Why do we have bad science about only children?

I’m preparing to talk to a group of high school psychology teachers about “bad” science. (How is “Bad Science” not an eighties movie? Was “Weird Science” enough?) I’m reeling, as I have many times before in reporting on the science of only children, from the disconnect between what studies about only children show us, and what we tend to believe, regardless.

I visited birth order guru and scientific historian Frank Sulloway at Berkeley last year.  We talked about why bad scientific reasoning about onlies tends to occur outside the data sets. He believes a Darwinian impetus may well underlie the stereotype. Our relatives had an evolutionary imperative to spread their own genes.  “They need a good story to convince us to do this. So they say, have just one and it’ll come out rotten,” Sulloway says.

The more children a family had—once they were of able working age, by ten years old–the more people could help turn surviving into thriving.  Children were life insurance. Infant mortality was high, life expectancies were short. The lesson was clear: parent or perish. That lesson was deeply encoded, and apparently it takes a great deal to decode it. Much more than 500-odd studies which few people even know about.

Sulloway points out that Darwinian interests should be telling us these days, “you’re better off investing in a small number of offspring; larger families are no longer adaptive.”  Maybe we’re getting there.  Very slowly.

But there seems to be something else afoot, not just what our survival requires in biological terms.  I think about the degree of freedom and agency I have with one child, which I would sacrifice with a second.  (I must acknowledge that I know plenty of people who maintain this freedom with two or more, but I don’t believe I could.  Furthermore, we all how much freer one is with none at all.)  And I think of how our culture, as my friend Carlene has said to me, “needs us to behave.”  Heaping parenting upon us as a time-tested requirement is a sure way to get us to behave, to manage the chaos of the juggle, to focus on our domestic lives.

And I’d venture imperative, to keep us focused on the family, has been even more effective in disseminating the bad science that only children are inherently flawed.

Comments for:
"Why do we have bad science about only children?"
  1. eshynes

    “manage the chaos of the juggle” is so good – a pun that has real meaning, that articulates how one terrain of survival has been replaced by another. Here’s to doing more than just managing, but questioning and changing just how chaotic chaos has to be.

  2. Lizzetta

    I love that you’re considering science and insights from biology to inform your argument! That’s something we need so much more of.

    However, I’d like to respond to Sulloway’s comment that “larger families are no longer adaptive”. Unfortunately, I don’t think our “Darwinian interests” have recently changed. How could they have? The measure of biological success (more genes surviving to future generations) is the same as it always has been. And in fact, in developed societies, infants and children generally survive and are cared for into adulthood, regardless of the family of origin’s ability to support them.

    I think Sulloway might be conflating biological adaptiveness with adaptiveness related to well-being.Ie. the difference between, as you write, “surviving vs. thriving”. Biological mechanisms only “want” genes to survive into the next life so that the genes may reproduce. Obviously an organism (or population’s) happiness and well-being do not figure in beyond the ability to reproduce as much as possible.

    So, while I think it’s critical to consider our biological origins and the forces that may be unconsciously informing our decisions, I also think it’s so important to remember that those same biological forces may be in direct conflict with choices that enhance our well-being.

    As George C. Williams wrote: “Mother Nature is a Wicked Witch”!

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