How Many Kids Should You Have? The Great Debate

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I couldn’t imagine having a second child until my first daughter was around two-years-old and my life started to feel under control again — kind of. Plus, around that time, friends were having their second babies and posting blissful newborn photos, complete with smiling older sibling, on Facebook. And while having just one child seemed easier — financially, logistically — I thought it might be sweet to be a foursome. In the end, we decided to have a second baby. Our daughter was born nine weeks ago. 

There are about 14 million only children in America, who represent around 20 percent of all kids, according to the US Census Bureau. This number is up from 50 years ago when just 10 percent of children were “onlies.” The decision to have one child may be due to fertility issues, financial concerns, and career and lifestyle choices (hey, if you love to travel, one is much easier). And parents who expand their families often note that they want their first child to have a companion for support and friendship and to share eldercare responsibilities.

So what should parents consider as they contemplate adding to their brood?

The Research
On the one hand, having multiple kids might make you more efficient. One 2014 study found that, over a 30-year career, mothers outperformed women without children, and mothers with at least two kids were the most productive of all. One possible reason: mothers tend to be more organized people. And research published in the journal Demography showed that the births of both a first and a second child briefly increased their parents’ happiness levels; a third did not (perhaps because the experience is no longer novel.)

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Photo by Corbis

When it comes to the kids, research shows that only children are happier than those with siblings because they don’t have to compete for their parents’ attention. And contrary to popular belief, onlies may not be socially disadvantaged — an Ohio State survey of more than 13,000 children says only children had as many friends as their peers with siblings. Yet another recent study published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence says kids with siblings may grow up to be more compassionate and altruistic people.

STORY: The Youngest is the Funniest — and More Sibling Traits, According to Science

What the Experts Say
Laura Padilla-Walker, a social scientist and co-author of the aforementioned study, says that only children can’t replicate the lessons kids get from siblings, with their peers. “A sibling provides an easy and continuous avenue to conflict and reparation that help to improve sympathy and prosocial behavior,” Padilla-Walker tells Medical Daily.

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Meanwhile, Susan Newman, PhD and author of “The Case for the Only Child” tells Yahoo Parenting that stereotypes about only children — they’re spoiled, bossy, or less socially deft —have been disproven. She adds that the benefits for only children are great: “One child gets his or her parents’ full attention and resources and these children have a slight edge in achievement and motivation.” Newman says this is likely because onlies have more opportunities in the outside world since it’s more feasible to bring one child along for vacations or even trips to the park.

What Parents Say
“As a mom of an only child, I have mixed feelings. I love our small family. We travel well, we ‘work’ well, and I’m grateful that we can devote our energy to our child, who has special needs. I think I’d be fried if I was pulled in more than one direction. On the downside, I wish my son had a sibling. My sister is my BFF and it makes me sad that my son won’t have the potential for that bond.”—Deborah R.

“I’m a mother of four and I hated being an only child. As an adult, I don’t have a sibling to confide in when I’m worried about my mother, and my kids will never have cousins or aunts or uncles (their dad is an only child too). The advantages of a sibling also include someone with whom you have shared history and genetics. I chose to have a larger family, and I’m so glad I did.”—Michelle Z.

STORY: The Science Behind ‘Three-Parent Babies’

“With an only child, I can spend more time taking care of myself and fulfilling my own adult needs, which makes me a better mother in the long run. As for the ‘lonely’ myth, my daughter has tons of friends and I don’t have to pay for their college educations. She’s also great at entertaining herself, which is a really important life skill.”—Marianne B.

The Bottom Line
“The biggest influence on a child’s development is not the number of siblings he or she has,” says Newman. “It’s how content the parents are.” If parents decide they’ll be happier adding another child (or two or three) to their family, that joy will filter down to their kids. “But some parents decide that more children is too much pull on their being — time is shorter and resources are thinner,” says Newman. In that case, one child is your happy place. In other words, parents should do what works for their family emotionally, financially, and logistically — there’s no wrong choice here.