As I was reading recently about China's tens of millions of "excess" men — thanks to that nation's one-child policy — I came across yet another interesting development.
The far-reaching social impact of families with no siblings is the subject of an article by Nicholas Eberstadt in the December issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review.
Single-child families are increasingly common in China, where urban couples especially are forbidden to have more, and this is giving rise to a strange new phenomenon in which "only" children are growing up, marrying and giving birth to another "only" child, Mr. Eberstadt, a scholar at American Enterprise Institute, writes in "China's Family Planning Goes Awry."
"In such families," he writes, "children will have no siblings, uncles, aunts or cousins. Their only blood relatives will be ancestors and descendants."
How big a trend is this in China?
By 2011, single children will make up almost 25 percent of China's urban adults aged 25 to 49, Mr. Eberstadt says. By 2020, this figure could rise to 42 percent and by 2030 reach 58 percent.
"The emergence of what we might term the 'kin-less family' is expected to pose extraordinary challenges," he adds. "After all, Chinese culture is predicated on the existence of robust and extensive family bonds."
I would say that's true of all healthy nations. As author and former Education Secretary Bill Bennett has said, the nuclear family — with two parents and children, plural — is "the first, the best and the original department of health, education, and welfare."
Here in America, the fertility rate is an estimated 2.1 children per woman. This means the vast majority of children have at least one sibling.
However, I am guessing that most Americans do not understand the great value of siblings. After all, there has been only modest research on sibling relationships, and probably the most popular word that comes to mind with "sibling" is "rivalry."
But the benefits of having brothers and sisters are breathtakingly important.
Siblings often are one's only lifelong companions. A spouse typically enters one's life after adolescence. Parents are around for the beginning and middle of life but generally not the end. Even the dearest of friends can come and go. For many people, only their brothers and sisters are with them through every season of life.
In addition, siblings affect one another's lives in profound ways. At least one study has shown that children spend a third of their time with their siblings, more than is spent with parents, friends or by themselves.
All that time together means children learn myriad life lessons, such as how to ask nicely for what you want, share when you don't want to, and generally how to get along with other people. After all, friends can go home in a huff, but sisters and brothers are still there, morning, noon and night.
Healthy sibling relationships pay off: Studies have shown that children who learned conflict-resolution skills at home demonstrated those skills in school. And even if there are sibling rivalries, many of those conflicts mellow with time. In fact, people with siblings have "higher life satisfaction and lower rates of depression in old age," the Ohio Department of Aging notes.
Historian and author Allan Carlson includes "the right to siblings" in a list of things that children truly need. These "children's rights," enumerated in a 2001 speech at a World Congress of Families meeting, include: (1) the right to a mother; (2) the right to a father; (3) the right to a home built on marriage; (4) the right to siblings, brothers and sisters; (5) the right to ancestors; (6) the right to a posterity through future children of their own; (7) the right to religious faith; (8) the right to live in a healthy, vital community; (9) the right to innocence; and (10) the right to a tradition.
In sum, not only do children need brothers and sisters, but every family tree needs a bounty of aunts, uncles and cousins. The fewer bare branches, the better.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at email@example.com.