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90'S FAMILY | REAL LIFE

Only Children Are Hardly Alone Anymore

January 05, 1997|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chelsea Clinton. Cary Grant. Robin Williams. John Lennon.

Years ago, people might have called them selfish, lonely or maladjusted because they were only children.

Today, people like Charles and Carolyn White of Los Angeles prefer words like "intense," "singular" or "introspective." The Whites, who were unable to have a second child after their daughter was born 17 years ago, said that not only do old stereotypes linger, but many new issues have popped up regarding only children--a rapidly increasing segment of the population.

As a result, the Whites have written "Only Child News," a fledgling newsletter and Web site, expected to be in full production in late January. The forum is aimed at the nation's estimated 20 million only children, young and old, their parents, grandparents and friends. They plan to cover topics like indulgence, vacations, finances, the empty nest and taking care of elderly parents without the benefit of siblings.

As more women have gone to work and delayed childbearing and couples have taken expense into consideration when deciding on family size, families have been steadily shrinking. Whereas 9.6% of all mothers aged 40 to 44 in 1976 said they had only one child, that number increased to 17% by 1994, according to the U.S. Census. "One day, we're going to wake up and only children will be the norm and not the exception," Charles White said.

Raising one child is not easier than raising two, he said. Parents of only children do a lot more worrying, for one thing. For another, their relationships are often more intense, he said. When he and his wife organized a meeting at their daughter's school, he said every only child in the school wanted her parents to come and "get the counseling."

Toni Falbo, a researcher who specializes in only children at the University of Texas at Austin, said she has seen similar support groups come and go across the country over the past several decades. Mostly, she said, parents are trying to cope with the idea that they will be ruining their child's life if they don't have more children. "They need a lot of group support to bolster their decision to just have one," she said.

In some families, like the Whites, having just one child was not voluntary, and parents have to cope with their sadness as well as that of their child who wants to have a family like others. When their daughter, Alexis, was about 5, Charles White said, she suddenly began begging for a baby sister like one her best friend had. "She would come home in tears and reduce my wife to tears. She would say, 'There's a hole in my heart that can only be filled by a baby brother or sister.' "

Falbo said her studies of college students showed that only children are not more selfish, lonely or maladjusted than others and, in fact, they had a slight advantage academically. "They tend to have better educated parents and, in general, children of better educated parents tend to make better grades and enter more prestigious occupations."

Some authors have suggested that only children are superior to others. But, Falbo said, "They are mostly like other people."

White said that after talking to many parents, he thinks only children have some unique characteristics. He said they tend to be more eloquent and more creative because their experiences are mostly singular. Being an only child "causes them to draw on a lot of their own resources," he said.

So far, White said he's received varied reactions to the newsletter and Web site. One father of four grown children said he had been an only child but never realized until recently how important siblings can be. To his dismay, he said his children, although separated by thousands of miles, keep in touch with each other regularly, but not with him.

* More information about the newsletter may be obtained by writing to Only Child News, 137 N. Larchmont Blvd., No. 556, Los Angeles, CA 90004, or by e-mail to onlychild@earthlnk.net or at http://www.onlychild.com.

* Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or via e-mail at lynn.smith@latimes.com. Please include a telephone number.

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