- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2003

Lori Weinraub Tautges says she is happy to be a family of three most days. She and her husband, John, have taken their daughter, Jordan, 5, along on many trips forbusiness and pleasure. The couple — he is a radio sportscaster, and she is a part-time writer and editor — are able to devote lots of attention to their only child.

“We have taken Jordan to San Francisco, the Olympics in Salt Lake City, and we might go to the Olympics in Beijing in 2008,” says Mrs. Tautges, who lives in Springfield. “If I had two or three kids, we couldn’t do that. I also work odd hours and days, so I probably couldn’t work if I had more than one. With one, I have much more time to myself than moms with a couple of kids, and I have much more time with my daughter. Everything is focused on her.”

Still, when Mrs. Tautges, 43, sees siblings together or her daughter laments that there is no one to play with, she has mixed emotions about having one child. In a perfect world, she says, she would have had two children, but medical issues meant it never worked out.

“It makes me sad sometimes,” Mrs. Tautges says. “I can’t say life would be better with more children, but maybe Jordan wouldn’t be lonely. Sometimes I question, are you less of a family with one child than you would be with two or three or four?”

The Tautges family is among a fast-growing segment of the American population. About 20 million families in the United States have one child, says Susan Newman, a social psychologist with a doctorate and the author of “Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only.” The U.S. Census Bureau says the number of women ages 40 to 44 (presumably at the end of their childbearing years) who have one child has risen from 9.6 percent in 1976 to 16.4 percent in 2000.

There are myriad reasons for the single-child family, Ms. Newman says. Among them: Women are starting families later, which puts fertility in a more precarious position; adoption is expensive; some parents divorce soon after the first child is born and may remarry into a situation that already includes stepchildren.

There also are many parents who choose to have only one child. For them, that is the right number when thinking about traveling, staying on a career path, paying for college or the limits of their patience.

Is an only child spoiled?

Whether or not having an only child is by choice, families should feel good about being a threesome, Ms. Newman says.

“Parents have to do what they feel is best for them,” she says. “You are going to be better parents if you have chosen what you want and not what society wants. The days of a boy for you, a girl for me and the house with the white picket fence are ancient history.”

The key to raising a happy only child is good parenting — not the number of children in the home, Ms. Newman says.

“How you parent your child is far more important in the outcome of the child than the number of siblings he or she has,” she says.

Giving a child a positive outlook on being an only should start young, says Jane Annunziata, a McLean psychologist and author of the children’s book “Why Am I an Only Child?”

Ms. Annunziata says she got the idea to write the book after her only child, now 16, came home from preschool wondering why he didn’t have a baby brother or sister like so many of his classmates.

“Kids tend to wonder, ‘Why didn’t they want more of me?’” she says. “So we had to work through those feelings and discover that every family finds its own right size. I really think there are pros and cons to having siblings. With siblings, you get the experience of sharing both toys and parents. As an only, [parents] might have more financial and emotional resources.”

Ms. Annunziata says parents who have mixed emotions on the subject should stop feeling guilty. The common stereotypes of only children being spoiled, shy, lonely or little adults really don’t hold up in this day and age, she says.

“When I hear stereotypes like that, I cringe,” she says. “A lot of those stereotypes are not proven.”

Ms. Newman agrees.

“If you look at any of the families you know, you are going to find a selfish child or a spoiled child or a lonely child, no matter what the family size is,” she says.

Richard Nagel, a 36-year-old tech professional from Reston, grew up as an only child. He and his wife, Kate, are the parents of Jordan, 7. Mr. Nagel says he didn’t pine for the sibling experience because he didn’t know any better.

“I remember getting all the attention, both good and bad,” Mr. Nagel says of his childhood. “I think I was a little more under the microscope because there was just one of me. I wasn’t lonely. I had a lot of friends. The only time I thought it would be good to have a sibling was when we went on vacation, and it was just the three of us.”

The Nagels didn’t set out to have an only child. It just worked out that way, Mr. Nagel says.

“You get to the point where it’s kind of nice, and you say, ‘I don’t know’ about the thought of going back to diapers and all that,” he says.

Adds Mrs. Nagel: “We have a lot of fun together. We travel, we eat out a lot. We kind of have a more adult life.”

Mrs. Tautges is skeptical of the assumption that an only child is spoiled. When she is buying a dress or a toy for her daughter, she sometimes questions whether she would be buying as much if she had three children to outfit.

“Would she have as much stuff? Probably,” she says.

Finding sibling substitutes

Only children would have to work hard to be really lonely in this era of play groups, day care, organized sports, Scouts and lessons, Ms. Newman says.

“The opportunities for socialization are everywhere,” she says. “Schedules of onlies are as full as [those of] children with siblings. An only child has plenty of opportunities for problem-solving and sharing in the six or eight hours they are out in the world every day. The lack of siblings doesn’t matter.”

Solitary time at home is a necessary thing as well, Ms. Newman adds.

“Peace and quiet is good,” she says. “Downtime is healthy, creative time.”

Ms. Newman is an advocate of creating “sibling substitutes” — groups of peers or networks of cousins and other relatives for an only child.

“These are important relationships for an only,” she says. “Let your child spend a weekend away with them, which will immerse him in a siblinglike situation.”

Charles White, the father of an only child and founder of Only Child magazine and Web site, says cultivating those relationships were important to him, his wife and daughter, Alexis, now 23.

“We always made sure she was involved in peer relationships,” Mr. White says from his Los Angeles office. “All of Alexis’ friends had siblings, so it was important that she suffer the slings and arrows that go along with that. She also had strong school friends and neighborhood friends.”

An important outlet for Alexis was participating in team sports and playing the violin, he says. That allowed his daughter to cultivate her own community of friends and other people who were counting on her.

When Alexis chose to attend college at University of California at Los Angeles, the Whites insisted she live in the dorms even though the school was just 20 minutes away. That was an important lesson in learning to live with others, Mr. White says.

Velma Anderson, a Lanham systems engineer and the mother of a 3-year-old son, sends her son to a Montessori school. The rest of the time, being parents of an only means she and her husband, Pershing, “stay on the road.”

“We are a happy family of three,” says Mrs. Anderson, 47. “We are always off to the playground or to a play date. We work harder to make sure he has many opportunities for being with children.”

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