Nazia Jalal with her family Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Only children get a bad reputation - spoiled, selfish, and loners. And the parents of only children also have it hard, being labeled as inconsiderate for not bothering to have more children.

Despite these stereotypes, however, statistics show that ‘onlies’, as they’re called, are on the rise. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the United Kingdom show that half of British families have only one child. In the United States, 23 per cent of American families are raising one child, according to a US Census Bureau.

Several factors are responsible for this trend, including more people opting to marry later in life or a growing concern for family planning. Additionally, reasons vary from couple to couple, ranging from financial considerations, fertility issues, and professional plans.

Manuel Fernandez, a professor of finance based in Sharjah, said: “For me, one child was fine. Once my wife and I had one, we were happy. We decided, ‘let’s look after this one child properly, and give her all that she needs.’” Fernandez believes that having a small family is “more manageable” and that “finance is important” when it comes to working out family plans.

He and his wife, Sheril, tried conceiving for eight years before finally having a daughter in 2001. His only worry is if his daughter, Vania, will have a solid support system when she ages. “When you’re in a big family, there’s always someone there to support you. My daughter has plenty of cousins, and all of them are fond of each other. The big question is, when they grow older, will the attachment still be there?”

Various studies have reported different conclusions about the relationship between number of siblings and a child’s traits or personality. Fernandez’s 15-year old daughter, Vania, loves her ‘only’ status. “I’m happy being an only child. I don’t mind sharing my stuff with other people, but I don’t like sharing my parents,” she said.

Although it might seem that only children grow up lonely without siblings, it’s important to note that conflicts between brothers and sisters can cause harm too. According to a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, children from 0 to 9 years old and youth from 10 to 17 years old who experienced sibling aggression in the preceding year reported greater mental distress. This aggression can constitute physical, property, or psychological assault, and such experiences led to worsened mental health. It seems Vania knows that having siblings would not be a good fit for her. “An older sibling can overshadow you, while a younger sibling needs to be taken care of. I wouldn’t want either.”

For career-driven individuals, particularly mothers, having an only child enables them to achieve their ambitions without being overloaded with responsibilities. One child means taking only one parental leave, allowing a mother or father to allot more time to career-building.

Nazia Jalal carefully considered her options and has managed to strike a balance between career and personal goals. She is currently raising a four-year-old son, Rayhaan. “I’m a working mother, and I’d like to give enough time to my child. I was concerned that if I had two kids or more in a very short span of time, then I would not be able to give enough time to them.” However, the architect has not been immune to judgement for her choice, and she’s not the only one. Parents from one-child families are looked upon with pity, curiosity, or outright criticism. Questions such as, ‘won’t the child get lonely?’; ‘can’t you have more children?’; and ‘aren’t you being selfish?’ are a few of the common ones.

Jalal’s response? “It’s not about having as many as you can. It’s not a race. It’s about giving the best you can to your child. They say the more the merrier, but that won’t fulfil you if you don’t give the right amount of attention and are unable to provide a good education and future. That’s more crucial.”

Raising an only child also means that parents have the ability to ease up on certain duties of parenthood, like paying for studies, after a certain time. According to Sunil Roy, an advertising professional, “Having one child has given us more time to explore more interests. When my daughter left home for college, my wife and I felt that we could start expanding on our activities and hobbies. If we had another child, we would have had to wait a little longer.”

Now in his late 40s, Roy feels he and his wife have made the right decision. “We always felt that one child is ideal. It helped us put more effort into the growth and development of my daughter, as I wanted to focus on her education.”

Roy trusts that her daughter has created a good network of support for the future: “I feel that nowadays the support system comes from one’s friends. Plus, there are always extended family and cousins who can step in if needed.”

His daughter, Divya Roy, is now 21 and studies law in India. She notes that self-reliance is the biggest benefit to being an only. “I learned to be more independent. When you’re an ‘only’, you have to figure things out for yourself. You also need to learn to stand up for yourself in certain situations.” However, she did encounter a challenge growing up when she tried to find a peer or relative to connect to. “Sometimes teenage problems are difficult for parents to understand, and friends can be just as clueless as you are. During teenage years, children need a sibling figure who can understand what it’s like to be young, but can also give out protective, parental-like advice.”

Despite the prejudice against onlies, Divya knows that it’s not just about the number. “People have this perception that only children are selfish, but it’s really not about that. It’s about how parents raise their child. Having a good upbringing is what forms your character.”