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ONLY CHILD

At 14, I learned a lesson that most kids master well before their age hits double digits. When a boy who'd taunted me all through junior high asked me to sign his yearbook, I thought it was a tease, a trick in which he'd yank the book away just as I started to write. I knew he hated me; he'd been my tormentor for years. So of course I refused. To my surprise, his genuinely quizzical look told me that the request had been sincere.

It was an understandable mistake on my part, though. Most of the kids I knew had learned how to tease and be teased much earlier in life than I finally did. That's because they all had something I lacked: siblings.As the only child in my family, I grew up with no one to make faces at me, slam me against the wall, steal my hair ribbon, or frighten me with rubber bugs. My parents may have had a bad day now and then, but hey, they never hid my math book or called me "bunnyface." How was I to know that most kids deal with such treatment every day of their lives?

This lack of sibling savvy made me more sensitive than most of my peers, and maybe I didn't roll with the punches as easily as they did. But those appear to be about the worst effects the absence of brothers and sisters had on me. Otherwise, I grew up happy, made friends, did well in college, and married a great guy (who also happens to be an only child).

So what about the pervasive idea that all children without siblings are selfish, lonely and spoiled? Well, according to nearly everyone who studies these things, the stereotypical attention-grabbing, foot-stamping, tantrum-throwing only child resides mainly in our collective imagination.

"Being an only child accounts for no more than about 2 percent of the variants affecting personality and behavior," says Toni Falbo, a professor of sociology and educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. "The other 98 percent are determined by a host of more important factors: social class, gender, education, quality of parenting, and family members' physical and psychological health."

After reviewing almost 150 published studies and conducting her own research on the subject, Falbo - who's the country's leading authority on only children - has concluded that onlies are generally just as happy and well-adjusted as kids with siblings. What's more, the differences that do exist are frequently to the onlies' advantage. Only children tend to get slightly better grades, be more ambitious, earn more advanced academic degrees, and display greater self-esteem.

Then why the negative stereotype? Perhaps it's because most people don't have much firsthand experience with only children, who have traditionally been in short supply. A decade ago, just 10 percent of American women had had a single child by the end of their childbearing years. These days, however, that number has jumped to an all-time high of 17 percent - which means that one in six women will be the mother of an only child. Ironically, there are currently more families with one child than with any other number of children. Many of these 13 million single-child families, of course, will expand into multichild families - but in the meantime they account for 41 percent of all households with kids under 18. By comparison, slightly fewer than 12 million families have two children, and about 7 million have three or more.

The forces that produced these changes vary. Among them are a high divorce rate, an increase in average age at the time of marriage, and many women's desire to establish themselves in careers before having children, which left them with less time on their biological clocks. In addition, there's the drastic improvement in birth-control methods and the legalization of abortion, both of which gave women more control over their fertility. No less important is the daunting economic reality of raising children to adulthood - an undertaking that's now estimated to cost middle-income families more than $120,000 per child.

The reason parents stop at one can be an indicator of whether that lone child will turn out great or not-so-good. If a negative factor such as infertility, death, divorce or some other loss prevents the birth of siblings, the child may sense that something is wrong and feel deprived. But if his or her parents truly accept the circumstances or planned all along to have just one, the child is likely to get the message that the family's size is just fine.

Though my experience as an only child was mostly good, my husband, Steven, tells a different tale. He grew up in a severely dysfunctional family in which being the sole child was a real drawback.

"My parents were constantly fighting, and I got caught in the middle," he says. "Each of them tried to pit me against the other; my mother even wanted me to testify on her behalf during the divorce hearing."

In reaction to this, Steven went from confusion as a small child to spirited rebellion as a teenager. "I had nobody to help take the heat, nobody to help me deal with the family's problems and put them in perspective. So I pushed things to the limit, not to get attention but to release the pressure."

No matter what one's actual experience was like, though, it's clear that other people's attitudes toward only-childhood have a lot to do with their own assumptions. A young mother who's a friend of mine recently told me about a trip to the zoo taken by her family of four and another couple with one child, a toddler. "Their little girl was really good all day," my friend recalled, "but when we got in the car to leave, she got very whiny and cranky. She's an only chld, and she's just used to getting what she wants when she wants it."

I wanted to ask my friend if she knows any toddlers who DON'T get whiny and cranky after a full day. Falbo notes that this typecasting of only children is common. "The truth," she says, laughing, "is that last-born kids often act more spoiled than onlies do."

"Siblings are tremendously overrated," maintains Susan Newman, who's an authority on parenting and child care and the author of "Parenting an Only Child" (Doubleday, 1990). Her perspective is uniquely balanced: a stepmother of four before her divorce, she remarried and now has one child, 10-year-old Andrew.

"Put an only-child toddler in a room full of toys," she says, "and he'll grab the same number as a toddler with siblings would. It's a function of age, not of sibling status."

Perhaps the sharpest concern many one-child parents feel is that their kids will be lonely. "I did worry at first," admits Anita Daucunas, who lives in Boulder, Colo., and has a 5-year-old daughter. "But Jennifer is in school all day with other kids, and when she gets home she goes right out to play with the neighborhood children."

At the same time, onlies are often more comfortable playing by themselves. Sandra Lee Steadham of Dallas says that her daughter, 9-year-old Zoe, is outgoing but also enjoys spending time on her own. "For Zoe," she explains, "being alone isn't the same as being lonely."

Like any other type of family, single-child households do have trouble spots. For one thing, the parents of an only child have a tendency to be overly attentive, warns Murray Kappelman, a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of Maryland. Too much concern about the child's health, for example, can encourage hypochondria. Performance expectations that are too rigorous can create a heightened need for approval, and an overabundance of material rewards can give the child a bad case of the I-wants.

"But those tendencies exist with most firstborns," Kappelman emphasizes, "not just with onlies." The fact is that any family size creates its own set of problems. There is no perfect number of children.

Which is good news as far as I'm concerned, because Steven and I may well decide to visit the delivery room just once ourselves. Since only-childhood is a family tradition for both of us (my mother and his father are also onlies), the prospect of unleashing another only child on the world doesn't concern me much. I'm more worried that when and if I do get pregnant, God will play a practical joke on us and we'll have twins.

*****

Famous only children

Hans Christian Anderson

Lauren Bacall Truman Capote

Walter Cronkite

Leonardo da Vinci

Sammy Davis Jr.

Robert De Niro

Albert Einstein

Indira Gandhi

Elton John

Ted Koppel

Marilyn Monroe

Al Pacino

Elvis Presley

Franklin D. Roosevelt

*****

Some pointers for parents of only children

-Foster strong relationships between your child and other kids: cousins, your friends' children and so on.

-Maintain an open-house policy and invite other children over to play often.

-Spend time around other kids the same age as yours- not to compare them, but to get an idea of the range of acceptable behavior for that age.

-Develop your own interests; don't make your child the sole focus of your life.

-See that your child has the kind of sounding board siblings provide. A nonjudgmental, nonparental relative can act as a safety valve, alleviating the only child's feeling of being one kid pitted against two adults.

-Let your child know that it's OK to make mistakes. Acknowledge it when you make one, so that the child will learn to see this as a normal and inevitable part of life.

-Delegate the responsibility for household chores; don't pick up all the laundry yourself.