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Happiness, Humanity and the Only Child

Economic and Social Research Council

Life is tough, isn’t it? Just when you read that 2.6 children per family are needed to support us in old age, the pesky Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC 2010) comes out with a massive study showing that ‘only’ children live happier and more successful lives than their multi-sibling peers.

This is unfortunate. Even though we love our children dearly and want them to be as happy as humanly possible, most families have more than one child.

What to do? Well, don’t panic. Single children are one of the most researched groups around – second only to twins (beloved of psychologists and geneticists) – and there is much to question and discuss in this work, albeit from such an august source.

Scientists, particularly from the social sciences, deal in patterns and, particularly, unexplained breaks in them. Not surprisingly, one of the first things that we notice about only children is that they tend to marry other only children and often have only one child. Who then grows-up and marries another only child. This, as Gunter Grass (1990) pointed-out, is a modern tendency which, if replicated worldwide, might lead to an initial increase in human happiness but then, assuredly, to none at all, as we would, as a species, be extinct!

Leaving aside whether they are happy souls, we also know that only children tend not to feature among the ‘mad, sad and bad’ attending behaviour support centres or pupil referral units. They are, as a rule, well-behaved and hardworking souls.

There are reasons for this. Single children benefit from the maximum parental attention and affection. They will tend to get most of their parents’ investment of money, time and other resources. Most telling, in some ways, though: they are not troubled by any feelings of sibling rivalry, when numbers two, three or four come along, because they don’t. These children are set fair to be happy and confident kids, growing-up with substantially less stressful lives than their contemporaries.

This is important. For children, parental affection is as sunshine is to plants. Just as a temperate climate is good for growth, and extremes aren’t (not much grows in permafrost or the desert). So, children grow in the consistent sunlight of parental affection and affirmation – capable of coping with some variation but, ideally, not too much or too often.

For all the folk wisdom about smug only children who are spoilt and insufferable, more often than not they benefit from better bonds with their parents and grow into confident adults as a result.

But, choices about family size go to the very heart of what it is to be human. We had big families in the past in order to cope with peri-natal mortality, war, pestilence and famine. Happily, those horsemen are not so common around here these days, but we still need to have more than two children per couple. It may rob our first-born of their idyll, but – whether for evolutionary necessity or self-indulgence – the need to reproduce remains.

Perhaps the problem is that while having more children may make us happier as parents and ensure the survival of the species, it may not be best for our children as individuals, who are happier the fewer siblings they have and happiest when they have none!

One other factor worth mentioning is that the ESRC study found that as sibship size grows, so does sibling bullying. And we know that, when a child is bullied at home, they are likely to be part of bullying – as victim or aggressor – at school, too. When that happens, it is not surprising that children from smaller families do better.

So, are there benefits to being in a larger flock? Well, socialisation and companionship figure highly here, as does the support that having siblings offers when times are tough. Suna Yongmin & Lib Yuanzhang (2009)’s study of 19,839 adolescents showed the protective effect of siblings in the event of divorce. They found that the negative effect of divorce on adolescent performance diminished as sibship size increases. (It would be fair, I think, to add that there are other studies, not listed here, that explore a range of other benefits to being in multi-sibling families. It is not a one-way street, by any means.)

Yongmin and Yuanzhang also note that the sibship protective effect is weaker in single parent than in two parent families. This two parent benefit features in the ESRC study, too. Do not whisper it too loud, but children are happiest living at home with their natural parents – both of them. It is not new. It is not rocket science, but it is an observable feature of this substantial study and it is interesting.

Well, how does this benefit us? Perhaps, if there is one thing to take from this, it is that we shouldn’t always attempt to subjugate our interests to those of our children. People, generally, don’t want to live in one child families, even if it does please the first born. Perhaps, as professionals, it means also that we need to be more conscious of the possibilities of sibling bullying in larger families, especially when faced with a child who is misbehaving or underperforming in school.

A forthcoming publication by Aaker, Rudd & Mogilner (2011, In Press) explores and highlights the role of time in developing a happy life – how we spend it and how we relate to it. Perhaps we might add to these aspects of time that old chestnut about choosing ones parents wisely, with especial care taken to check whether they intend to stay together and that they don’t plan on having too large a family.


Aaker, J. L., Rudd, L., & Mogilner, C. (2011); If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Consider Time; Journal of Consumer Psychology (forthcoming)

ESRC (2010); ‘The Best Days of Our Lives’, Britain in 2011, the State of the Nation; London; Education and Social Research Council.

Grass G (1990); Headbirths: Or the Germans Are Dying Out; Harvest, London; (tr. Ralph Mannheim) Originally published in 1980.

Yongmin S & Yuanzhang L; Parental divorce, sibship size, family resources, and children’s academic performance; Social Science Research; Volume 38, Issue 3, September 2009, Pages 622-634; doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2009.03.007

  1. Especially interesting article for me – who has TWO single children, twenty-two and a half years apart. A girl and a boy. Both are doing fine, thank you.

    But we don’t have to worry about dying out – not yet, at least. In the developed world, family-size usually takes care of its own: Better educated women have less children. The under-developed world makes up for it.

    Unless you are really worried about the BRITISH middle and upper classes are dying out …

    They probably are.

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

  2. gmwilliams permalink

    The only child is more happy, more humane, and more well-adjusted than children with siblings. The only child is only the happiest birth order around. Do you know why? We do not have the game playing and stresses that people with siblilngs have. There is no upmanship and petty squabbling. I have found that children with siblings are more petty, conniving, and manipulative than only children. I feel that siblings are so overrated and totally unnecessary.
    …[comment edited]…
    If only children ruled the world, there would be more culture, more education, more refinement, and more people getting along. There would be less argumentation and competition. People with siblings have messed up this world. What we need are MORE only children.

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