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Is America Becoming a One-Child Country?

The decline in American family size is contributing to a culture of isolation and loneliness.

Where did all these only children come from? I’ve asked myself this question regularly since I moved back to America after living abroad for eight years. When I left I wasn’t a parent yet, but I came back in January as the mother of three small children. I am amazed at how many of my kids’ little playmates are only children. I estimate the proportion to be around half. Our new neighborhood in Maryland is an interesting mix of blue-collar and white-collar households, but the one-child trend seems to cut across all lines.

I most recently lived in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The city has a strong cultural norm of families having two children. In retrospect, the two-child families in Sao Paulo look pretty big compared to the one-child families I meet here. While I had read the headlines about plummeting birth rates in America, I assumed this was driven primarily by people not having kids at all. It turns out that one-child families are also doing a lot of the work.

China brutally enforced a one-child policy for decades. In America, we seem to be adopting one voluntarily. Research by the Pew Research Center found that the number of American women who reached the end of their childbearing years with only one child doubled from 11 percent in 1976 to 22 percent in 2015. I suspect that figure has risen further.

The topic of only children doesn’t get much media attention. The relatively small number of articles I have found usually present an only child in glowing terms. Couples can have their cake and eat it too. They can experience the joy of raising a child while maintaining most of their pre-baby career and lifestyle. These articles suggest it may even be better to have one child because he or she gets the benefit of parents’ undivided attention and resources.

Perhaps some families might benefit from limiting themselves to one child, though I’m not convinced. But what about America as a whole? Only children have always existed, but there is a big difference between a society where they are an exception versus one where they predominate. Whenever we rapidly abolish something that used to be a normal part of life—in this case, siblings—it’s worth asking if we aren’t bringing down some negative unintended consequences on ourselves.

Loneliness is so common in our era, it is sometimes referred to as an “epidemic.” And now we are even chiseling away at one of the few sources of long-term friendship still left to us.

Research shows that most adults are on good terms with their siblings. There’s little specific research about sibling relationships within my own generation, millennials. But I observe most of my peers leaning heavily on their brothers and sisters—primarily for friendship, but also for practical help with things like childcare and sometimes even for financial support. I have two brothers and they are two of my best friends.

What is going to happen when people no longer have siblings? Will the next generation of children think of aunts, uncles, and cousins as mythical beings that don’t really exist?

As extended family networks disappear, we are likely to see even more loneliness, as well as mental health issues and financial insecurity. This will inevitably result in calls for more government programs. Government has long been nicknamed “Big Brother” in reference to George Orwell, but maybe in the future it will be the only brother most people have.

While the puff pieces about the joys of having an only child suggest there are no downsides, I refuse to believe these kids are not lonely. American children spend an average of around one-third of their free time with siblings, and that goes up significantly in bigger families. Friends outside the home can never make up for that level of companionship. Moreover, more only children means that kids have fewer options for potential friends on their street. Neighborhood friendships are ideal because they don’t require an adult chauffeur. I am intimately familiar with the process of arranging playdates with other moms—it can get so complicated I feel like I am Eisenhower planning D-Day.

And what about the COVID-19 crisis? In discussions of the negative impacts of pandemic-related school closures, I’ve seen almost no one acknowledge this simple truth: since so many children have no siblings, school is their primary avenue for meeting other kids. If kids spend around one-third of their free time with siblings in normal times, during the shutdowns that has probably risen to levels approaching 100 percent. It certainly has in our family. My children faced their fair share of frustration, but loneliness was not an issue because they love to play with each other.

More generally, the heartless way kids were treated during pandemic illustrates how far we have lost touch with children’s needs. I think this is mainly a function of the fact that there are so few of them. Lowering the ages for mask mandates became a kind of mandatory political ritual. Whenever COVID-19 cases began to rise, politicians responded by requiring younger children to wear masks. This isn’t “child hating” so much as it is “child ignorant.” The average two-year-old is not even potty trained yet. How could we expect them to keep a mask on their face? If there were more kids around, it would be much harder for politicians to get away with this nonsense.

I am still wrapping my mind around the fact that my own children are exceptions because they have siblings. When I take all three of them to the local supermarket, I hear comments like, “What a group!” “You must be very brave,” or—my personal favorite—“That is a fine flock of children you have there.” I don’t mind. I am very proud of my “flock,” but I think life would be easier for my children if more parents felt the same way I do.

Emma Freire is a freelance writer who has been published in the Federalist, Human Events, and others. Over the past decade, she has lived with her husband and three children in Brazil, South Africa, and Europe, but she identifies as American.