Planning Your Family? One Isn't the Loneliest Number

By Susan Newman

When asked their favorite number, many people hardly hesitate before choosing seven. But when asked the number of children they favor, couples contemplating starting or growing a family have a much harder time deciding -- and agreeing upon – the perfect number. When it comes to the complex calculus involved in mapping your family's future one thing is certain: whether it's one child or ten, size matters.

If you're like most people, however, you simply don't know what the right family size is for you and your partner. To complicate the situation, couples may have a very different number in mind — a situation with great potential for creating considerable tension.

Moreover, once couples do agree on family size, they should be ready to defend their choice. Couples learn quickly that they are surrounded by well-meaning but intrusive people, all of whom have an idea of what's right for you and who are all too willing to share it. Unsolicited and unwanted opinions frequently flow from grandparents, friends, co-workers, even that lady in the check-out aisle. Prospective parents should be prepared to tell opinionated interlopers to back off. Be polite, but be as firm as necessary in letting them know it's none of their business.

Is One Ideal?

The couples most often put on the defensive are those opting to have a single child. A Gallup poll found only three percent of Americans feel a family consisting of one child is ideal. That's because many people still believe and that children without siblings to help them learn and grow are at a disadvantage and are more likely to be selfish, bossy, or spoiled. A growing body of evidence, however, indicates that not only are such suggestions impolite, they are also misinformed.

Overall, data indicate the "only-child syndrome" -- the notion that only-children are lonely, under-socialized, or develop less agreeable personalities than others -- is a myth. Toni Falbo, a researcher at the University of Texas who has been studying only-children in China and the U.S. since the seventies, found little that sets onlies apart from children with siblings. But one thing that does is to the singleton's advantage: onlies tend to be more academically successful and possess greater motivation to succeed.

Clearly, many couples are catching on. Today, there are more families with just one child than there are with two. And, according to the U.S. Census, the single-child family is the fastest growing family unit. With so many people having just one child, it is important for everyone to know the facts and dismiss the myths.

Tough Questions

Anyone considering having children—be it your first, second, or fourth—would do well to consider and answer these five questions frankly. You’ll be more content and more effective parents if you are happy with your family’s size and feel that the decision you make is a mutual one — one that is well thought out and reflects your feelings, needs, and dreams for your future together both as a couple and as a family.

  • How does my cultural, ethnic, and religious background impact my decision to have a certain number of children? Each partner's stance and beliefs deserves careful examination.
  • How much do I value time alone with my spouse? Family dynamics surrounding intimacy vary dramatically with the number of children often putting distance and pressure on the relationship. What will be the quality of life for each parent as an individual? Think about each partner's energy level and need for personal space and time to pursue other interests. Families work best when children's and parents' needs are balanced.
  • How will my partner and I balance work and family? The number of children strongly influences both parent's desires regarding careers and jobs and child care options.
  • Do we have the money and resources to afford more children? Be sure to have a big-picture discussion of your family's financial resources and goals. Will you need a bigger home? A different car? Have to adjust what you envision for your and your children’s lifestyle?

All in the Family

In the end, family size is a personal choice that only you as a couple should make. It is important to take all the time you need. Remember, ultimately it is parenting, not the number of siblings your child does or doesn't have, that is most influential in children's development, outcomes, and happiness.

For more questions to ask yourself and/or information on raising a singleton, see: Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only

Social psychologist and parenting expert, Susan Newman, specializes in issues impacting family life. She is the author of 13 books including The Book of NO: 250 Ways to Say It-and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever (McGraw-Hill); the now classic, Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day and Little Things Mean a Lot: Creating Happy Memories with Your Grandchildren (Random House/Crown); Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only ; and Nobody's Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship with Your Mother and Father, among others. For details, go to www.thebookofno.com or www.susannewmanphd.com