2050, creating greater pressure on the earth's natural resources.
The answer, he says, is simple: People -- and not only white, educated people like himself -- must commit to actually reducing the population by voluntarily limiting themselves to one child per family. And everyone must work to turn the negative attitudes about only children on their ear.
Toni Falbo, professor of educational psychology and sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, has studied only children and their families since 1973. What she's found over her years of research is surprisingly unsurprising: 'By 1998, we can conclude that, on average, only children are just like everybody else,' she says. 'They are no more lonely, maladjusted, or selfish. They are no more likely to divorce or have trouble making friends than people raised in larger families. There is no big disadvantage, apparently, to being an only child. Nor are there stunning advantages.'
Charles White, publisher of the newsletter Only Child, attributes the rise in single-child families in the United States more to the high divorce rate and fertility problems in older parents than he does to McKibben-style eco-activism. 'Only children are planned in just one in ten households that come across our doorstep,' he says, explaining that his own single-child family is a result of secondary infertility, the inability to conceive after a first child. 'Having an only child is so out of the norm that in our experience, the majority of single-child families are planned by default.'
But Falbo, herself an only child, is uncovering evidence that perceptions are changing. 'I think people are beginning to look at this in a different way,' she says.
Not soon enough, according to McKibben. 'We live on a planet where 3 billion people don't have clean water, where species die by the score each day, where kids grow up without fathers, where violence overwhelms us,' he writes. 'And the energy freed by having smaller families may be some of the energy needed to take on these next challenges, to really take them on to make them central to our lives.'
McKibben's message may inspire many to ponder their role in the population explosion, but will he reach the parents whom demographers tell us are most likely to favor larger families-those of Hispanic and Asian desents in the United States, and various other minority groups throughout the industrialized world? Issues of race and ethnicity invariably arise in any debate involving population-reduction strategies. In certain industrialized nations, for instance, educated white parents are having fewer children while the population continues to grow at a faster pace among people of color. At the same time, zero populationists and birth-control advocates have often focused their efforts on developing African nations, saying that the key to reducing the world's population is educating poor people about how to limit their fertility.
But the population debate is about the use of natural resources as well as family size. While the citizens of industrialized nations make up only 22 percent of the world's population, we use two-thirds of the world's resources. In other words, a single child born in Europe, Japan, or the United States essentially occupies more space on the earth than an entire village of African children. The answer, then, may lie not so much in restraining Africa's or South America's or India's seemingly inexhaustible supply of children, but rather in controlling our own insatiable demand for the earth's resources.