THE ONLY CHILD: FORTUNATE OR DEPRIVED? Census shows families with a single offspring are on the increase


Perry L. Jones III has considered both the upside and the downside of being an only child.

"I feel I can be closer with my parents because I'm the only one," said Perry, 9, a Union Bridge resident who recently worked actively to help his father get elected mayor of the Carroll County town.

But, Perry added, "Sometimes I feel that there's nobody else to do things with because I'm I'm the only one there."

For Perry and Darlene Jones, his parents, the ups and downs of only childhood are also something they have grappled with. They each have four siblings and hadn't planned on limiting their family to one. But when Mrs. Jones, a diabetic, had a difficult pregnancy they decided, Mr. Jones said, "that one healthy child was great and we ought to stop right there."

The Joneses are part of a small but growing trend in this country toward families with only one child. In 1980, 9.6 percent of women between the ages 40 and 44 had only one child. By 1988, the last year for which statistics are available, that number had jumped to 14.9 percent.

This is a recent phenomenon, said Martin O'Connell, chief of the fertility statistics branch of the U.S. Census Bureau. Between 1976 and 1980, the percent of single-child families did not change at all.

Some who have studied the topic predict that the percentage of only-children families will continue to rise. "The projections that I found two or three years ago when I was doing my research showed that there will be more and more only children," said Ellie McGrath, author of "My One and Only: The Special Experiences of the Only Child."

"Some projections say that the number of single-child families will exceed 25 percent by the turn of the century," added Ms. McGrath -- who has no children herself but is an only child.

In current population surveys, 14 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 24 say they expect to have only one child, said Nan Astone, demographer at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. But so many women are delaying childbirth until their late 30s or 40s, she explained, "that those who say now they want two will not always be successful in having that second child. Therefore, we have reason to think that the number of one-child families will increase."

Certainly they will be in good company, at least historically. Leonardo da Vinci was an only child. So was Albert Einstein. Other illustrious only children include Charles Lindbergh, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jean Paul Sartre, Cary Grant and John Updike. (It must be noted, however, that Charles Manson was also an only child.)

Popular thinking about only children goes two ways. One school of thought says that only children are brighter, more motivated and higher achievers, because parents don't have to divide their attention and financial resources. But many only children say they still have to confront a negative stereotype -- that they are thought of as spoiled, selfish and lonely.

"There are probably downsides to being the only child," said Michele Slung, author of "The Only Child Book," which chronicles childhood anecdotes of famous only children. "But there are to being the oldest child or the middle child also. All this negativity goes back to needing large families economically to send the kids out to work. People were regarded as failures if they didn't have large families."

Some studies have shown that adults who grew up in a single-child home exhibit more type-A behavior than those with siblings. And results published last month from a State University of New York at Buffalo researcher found that adults without siblings have significantly higher blood pressure than those with brothers or sisters.

Maurizio Trevisan, who ran the study, speculated that the results may be a consequence of stress because of increased expectations placed on an only child while growing up. But nationally syndicated columnist -- and only child -- Darrell Sifford is dubious about the study.

"I think only children have gotten a bad rap," said Mr. Sifford, who two years ago authored a book on the subject, "The Only Child."

"I had great self-confidence as I was growing up," Mr. Sifford said. "The difficulty is when you grow up and find out that the rest of the world doesn't think you're as great as your parents think you are."

Mr. Sifford added that "the reason you're an only child is the linchpin in all this. If your parents only wanted one, it's different than parents who are disappointed that they only had one. Then the message may be, 'We wanted five and we only got one and dammit, you'd better not let us down.' "

The reality can go either way, said Johns Hopkins child psychologist Leon Rosenberg. "The idea that the only child is pampered, spoiled and selfish depends completely on the parent. If parent are very distressed about having only one child, the child could certainly end up with difficulties. But I get the sense, from the young couples I talk to, that more and more are making the choice to have only one child."

Bev Jackson of Hamilton is the mother of 3-year-old Sarah, and she and her husband have made the decision to not have any more children. "Economics is a pretty big factor," said Ms. Jackson, who works for an insurance company. "And I know my emotional capabilities. We feel this is what we can handle. I see couples in this rat race with big families, they're both working and everyone's going crazy."

She and her husband are both comfortable with their decision, Ms. Jackson said, but she is sometimes surprised by the way others react. "I don't think it's as big a deal as some people think it is," she said. "People you hardly know will say, 'When are you going to have another one?' "

Clarence Jeffers III and his wife, Delois, of Ellicott City also decided to have only one child. Their son Clarence IV is now 8. "I am an only child and I had a wonderful childhood," said Mr. Jeffers, a pharmacist. "I didn't have any adverse feelings about being an only child."

Economics had a lot to do with the Jeffers' decision, but there were reasons. "We wanted to spoil him as much as possible," Mr. Jeffers said.

He acknowledged that there are negative aspects to being an only child. When his son was younger, Mr. Jeffers said, "sometimes when he was home and it was raining and he was bored, you'd feel kind of bad for him. Sometimes they resent not having anyone to play with. He used to say, 'I wish I had a brother or sister to play with.' And when he went to nursery school, he had to develop social skills that other children with siblings had probably developed earlier.

"But we haven't observed any problems recently. You learn how to play by yourself, you develop imaginary friends. He can be down in the basement all by himself, and I'll hear him talking away, even though no one else is there."

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