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«Paper prepared for EURESCO conference ‘The Second Demographic Transition in Europe’, Bad Herrenalb, Germany, 23-28 June, 2001. Dr Julie Jefferies ...»

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A Reluctance to Embrace the

One-Child Family in Britain?

Paper prepared for EURESCO conference

‘The Second Demographic Transition in Europe’,

Bad Herrenalb, Germany, 23-28 June, 2001.

Dr Julie Jefferies

Department of Social Statistics

University of Southampton

Southampton, SO17 1BJ.

United Kingdom.


1. Introduction

With Total Fertility Rates now below two in the majority of European countries, increasing

attention needs to be focussed on women with fewer than two children. In Britain, the main focus has been on childlessness (e.g. Gillespie, 1999; McAllister and Clarke, 1998; Kiernan, 1989), but little attention has been paid to women who stop at one child or intend to do so.

This may be attributed to the fact that one-child families are still relatively uncommon in Britain, despite childlessness being on the increase. Among the most recent cohorts to have finished childbearing in England and Wales (those born in 1954), 17% of women remained childless, while only 11% had a one-child family (ONS, 2000). In addition, the evidence suggests that even fewer women intend to have a one-child family than actually do so (Laybourn, 1994).

This paper makes a preliminary investigation of one-child families in Britain, exploring the incidence of such families and aiming to ascertain the characteristics of women who have just one child and those who are intending to have just one. The paper starts by noting how the incidence of one-child families in Britain has changed over time and briefly compares the incidence of one-child families in Britain with those of the most recent cohorts of women from other European countries. Possible advantages and disadvantages of having just one child are examined from the parental perspective and this is followed by a discussion of the varying decision-making processes that may lead to having a one-child family. Three different approaches are then used to further investigate one-child families. First I model the completed family size of women that have reached age 45 in order to explore the characteristics of those having just one child as opposed to having two or more or remaining childless. Then the current fertility intentions of women at parities zero and one are modelled separately to gain understanding of the factors associated with intending to have just one child or being uncertain about future childbearing.

2. The One-Child Family in Britain: Historical and European Contexts.

Both one-child families and childlessness may be thought of as below average or very small family sizes. Other things being equal, one might expect both one-child families and childlessness to be common among cohorts of women whose fertility is low and such family sizes to be less common among higher-fertility cohorts. This relationship appears to have existed in Britain for women born prior to 1940. Anderson (1998) shows, using data from the 1911 and 1946 Censuses, that between the marriage cohorts of 1870-79 and 1925, mean family size declined from 5.8 to 2.2 children, while the percentage of marriages bearing a single child rose steadily from 5.3% to 25.2% and childlessness also doubled. Conversely, mean family size increased from 2.00 to 2.42 between women born between 1920 and 1935, while, as figure 1 shows, the proportion of women having a one-child family or remaining childless fell (ONS, 2000). Only 13% of those born in 1935 had a one-child family (ONS, 2000).

Among those born in the 1940s and 1950s, the most recent cohorts to have completed childbearing, the relationship between mean family size and the proportion of one-child families breaks down. Despite mean family size falling to just below replacement levels among women born in the 1950s, these cohorts have been even less likely than their predecessors to have an only child. The move to smaller families among those born in the 1950s is marked instead by an increase in childlessness and two-child families and a decrease in those with four or more children (see figure 1). For the first time this century, the proportion remaining childless is exceeding the proportion with one child. Whether these trends will continue among current cohorts of reproductive age remains to be seen; their stated fertility intentions may provide some clues.

–  –  –

A comparison of family size distributions in eight European countries (Pearce, Cantisani and Laihonen, 1999) shows women born in the Republic of Ireland or England and Wales in 1955 to be least likely to have a one-child family (10% and 12% respectively). One-child families are particularly common in Southern Europe, with 26% of Portuguese and 22% of Spanish women born in 1955 stopping at one. The relationship between childlessness and one-child families is also of interest, with those from England and Wales being most likely to remain childless (17%) relative to having one child (12%), followed in second place by the Republic of Ireland. In France, Spain, Portugal and Denmark, the opposite pattern can be seen, with for example, 20% of French women having one child and only 8% remaining childless. These differences may reflect differences in attitudes towards childlessness and one-child families between different European countries or simply differences in the marital or socio-economic circumstances of women in different countries.

3. The One-Child Family: Positive Choice or Circumstance?

Advantages and disadvantages of the one-child family Like any family size, the one-child family may be considered to have various advantages from the parental viewpoint. As compared to remaining childless, having one child provides the parent with emotional and social rewards, for example by enabling nurturing behaviour (Foster, 2000) and creating social relationships (Schoen et al, 1997). As compared to having a larger family, the one-child family minimises the various costs involved in childrearing.

These include direct financial costs such as food and clothing as well as indirect costs such as the mothers’ lost earnings. One child may have less impact on adult relationships and on leisure activities, while one pregnancy and birth will have less perceived impact on a woman’s body than repeated childbearing. In assessing the risk of future union dissolution, women might also consider that caring for one child single-handedly might be easier than caring for two or more. Government policy could even be said to favour the first child over subsequent births, as the child benefit given to parents is around 50% higher for first than subsequent children.

The counter-argument to the suggestion that one child is less costly than two in various ways is that the first child costs the most and the marginal costs of subsequent children are likely to be much lower. Baby equipment and toys will be purchased the first time round, additional time spent out of employment may be lower for the second child as two can be looked after together, and the second child may have less impact on the parental lifestyle compared to the first, as lifestyle changes are likely to have been made already. However, even if subsequent children cost less than the first, it is still likely that one child is the ‘cheapest’ option for those wishing to experience parenthood. Indeed, Davies, Joshi and Peronaci (2000) estimate that in the 1990s, the average highly skilled woman who has only one child will not forgo any earnings from employment over her lifetime.

On a more positive note, parents of one child will be able to put maximum input into bringing up their child and the child will not have to compete for parental time with any siblings. This is likely to both benefit the child and provide emotional satisfaction for the parent. Working mothers frequently experience guilt feelings about their multiple roles (e.g. Hochschild, 1990) and may prefer to spend the limited time they have available for childrearing with one child than struggle to spend enough time with two or more children.

However, there may also be some disadvantages in having only one child. Parents will not be able to have a child of each sex or experience the different personalities of their children.

Blake (1968) also notes that having an only child limits the period of one’s life during which children can be enjoyed. Parents may have to spend more time actively occupying one child who has no sibling to play with, though conversely they will not have to cope with sibling conflict and jealousy. They may fear that they will have less help or company in old age or that only children would find it harder to cope with the care of elderly parents or consequences of divorce.

In rational terms, the one-child option may be an appropriate choice for those who wish to experience parenthood, while at the same time pursuing goals in other fields such as employment or leisure. However, as Kohler (2000) argues, an individualistic perspective on fertility is not enough, as decisions are still made within the social environment. In the case of the one-child family in Britain, lack of social approval may be perceived to be a major reason for not stopping at one child. A strong stereotype of only children exists, that characterises such children as spoiled, lonely and maladjusted due to the lack of siblings (Laybourn, 1994).

Research has shown the prejudices surrounding only children to be unfounded (e.g. Laybourn, 1994; Falbo, 1982; Blake, 1981), but the stereotype still persists. This leads parents of only children to be particularly anxious about their child’s welfare. They also risk being considered selfish for not providing their child with a sibling to interact with and being thought of as only marginally committed to parenthood (Laybourn, 1994; Callan, 1985; Busfield and Paddon, 1977.). The Canadian Fertility Survey of 1984 found that a larger proportion of respondents believed that parents had a second child in order to create a better environment for the children than believed that they did so for their own personal satisfaction (Burch, 1991).

Similarly, an Australian study of 38 women with one child in the early 1980s found that companionship for the first child was the primary benefit cited for having a second child, while the enjoyment of having a second child was seen as secondary. In addition, several of the women intending to stop at one child stated as a possible reason for having a second that people would stop criticising them (Callan, 1985). Observation of a UK internet forum for parents of only children shows that concerns about only-child stereotypes are still a major issue among this group in the 21st century (ukparents.co.uk, 2001).

The extent of the norm against one-child families can be illustrated by examining ‘ideal’ family size responses from national surveys. Clearly such results tend to reflect the perceived ideal for a ‘normal’ family and do not equate to the desired family size for particular individuals (Girard and Roussel, 1982). However, the concept of ideal family size is still important, because individuals’ behaviour may be judged against the perceived ideal (Scott, 1998). The evidence suggests that the two-child family has been widely accepted as the ideal in Britain for many years. In 1979, 71% of Britons chose two as the ideal number of children, the highest percentage of nine EEC countries surveyed, while only 2% thought that one child was ideal (Girard and Roussel, 1982). In 1994, 75% of Britons that responded in the British Social Attitudes Survey stated that two was the ideal number of children for a family to have, the second highest after the former East Germany out of the 24 countries participating in the 1994 International Social Survey Programme. Again, less than 2% chose 1 child as the ideal (Zentralarchive fuer Empirische Sozialforschung, 1997). These clear family size norms lead to social pressure to avoid a one-child family. Back in 1973, Griffith stated in the US context that ‘even for women who want to combine work and childbearing, social pressure to have a second child and personal concern for the child’s welfare are likely to make a decision to have only one child a very difficult one to make and carry out’ (Griffith, 1973, p241).

Family size: the decision-making process

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