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One and done: Why we chose to raise an only child despite social pressure

Having an only child gives us a chance to have the best of both worlds.
Updated Jun 19, 2019 01:38pm

I often get asked by people why I only have a son and when I am going to have another child.

Sometimes people — family members, friends and complete strangers — tell me that my son needs a brother or sister to play with and to share feelings that he cannot share with us, his parents.

This question often comes up in everyday social situations — in a doctor’s waiting room or at a school event — where people feel the need to make polite conversation. If it’s a stranger or a professional acquaintance asking the question, I often joke that my reason for having an only child is that less than one is not possible.

Often these conversations peter out amiably and people move on to other things but with friends and family, things are very different. Unlike with strangers or even professional acquaintances, interactions with friends and family are frequent and intimate.

In a recent online conversation, a friend — who is a doctoral candidate at a leading Pakistani university — asked for the millionth time when I am going to have another child.

In the past I had answered this question with, “Maybe in a few years, we don’t have any plans yet,” or “We’re in a transitional phase and are still unsure where to settle,” or some other equally vague and non-committal reason.

This time I told my friend that my wife and I don’t have any plans to have another child.

She replied with three rage emojis and said I was being unnecessarily “rigid.” The way my friend shamed and judged me for not wanting to have more than one child caused quite a bit of anxiety for me, so I decided to look up why parents with only one child are judged and shamed.

"One and done"

A quick online search revealed that my wife and I are what’s commonly referred to as “one and done parents”: parents who get “done” after having only “one” child.

There is a widespread belief that only children are spoiled, aggressive, lonely, selfish, bossy, overly entitled, not good at sharing things with others and have a hard time building healthy relationships.

This is a stereotypical view and, like all stereotypes, it is based on prejudice and not empirical evidence. But how did this stereotype originate?

During the last decade of the 19th century, G. Stanley Hall, an American psychologist, and his team of researchers at Clark University, undertook a study of different attributes and characteristics of children. The study was published by E.W. Bahannon in 1896 in a journal called The Pedagogical Seminary under the title, ‘A Study of Peculiar and Exceptional Children.’

Among its other findings the study also stated that being an only child is “a disease in itself.” For decades, this view regarding only children was considered received wisdom in the scientific community and society at large.

However, during the late 1970s, this view started receiving increased scientific scrutiny. Judith Blake, an American sociologist, published an article in 1981 titled, ‘The Only Child in America: Prejudice versus Performance.’ According to Blake, “research findings on only children do not support the negative stereotypes.”

Blake’s research demonstrates that “only children are intellectually superior and achieve higher educational and occupational status.” Only children, according to Blake’s study, “have no obvious character or personality defects: they have attitudes appropriate to good citizens of the body politic, their family behaviour is not disruptive, and they are unlikely to be public charges.”

Even if social and economic advantages of only children are discounted, only children “tend to count themselves happy, and to be satisfied with important aspects of life — notably jobs and health.”

In 1987, Denise Polit, a renowned research methodologist, and Toni Falbo, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Austin at Texas, published a quantitative review in the Journal of Marriage and Family that “combined the results of 141 studies and found that only children scored significantly better than other groups in achievement motivation and personal adjustment.”

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The commonly held assumption that only children are socially inept and have a hard time socialising with their peers has also been debunked by scholars like Blake, Polito and Falbo.

Speaking from a personal point of view, my son does not suffer from any social handicap whatsoever. He is extremely friendly and is able to socialise with his peers very easily. He did not have any difficulty adjusting to a new school when we moved from Pakistan to upstate New York a couple of years ago. It was quite remarkable considering this was the first time in our lives that we had moved outside of Pakistan.

During our first week here in the United States, a Pakistani friend invited us over to his house. My son was able to socialise very easily with my friend’s children with whom he was meeting for the first time in his life. The two boys bonded over graphic novels and video games.

In 1980, Denise Polit, Ronald Nuttall and Ena Nuttall published a study of adults who were raised as only children. They studied “537 white, intact married couples residing in middle to upper-middle class communities near Boston” out of which “70 wives and 62 husbands were only children.”

This study concluded that “compared with other first borns with siblings, and with individuals of higher birth order, only children were found to have higher educational levels, higher occupational status, smaller families, and to be more secularly oriented.” The data obtained by Polit et al did not “support the notion that only children are emotionally or personally handicapped by their lack of siblings.”

But does growing up as an only child without any siblings have any disadvantages? I put this question to Toni Falbo who has been researching only children for more than 40 years.

“Some assume that only children grow up lonely and stay lonely throughout life,” Falbo told me. “But, there is no association between loneliness and growing up without siblings among Americans. Some only children are lonely, but others are not, and the research evidence indicates that lacking siblings does not predispose one to a lifetime of loneliness.”

China, which has come to be regarded as Pakistan’s “all-weather friend,” enforced a one-child policy in 1979 to reduce the rate of population growth. The government strongly encouraged people to have only one child and those who agreed were rewarded with improved healthcare and education for their only child.

Since then there have been numerous studies on only children in China and most of these studies have concluded that only children are not any different from their peers who grow up with siblings.

Family size in many developed countries is shrinking and the one-child family is on the rise for a variety of reasons. But in Pakistan the story is quite different.

Sustenance or bare subsistence?

There is a widespread belief among many Pakistanis that every baby is born with a loaf of bread under its arm and that it is God who provides for every newborn.

While people are free to believe whatever they want to, there is no evidence to support the claim that every newborn comes with the proverbial loaf of bread. Such a belief has serious consequences in terms of public policy.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “5.6 million children under age five died in 2016, nearly 15,000 daily” of malnutrition, and approximately “3.1 million children die from undernutrition every year.”

Pakistan, according to a recent study published by Muhammad Asim and Yasir Nawaz, “has one of the highest prevalences of child malnutrition as compared to other developing countries.”

According to the Pakistan National Nutrition Survey conducted in 2011, 43 per cent of all Pakistani children are stunted, 16.8pc wasted and 31.2pc underweight.

Child wasting is a process in which muscle and fat tissue waste away due to a debilitating disease and stunting, according to the WHO, “is the impaired growth and development that children experience from poor nutrition, repeated infection and inadequate psychosocial stimulation.”

According to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) 2017-2018, the percentage of stunting among children under the age of five has decreased to 38.2pc. Still, Pakistan continues to have one of the highest rates of stunting in the world.

But this is only half of the story. Pakistanis are reproducing at an alarmingly high rate.

Related: Pakistan and the pill — Check your male privilege at the door

According to the DHS, the fertility rate (total births per woman) in Pakistan is 3.6 which, although gradually declining, is still significantly higher than countries like Bangladesh (2.1), India (2.3), Indonesia (2.3), Saudi Arabia (2.5) and Iran (1.6).

Assuming that the fertility rate will continue to decline rapidly over time, Pakistan’s population, according to a study, will increase to 302 million by 2050.

Further, Pakistan has one of the highest ratios of cousin marriages in the world. According to the DHS, 50pc of ever-married women in Pakistan are related to their husbands as first cousins.

Studies on cousin marriages have consistently shown that children of these marriages have a decided disadvantage in terms of health

Add to this the fact that some religious preachers have continually campaigned against population growth control in Pakistan, supposedly a Western conspiracy against the growing population of Muslims.

One wonders why Muslim countries like Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Iran are working toward population control and why it is only Pakistan that has to foil this imagined conspiracy.

All of this means that not only are we increasing our population at an alarming rate, but more importantly, we are fast producing a highly disease-ridden population with more than one in every three children stunted.

Needless to say, this is going to put an enormous strain on an economy which is already in shambles.

Damaging attitudes

Empirical evidence, I have come to realise, hardly matters for people like my friend who, when presented with these figures and statistics, said that hers was “a simple comment.”

“Why do you have to make a mountain of a molehill!” she said to me. Asking parents like me to have a second child, according to her, is “a social custom” in Pakistan.

Let’s assume that every child is born with a loaf of bread under its arm and my wife and I decide to have another child. This new child may be born with a loaf of bread, but surely no one believes that every child is born with a health policy and a fat cheque for college tuition under her or his arm.

A second child would thus mean an added financial responsibility for me and my wife and a decreased quality of life for our son, not to mention the time and effort that both my wife and I will have to devote to the second child.

Having a second child will inevitably mean having to postpone and, in some cases, forgo our personal ambitions and aspirations.

For example, my wife plans to write a textbook of Urdu for foreign language learners and in due course, pursue a doctorate degree. A second child at this point would mean that she would have to put on hold her plans to start her doctoral studies for at least five to eight years.

Another aspect of this “social custom” of shaming and judging parents who choose not to have more than one child is the adverse effect on women’s mental health. My wife’s colleagues and friends also ask her quite often when she was going to have another child.

Over time, these comments created a deep sense of anxiety in my wife and she started wondering if she was making a mistake by not having more children. Since my wife is educated and confident, she has been able to push back against this “social custom” of shaming — but at the expense of considerable damage to her mental health.

Also read: We teach Urdu in America. We learned we can’t use Pakistani textbooks

Such a social attitude, needless to say, causes immense damage to the mental health of a large number of young Pakistani mothers and makes them unable to raise their children in a positive and healthy environment.

Add to this the fact that there are virtually no mental health care facilities for women in Pakistan and in most cases, women are not even aware of the fact that they need the attention of a mental health care provider.

When I asked my friend the exact reason as to why she thought I should have another child she replied that if my son were to, unfortunately, die, my wife and I would have another child who could be a source of consolation.

I must confess that my friend’s comment based solely on a hypothetical scenario caused me a lot of hurt.

One can only imagine the pressure women face to keep producing babies because people want them to think of their first children dying.

I tried to overcome the hurt and told my friend that she was forcing me to think about my family from a place of imagined fear and insecurity, and that I refuse to look at the future of my family from such a place.

Instead of this, I told her, I would prefer to look at the future of my family from a positive and healthy place, that my son will hopefully grow up to be a smart and accomplished young man in whatever field of life he chooses and that my wife and I will get to enjoy whatever his successes will be.

Raising children is no doubt one of the most rewarding, although extremely exacting, experiences one can have in their life.

But, surely, there are many other fulfilling endeavors in life too besides raising children, and there is absolutely no reason for anyone to shame parents who choose to give their best to the one child they have and decide not to have any more children.

Having an only child gives us a chance to have the best of both worlds. As parents, we will get to see our son grow up and follow his passions, and as individuals we would be able to follow our own personal ambitions and aspirations.

Illustration by Rajaa Moini


Are you exploring the roots of social norms in Pakistan? Share your experience with us at prism@dawn.com