The One and Only: Is Having an Only Child Better for Parents and the Planet?


As global population surges past 7 billion, how many children—if any—should couples have? Is the only child the family of the future? Or could they make our problems worse?

China has been vilified for its one-child policy that’s been in effect for more than thirty years. Parents who have more than one child (or two in rural areas if the first one is a girl) are often met with steep fines, sterilizations, forced abortions, or worse—babies being forcibly taken away from new parents. Chinese adults struggle with multiple pregnancies as if they were naughty catholic American teenagers who got in trouble on prom night.

But we can’t ignore the booming global population, which will hit ten billion by the year 2062, according to expert estimates. Natural resources, food, fossil fuels—all are already being threatened by current population demands. Can families really afford to have two, three, four or even more children if that means forcing others around the world to suffer?

It seems counterintuitive: on the one hand, having fewer children means fewer resources for your family. But only children are known as having selfish tendencies. They can be socially awkward, loners, too.

There’s another factor to consider, at least here in the U.S., and that’s the growing number of women having their first child in their mid-30s or even later. I’m 41 and expecting my first in 8 weeks. I can’t imagine doing this again, for a number of reasons. But the main reason isn’t environmental or financial, even though both of those are considerations. As a teenager I always thought that if I did have a family, I would adopt, because of the number of children around the world in need of a home seemed more pressing than my need to procreate. I still think about adopting. But I also see advantages to a natural only child, especially as it pertains to becoming a more responsible global citizen.

The beliefs that only children are selfish or antisocial have been disproven by study after study. And our genetics play a much deeper role in how our children develop than environment alone. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, author Lauren Sandler noted that “endless research shows that only children are, in fact, no more self-involved than anyone else. It turns out brutal sibling rivalry isn’t necessary to beat the ego out of us; peers and classmates do the job.”

While siblings learn to share and communicate socially, growing families can often leave one (or several) children neglected. Just as in school or social settings, the child who learns to be more outspoken tends to dominate the attention, and this can mean problems for both that child and their less dominant siblings. Children with siblings can be just as selfish—if not more so—than the only child. They’re forced to share, whereas only children learn to share and learn why making that choice to be more generous with their peers, cousins, strangers, etc can benefit them, too.

Being an only child does not mean a recipe for loneliness, either. Sandler notes, “solitude is not synonymous with loneliness and often strengthens character. As one psychotherapist explained to me, only children tend to have stronger primary relationships with themselves. And nothing provides better armor against loneliness.”

Likewise, parents are capable of spending as much time with the child as needed in key development issues. A child who has the love, support and undivided attention of their parents is also likely to become more secure, and that means they’re less prone to selfishness based behaviors or becoming withdrawn and lonely.

Because they spend a lot of time with adults, only children have more access to culture, better language skills, and more life experiences than children who are more often surrounded by children. Not that children shouldn’t spend time with children, but when they’re privy to an adult world from a young age, they can cultivate a deeper understanding and more meaningful relationship with the world. And as the problems our adult world is now facing continue to increase in magnitude we’re going to need children who are able to react responsibly, with maturity and independence. Perhaps if we can raise a generation or two of only children to fix the problems our selfish immaturity created, they’ll be able to raise larger families in the future who are more capable of handling the modern world’s needs.

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Image: Lance Shields

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.