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The Well-Kept Secret About Only Children

A quiet, decades-long shift in family size has taken the pressure off parents.

Key points

  • One-child families are the norm in the United States and account for about half of all families in Europe.
  • Birth rates are expected to continue to drop throughout the developed world.
  • Families with one child are far more common and accepted today, easing the pressure to have multiple children.
Yan Krukau/Pexels
Source: Yan Krukau/Pexels

These days, people telling parents of “only one” that they should have another child is rare. Most people now understand how difficult it is to raise children and the roadblocks some face just to become pregnant.

Nonetheless, we might still be inclined to think of a traditional family as mom, dad, and two kids—perhaps even one boy and one girl. That was considered the norm, if not the ideal, forever. At least it felt that way. But that expectation put a lot of pressure on parents who were just trying to figure out how they could provide for a single child, let alone multiple kids.

A Well-Kept Secret

Fortunately, it seems that societal expectations around family size have been quietly changing for some time in most developed countries including in the United States. One-child families have outnumbered two-child families for several decades in America, as is clear from U.S. Census Bureau data.

One-child families are also the norm in Europe by a wide margin. According to a report from the European Large Families Confederation, nearly half of all households with children, or 49.4 percent, had just one child, and, in some countries—Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Lithuania among them--at least 50% or more of households have one child. In contrast, only 12 percent of all families in Europe have three or more children.

Some couples are choosing not to have any children at all, or are not able to, and birth rates are projected to continue to fall in developed countries around the world. In an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “The End of Babies,” Anna Louie Sussman wrote, “If any country should be stocked with babies, it is Denmark. The country is one of the wealthiest in Europe. New parents enjoy 12 months’ paid family leave and highly subsidized daycare. Women under 40 can get state-funded in vitro fertilization.” Yet, between 40 and 50 percent of Denmark’s families have one child.

Denmark’s perks and policies, available in varied forms in other countries, are glaringly absent in the United States, which is the only wealthy country that doesn’t have a guaranteed paid parental leave policy. When that’s combined with starting families “older,” the rigors and cost of raising children, the pressure on working mothers, and pandemic fallout, it’s easy to understand the clear movement toward one-child families here.

When I initially spoke with Nancy*, 53, the mother of an 8-year-old, she told me that she didn’t know anyone in her Georgia area who had an only child. A day later, she emailed, “I've busted my own stereotype of there not being many families with only children in the South. Among my peers growing up, I can still only think of one, but among my daughter's peers, there are many. I can name eight families with one child off the top of my head.” Nancy’s discovery reflects what’s happening not only in one region of the United States but also across the country and around the world.

More Than a Change in Number—a Shift in Attitudes

It’s not just the size of families that is changing, either. Today there is, again, a greater acceptance of parents having one child—and no expectation that another is on the way.

*Participant in the Only Child Research Project. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.

Copyright @2023 by Susan Newman


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Admin. (2022). “12% of European households have 3 or more children.” European Large Families Confederation: June 3.

Statista Research Department. (2023). “Families in the United States - Statistics & Facts.” Statista Research Department: Aug 30.

Kearney, Melissa S. and Phillip B. Levine. (2020). “The Coming COVID-19 Baby Bust: Update.” Brookings Institute: December 17.

Sussman, Anna Louie. (2019). “The End of Babies.” New York Times: Nov. 16.

Related: More Babies After COVID? Some Answers

The Biggest Benefit of Being an Only Child, and Its Risk

Why So Many Only Children Excel in School

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