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.