I have never been a fan of Time, so the recent news that the magazine is withdrawing a lot of free content from its online version did not cost me one wink of sleep. But this week’s cover story promoting the one-child family as the new American family model annoyed me -- at least, what I read of it from other sources as well as the summary Time published online.
What’s at issue here is not how many children any particular couple have, which is their own business, but the suggestion that society as a whole has outgrown the need for more than one, or at least the ability to afford a bigger family.
Lauren Sandler, the author of “One and Done” (online: “The Only Child: Debunking the Myths”) builds her case on personal experience (she is 35 with a two-year-old daughter, and was an only child herself); on research by that champion of the empty cradle, the Guttmacher Institute, into the effects of the recession (perhaps they would like a permanent one to discourage reproduction); on research about only children (who are not lonely and spoiled after all), and on the opinions of various psychologists.
The first obstacle to a second child that Sandler puts up is cost. The US Department of Agriculture reports that the average child in the US costs his or her parents $286,050 -- before college. That means about half of children have less spent on them and half more, but we do not know how spending correlates with character development or other qualities of offspring. What items go to make up that figure -- million-dollar mansions (or child’s share of…)? Overseas holidays? Every electronic device a child demands? Multiple extra-curricular activities and chauffeuring?
In any case, as Sandler mentions in passing, birthrates began to fall steeply in the US and other developed countries from the early 1960s -- when economies were booming. Perhaps Guttmacher could tell us why that was.
Second obstacle: It requires too much sacrifice of time and energy to raise more than one. She quotes a psychologist:
"Most people are saying, I can't divide myself anymore," says social psychologist Susan Newman. Before technology made the office a 24-hour presence, we actually spent less time actively parenting, she explains. "We no longer send a child out to play for three hours and have those three hours to ourselves," she says. "Now you take them to the next practice, the next class. We've been consumed by our children. But we're moving back slowly to parents wanting to have a life too. And people are realizing that's simply easier with one."
But doesn’t the remedy there lie in parents’ own hands? Who said they had to constantly ferry their children to activities?
Then there are the excuses.
First: Perceptions of singletons as lonely, spoiled, selfish misfits are shaped by the work of one psychologist, Granville Stanley Hall, about 120 years ago. The stereotype does not match the evidence of recent research. Well, of course; it's a stereotype. But then we are told that they do better, on average, on some measures -- intelligence and achievement. I would like to know how they rate on sociability, sincerity, generosity -- a few things like that.
Second: The urge to “be fruitful and multiply” is only the result of religious brainwashing in more primitive cultures where the survival of the clan was at stake. Margaret Datiles at Headline Bistro summarises:
The way to achieve this new American dream? Lose your religion. “Religiosity and fertility go hand in hand, whether in more secular Europe or in more pious America.” In order to follow in Europe’s footsteps and become a one-child society, the Time article suggests that Christian principles and Christian culture need to be eradicated.
Sandler is smart enough to recognise that a child needs to be “part of something bigger than just us three”, but she thinks she can do this in the way that worked for her a generation ago, “casting cousins and friends as ersatz siblings”. It’s simply a question of redefining the family, the psychologist tells her. Gay parents are blazing the trail to this new society, she proclaims.
Ah yes, redefining the family -- the answer to all our needs and wants. But it is all a big experiment, isn’t it? Research about only children in the US tells us what they were like, on average, growing up in a society where they were not the norm; we have to look to China and its forced one-child policy for some clues as to how this pans out on a national scale.
Time has a companion piece on that topic, but, strangely, it does not tell us anything about the kinds of people the only children are. What it does recap are the well-known problems associated with the policy: female gendercide, a growing army of bachelors, ageing of society, workforce shortages…