The classic American idea about only children, nurtured in suburbs where two children could seem too few, is that they’re oddballs—coddled, spoiled, lonely. Raised without the camaraderie and competition of sibling society, they’re simultaneously stunted and overdeveloped—a repository of all their parents’ baggage (hello, Chelsea Clinton). When the Chinese government mandated in 1979 that each family could have only one child (a directive that would lead to 70 million only-child births over the following two decades), President Reagan gave special consideration on immigration applications to Chinese objectors to the one-child policy. The negative stereotype of only children persists today: According to a 2004 Gallup poll, only 3 percent of Americans think a single-child family is the ideal family size.
“I don’t remember what I did to cause or provoke it, but one day as a punishment the teacher told me to stand up in front of the whole class and tell them what it was like being an only child,” Betsey Niederman, an actress and the mother of a 7-year-old only herself, Matthew, says of childhood in New Canaan, Connecticut, in the fifties. “I will never forget those glaring eyes—it was like The Scarlet Letter. I started to talk, but my eyes misted over and I ran out of the classroom. I walked along the Merritt Parkway until an elderly couple picked me up and took me home. I told my mom that I never wanted to go back there, and she let me stay home before I switched schools. She didn’t want me to go to school anyway. She was attached to me.”
Although large-scale empirical studies, in vogue in the late seventies, found only children to be no more bratty and lonely than other children and that the most important factor—thank you, Dr. Freud—is the quality of the parenting, the stereotypes have recently found some—smallish—validation in academic research. In a paper published this year in the Journal of Marriage and Family, Ohio State University researchers analyzed a Department of Education study of 20,000 kindergartners and found that while only children perform at the same level as firstborns in school, they tended to be less socially skilled than their peers—more temperamental, less sensitive to the feelings of others.
Only children in pop culture are not exactly well-adjusted. Chandler is the only Friend without siblings, the “weird,” neurotic friend who also has a third nipple and a drag-queen father. Noah Wyle (Dr. Carter) is the chilly, entitled only child of ER. None of the characters on Seinfeld have siblings, nor do those on Curb Your Enthusiasm, except the sap, Cheryl. The only child is a superhero—as in Harry Potter or on Buffy, where the only sibling in sight was the magical creation of a gang of evil monks—or a brat. Here is Eloise on room service: “I always say, ‘Hello this is me Eloise and would you kindly send one roast-beef bone, one raisin and seven spoons to the top floor and charge it please, thank you very much.’ Then I hang up and look at the ceiling for a while and think of a way to get a present.”
A thoroughly unscientific culling of famous only children can suggest a certain kind of character, one who’s comfortable (sometimes too comfortable) creating his own weather, who is at home (sometimes too at home) with his or her own contradictions—and occasionally something of a megalomaniac: Alan Greenspan, Frank Sinatra, Tiger Woods, FDR, Rudolph Giuliani, Roy Cohn, Laura Bush, and the three Apollo 8 astronauts. Elvis, Priscilla, and Lisa Marie Presley were all only children—Elvis’s twin brother was stillborn, and after his father was sent to jail for forging an $8 check, he and his mom started sleeping in the same bed, which would continue until he was an adult. Elvis swiped his first uppers from Gladys, and when she died in 1958, some think he never recovered. William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane, was doted on by both his possessive mother and his uneducated, millionaire father, who granted his every wish except when he asked on a trip to London to move into Windsor Castle (he would later spend 30 years constructing his own palace, Hearst Castle). Then there’s Hans Christian Andersen: Born to a 23-year-old shoemaker and 30-year-old washerwoman, the highly religious children’s author liked to say that his life was a wonderful fairy tale. He began his first autobiography, “I feel that an invisible and loving hand directs the whole of [my life]; that it was not blind chance which helped me on my way, but that an invisible and fatherly heart has beat for me.”
That you could have parents whose hearts beat for you and only you is a comfort. For one thing, there are no set limits on what a parent will give an only child, no pressure from other siblings to split things up. It’s not spoiling, it’s just . . . life. You are the one who gets to decide what playground to go to. You are the one who gets all the money in the end. You are the one who, if you happen to be Leyla Marchetto, daughter of Da Silvano’s proprietor, gets to travel the world with your dad, almost like a lover, visiting Nice, Florence, Kenya, Paris, and St. Barts before 18, and who is assured when you move to L.A. at 25, partially to distance yourself from that father, that his compatriots, like Jack Nicholson, will be looking out for you (this is assuming that Jack Nicholson’s looking out for you is a good idea). Family becomes not so much a pedagogy as a democracy, not even a family, really, or at least it feels that way to the kid. There is the perception, if not always the reality, of equality: When my dad would take second helpings at dinner, I always insisted on the same—“But I am bigger than you,” he tried to explain. It’s almost too much, how intensely everyone relates to each other, especially in a standard two-bedroom apartment. “When I tried to transfer to boarding school in eleventh grade because I disliked my school so much, my dad sent me to a shrink to make sure that I wasn’t trying to run away from him,” says Joanna Bernstein, 31. “That’s what being an only child is.”
For only children, that blessed sense of entitlement, where you’re always listened to and taken seriously—if not to Paris or Kenya—is at war with a sense of being smothered. “I feel that the attention was wonderful, but the imperative to bloom—to be happy, really—was not,” says Deborah Siegel, project director of a women’s research center and co-editor with Daphne Uviller of a forthcoming book of essays on only childhood, Party of One. “Even now, my mom talks about how The Runaway Bunny was my favorite book, which it wasn’t necessarily. It’s about this bunny that runs away to join the circus: The mother says, ‘If you go away, I’ll become the circus master,’ and then the bunny says, ‘I might go be a sailboat,’ and the mother says, ‘I’ll be the wind.’ ”
She might have preferred, say, Tolstoy. Only children tend to develop precocious interests—Ondine started Dante’s Inferno at 7, though she didn’t make it to the second page. Matthew Niederman regaled me with a detailed explanation of hyperspace, the relative advantages of Richard Meier’s new buildings, and why we should pull out of the Iraq war but not before scouring the hole where Hussein was found, because that’s where the WMDs are. Nevertheless, “I’m looonely,” he said, striding around the toy-strewn living room. “My dad is on his computer 8,000 hours a day. I have all these cool realistic toys, but they’re fake. Game Boys hypnotize your brain, but I could have a Game Boy Battleship with two players and maybe I could have someone to play it with me.” He does have the company of his girlfriend, though. “She likes my jokes and thinks I’m funny,” he says with a matter-of-fact shrug. “I think she’s kind and loving.”
Then Matthew’s mom and dad told him they were going out to dinner.
“Noooooo!” he shrieked, jumping in his father’s lap. “I want chicken! I want Daddy’s chicken!”
Rather than having siblings always in your business, you have parents, who tend to be much more formidable adversaries and who can choose not to cook chicken. The issue tends to arise when kids don’t share parents’ interests, or vice versa—usually around the time kids start wanting to play board games, the only child finds himself at odds. From about third grade on, I’d come back from violin, piano, ballet, modern dance, or fencing lessons around six and then—what? Dinner and homework, which might include a science project that was a whole-family project, or perhaps some math-problem sets, which could mean a fight with my father (“You’re getting it wrong to spite me” was his explanation for my lack of aptitude). With a sibling, you would remember what you did. That was the time Karen and I played tennis by the light of the moon, and that was the time Sam froze all my underwear in the refrigerator. Instead, it was always us three roomies, self-motivating to do whatever it was we had to do, except that the two of them got to tell me I didn’t practice my violin long enough and I should go to sleep already. The condition of being an only child gives one a lot to think about—and plenty of time to think.