August 11, 2010

It Takes A Playgroup To Raise An Only Child

The Wall Street Journal reports that the parents of several only children have created a once-a-week playgroup to socialize them. This is now or will be a trend, seeing as how some people only have one kid.

How will this turn out? Could we go ahead and look at China, which has all but cornered the world market on only children for the last three decades? No, apparently we could not.

But from my limited observation, no amount of playgroup conflict negotiation can compare to the endless sturm und drang of having a sibling around 24/7/365. But it might be enough to convince some folks that one kid is puh-lenty.

UPDATE: Hah, if there's barely a mention of China in the Journal, it's only because they didn't copy it over from the July 8 Time magazine cover story a few weeks ago, "The Only Child: Debunking The Myths".

That study was by Dr. Toni Falbo, of UT Austin, was a survey done in 1990. Turns out "the recognized expert on the one-child family and only children" hasn't published any new research on only children since 1993. [pdf]

But with a tagline like that, she still gets quoted all the time in order to "debunk" only child "stereotypes." Like in this 2007 essay from Brain, Child, for example:

In fact, Falbo looked specifically at the little emperor stereotype--the Chinese only child who's fat, bratty, badly behaved, and does not play well with others--and found it didn't stand up. Chinese parents of only children were more likely to "push," she found, though not "indulge."
Hold that thought.

Here's a 2008 article from Psychology Today titled, "Plight of the Little Emperors":

Yet despite the stereotype, the research has revealed no evidence that only kids have more negative traits than their peers with siblings--in China or anywhere else. "The only way only children are reliably different from others is they score slightly higher in academic achievement," explains Toni Falbo...
Oh no, higher test scores? How will we cope?

Falbo's setup in Time holds another key to understanding the only child question:

No one has done more to disprove Hall's stereotype than Toni Falbo, a professor of educational psychology and sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. An only child herself and the mother of one, Falbo began investigating the only-child experience in the 1970s...[italics added]
My point is not to even remotely question Falbo's extensive work, or to imply that it's somehow discredited by her own life experience.

But the media emphasis on only child stereotypes tells me that the real story, at least of these stories, is, what else? parental anxiety. In this case, it's parents anticipating or grappling with societal and family expectations--the flipside of stereotypes--about having more than one kid. It's the whole premise, in fact, of Jennifer Niesslein's piece in Brain, Child.

And it's the cautionary secondary theme of that Psychology Today story, which sounds the alarm bells about an apparently exploding mental health crisis among China's youth, where the one-child generation is "buckling under the constant pressure" of rigid, deterministic testing regimes and overwhelming parental expectations. That's the "push" Falbo's study found and dismissed, btw.

So having just one kid is fine, and the kid'll be fine. As long as you don't freak out and turn into a helicopter parent and burden your kid with every last one of your hopes and dreams, and drive him crazy with your relentless pressure for him to succeed--like, apparently, every parent in China.

A Dose of Sibling Rivalry [wsj via dt reader rolf]


Oh gosh, and here I was about to be excited about this new site (came via anorak) and recommend to a few new Dads on the block. You lost me at Hello. Is it fair to compare parents making the choice to have only one child to the horror of non-choice, enforced-policy China? Its a little obvious one way is not necessarily the right way for everyone. Thank you for making me feel judged and immediately leaving your site.

Bye, thanks for coming, and sorry to see you go, but your feeling judged is entirely your affair. If you'd actually read the article, you'd see that one kidness can be fine and just awesome.

In fact, the article even mentions positive studies conducted in China, but it doesn't provide any details. I'll look that up. Even if it DID result from authoritarian fiat, might there not be one kid parenting techniques and cultural insights to be gleaned from China?

Of course, I could just have easily asked why there's no mention of day care, which provides kids with plenty of all-day, every-day peer interaction. But then I'd probably just be pissing off someone with nanny anxiety.

Thanks for putting this out there. Talking about parenting choices is a tough row to hoe, and it's difficult to read about sometimes without feeling judged.
Before I had a family of my own, I was an early childhood educator at several centers. Most of the children did not have siblings and school was the majority of the peer socialization that they had. I was, and still am a big advocate of the socialization that kids get in early ed, but now as a new parent I am being faced with the choice of complete stay at home or sending the little one to a daycare for the peer interaction (We are lucky enough to have a choice for now). Its not an easy decision!
Keep having those tough conversations.
P.S. Below are a few scholarly studies on the one-child policy in China, though I admit I did not read a single word of them.

If you read through to the last paragraph and really see the message in this article it will be useful. As parents we want the best for our children. Be it one child or two or three. We do have anxiety about doing the right thing for our children and we do buy in to the stereotyping and try to do what "they say" is the right thing to do. When kindergarten rolls around and the kids draw pictures of their families suddenly the differences in family units are given attention. I see no difference between my only child and other children with siblings. Each child is different and grows and matures in their own time with their own personality regardless of family size. Providing the opportunity for peer interaction is something all kids need...not just only children. Stereotyping is the same as prejudice. We should not buy into it. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what makes my only child fit in rather than what makes her different. Check out my kids picture book for the only child and may virtual lounge at

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