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We have several friends who have two or more children, while myself and my wife only have one. Often when we visit them, it seems that the conversation always turns to, "When are you having your second?", and when we suggest that we only want one, we are often met with incredulous reactions, often followed with statements like:

  1. Shame! Poor child, he'll be all alone when you two are gone.
  2. Shame, he won't have someone to talk to about issues at home.
  3. It's much easier to have two or more, they can play with each other.
  4. He'll develop much better by learning close bonds only siblings can give.
  5. Isn't that a bit selfish, you should think about your son, he'll be better off with a brother/sister.

And so on.

Our reasons for just wanting one are primarily economic ones, but we also think we can give our son a much better environment in terms of attention and support. Truth be told, we find demands of everyday life and the demands of parenting just one child to be quite demanding already, so we think having a second may impact all our lives negatively.

There really does seem to be intense pressure to have a second child, and after such conversations, I do often feel guilty that we are happy with just our son, and that maybe we are being selfish. I've read a bit online about the subject, and there seems to be quite a lot of arguments to suggest having one or more siblings matters/doesn't matter, but I'm wondering what real, concrete evidence there is one way or the other? Is a child really better off with a sibling?

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How old is your current child? Also, never feel guilty for having only one child. While there may be arguable benefits (and drawbacks!) to having multiple children, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having only one. Don't let social pressure force you to have more children than you are comfortable and capable (both mentally and socially) of handling. –  Doc Apr 23 at 14:26
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Here's my two cents about this: I'm 18 years old and I have a 14-year-old brother. Besides my brother being my best friend and the only person I can trust with certain types of matters, I've noticed most children and especially teenagers with no siblings having a poor sense of ownership, equality and private space. Being the center of attention of their parents, they tend to take it for granted. When they're not, they turn to their friends for attention, which I've never seen ending up well. However, I can imagine many more ways in which this could have ended. I think it is just a gamble. –  Vercas Apr 23 at 16:01
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Anecdotal, but I'm an only child and have never felt like I missed out. In fact, my friends and cousins fight with their siblings so much that I'm often happy I don't have any. I definitely don't have "a poor sense of ownership, equality and private space" and I'm not lonely, unlike previous comments. –  user7185 Apr 23 at 21:55
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This is not easily described, but i vote against single-kids. My observations; less active self reflection (e.g eating habits), does not mitigate the strain on their environment (e.g. cleaning), cant handle shared ownership (e.g. bank accounts). This pretty much summs up my feelings: grabs my magazine, reads it for a few seconds, dumps it on the table without returning it to me. I know of good single-kids too, but they all have these little social shortcommings. ( What Vercas said. ) –  Barry Staes Apr 24 at 12:02
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@BarryStaes The problem with anecdotal observations: they represent an extremely limited sampling, and therefore may not be at all representative. The children with siblings that my son knows have "these little social shortcomings", most frequently to a much stronger degree than the only children we know. In fact, the kids with siblings we know mostly have a harder time sharing, fight to be the center of attention, and are generally out of control. Is it fair to blame that on their having siblings? No. Neither is it fair to blame the characteristics you described on kids being an only child –  Beofett Apr 29 at 12:19

14 Answers 14

up vote 62 down vote accepted

A large part of the population can be counted on to tell you why you should do exactly what they did, and all the downsides to whatever you're doing that they didn't do. You might even have tendencies to do this yourself.

  • no children? Shame you'll be all alone when you're old.
  • 5 children? Shame you'll never be able to give each of them the time and money they deserve.
  • Not married? Shame you can't share the greatest bond that ever existed.
  • Married? Shame your love isn't strong enough to keep you together without a piece of paper.
  • Two jobs? Shame you never get any time together, and that neither of you is a true success
  • One job, one stays home? Shame you've accepted outdated gender roles (even while reversing them if you have), and that the stay home one is not a true success
  • cloth diapers? Shame you don't mind risking your child's health to look trendy and be holier-than-thou
  • disposable diapers? Shame you don't mind ruining the planet and your child's health, and supporting evil conglomerates, for a little convenience

And so on. Do not look for factual rebuttals to these claims. All important decisions have plusses and minuses. Your friends are not wrong when they mention some of the minuses of having "only" one child. But the existence of these minuses doesn't mean you're wrong to stop at one. If you go on to have another child later, it doesn't mean these friends can be delighted that they "won the argument."

If you can, just laugh these comments off and say "when and if we're expecting another, we'll be sure to tell you!" If you can't laugh, and wish they could stop, put a serious face on and say "things aren't always that simple, and I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't campaign for something I can't choose right now." Then don't go into details about the "can't". They may conclude you're infertile, but at least they'll stop teasing you.

If you really want advice, surely you know that

  • people manage to afford more than two children on less money than you have, no matter how little money you have, and think they are doing ok
  • children can be happy or unhappy with or without siblings
  • advantages and disadvantages come packaged together and you can't choose one set without the other
  • this is your decision and you don't need to defend it
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This is great. I'm digging the beginning breakdown of societal expectations. –  ChristopherW Apr 23 at 13:40
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This is one of the best answers to any question on the SE network, and is applicable to so much more than just parenting. Shame on you for typing it in a web browser, RMS would have done it in Emacs! –  dotancohen Apr 24 at 6:12
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This is a nice generic post, but it does not answer Craig's question. He wants some hard evidence, not opinions. –  daraos Apr 24 at 8:07
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@daraos I am telling him why he doesn't want it. He doesn't need to rebut the "facts" his friends are providing, and whether those facts are true or not, he doesn't have to have another child. Because the real decision is whether the factors balance more towards another child or stopping at one. Nobody will argue whether the factors exist or not. Understanding tradeoffs and balances helps you make decisions and insulates you from regret when people challenge those decisions. –  Chrys Apr 24 at 12:15
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I know why you wrote the post, and I don't disagree with its content, but I was about to write something similar and stopped myself, because the OP was specifically asking for something more "accountable". That's why I believe Beofett's answer fits the question better. –  daraos Apr 24 at 14:39

I'm wondering what real, concrete evidence there is one way or the other? Is a child really better off with a sibling?

How do you measure this? "Better off" is potentially subjective, and only-child vs. having siblings is likely a trade-off of some positives and some negatives for each side.

Research

Studies appear to be somewhat contradictory, likely because of the subjective nature.

Susan Newmann, a Social Psychologist, advocates for only children being no different, on the whole, from children with siblings.

This opinion piece cites numerous studies (unfortunately most are not specifically identified) that indicate there are no significant differences between only-children and those with siblings:

in hundreds of studies during the past decades exploring 16 character traits — including leadership, maturity, extroversion, social participation, popularity, generosity, cooperativeness, flexibility, emotional stability, contentment — only children scored just as well as children with siblings.

and

An Ohio State survey of more than 13,000 children found that only children had as many friends as anyone else

Some studies even suggest that only children may have some advantages over children with siblings:

This review combined the results of 141 studies and found that only children scored significantly better than other groups in achievement motivation and personal adjustment. The achievement motivation finding was especially reliable, persisting across several comparison groups. Overall, however, the review indicated that only children were comparable in most respects to their siblinged counterparts.

However, on the other side of the coin, studies were done to evaluate the differences between children born before and after the "One Child" policy introduced in China in 1979.

The team had the participants play simple economics games, which involve the exchange of money between anonymous participants and are designed to test a range of personality indicators. The games revealed that people born after the introduction of the policy were, not only less trusting, less trustworthy, and more pessimistic, but also less competitive, less conscientious, and more risk-averse.

While the article I link extolls the scientific virtues of this study, personally I am concerned that they're identifying the relationship as causal, even though the children are of different generations.

Sometimes children might feel that their parents favor their sibling(s) over them. Research on favoritism shows this can have some negative consequences:

  • Self-esteem in the child correlates to perceived parental favoritism (Felson & Zielinski, 1989; Zervas & Sherman, 1994). Children, whose parents had treated all children equally, rated highest in self-esteem; favored children rated lower, nonfavored lowest (Zervas & Sherman, 1994). Parents' supportive behavior affects the self-esteem of children but child self-esteem also affects how much support children report their parents give them; in addition, parents have a greater effect on the self-esteem of girls than of boys (Felson & Zielinski, 1989).

  • Siblings express less warmth and greater hostility toward one another when parents show favoritism (McHale et al., 1995)

  • over time, being unfavored by parents produces behavior problems in children (Richmond, Stocker, & Rienks, 2005)

Anecdotes

Only Children

I am an only child, as is my cousin, who is the family member I've always had the closest relationship with. We've discussed this topic quite a bit between us.

We both agreed that being an only child had disadvantages. We both felt that not having siblings took away opportunities from us. Opportunities to be or have role models close to our age. Opportunities to have readily-available playmates at home.

We've also discussed other benefits, such as saving money on hand-me-downs, and the kids entertaining themselves more readily, freeing up some "me" or "us" time for the parents.

Some of the negatives I listed above can also be viewed as positives.

Lack of readily-available playmates (I grew up in a suburban neighborhood with very few children; most of my neighbors were older, with grandchildren) made me adept at finding ways to amuse myself (including developing a love of reading).

I believe that my being an only child has generally made me more independant

Siblings

There are also potential downsides for having siblings.

Hand-me-downs are an economic advantage for the parents, but may be problematic for the ones receiving them.

And ultimately, some siblings just do not get along.

My wife is one of three daughters. Her relationship with one of her sisters is, and always has been... well, "strained" is the most positive term I can use to describe it. Much of their history has been outright hostile.

I know other people who grew up resentful because they felt that they were shouldered with the burden of being responsible for their younger sibling(s). Of course, others had the exact opposite perception.

Parents

Given the mix of pros and cons for each, ultimately it should be what works best for the parents that should be the deciding factor.

My cousin wound up having two children, for exactly the reasons I mentioned above. She is very happy that they have grown to be very good friends. Sure, there is occasional strife, but generally they stick up for each other, play well with each other, and share a strong bond. It does seem to give my cousin and her husband more time with the kids off doing their own thing, but I suspect that that benefit may be short-lived, especially if the kids start getting involved in extracurricular activities (one is school-aged, the other will be soon).

My wife and I, on the other hand, wound up deciding that we're sticking with one child, despite my previous belief that I wanted two. There were a number of factors in our decision, ranging from space (our house isn't terribly large, so room-sharing would be a potential issue) to finance (kids, especially infants, are expensive!) to time (newborns are a tremendous investment in time as well as money, and we don't want to have to start off with diapers all over again!).

Ultimately, though, I think what sealed the deal for us was just how happy and well-adjusted our son appears, even though he doesn't have a sibling. He plays very well with others, has always shared exceptionally well for his age, and has a number of friends that he's made, in daycare and out.

In short, do what you think is best, and ignore the opinion of others. After all, if you do wind up having another child, eventually you'll probably start hearing people commenting on how much better only children have it!

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Greatly referenced answer, but I'm worried that no one is bringing forth the human population point. @Everyone Please watch this documentary and try to think beyond your family. youtube.com/watch?v=dN06tLRE4WE (imdb.com/title/tt1575870) –  user13107 Apr 29 at 2:17

The answer depends on how and where you live.

1

I grew up in a small village at a time when no one had the time or money to go on holidays more then once a year. When I came home from school, my mother sent me outside and all my friends where always there. I was never bored or alone, even during the long summers, and in the rare cases that I needed to go home, my mother, a full time housewife/homemaker was always there.

My own son, now six, is an only child. We live in a situation where most of his peers are away for the weekends and holidays with their well-to-do families, and busy with music school, sports and other activities in the afternoon on weekdays. Whenever they are at home, they appear to have other friends visting them, and their parents don't want more than one other child over, so my son cannot come, too.

The effect is that my son is alone at home (or outside) on 9 of 10 days on average. He is extremely bored and unhappy. So I spend a lot more time with him than I actually have the time and energy for. Which makes me short-tempered, impatient, and generally exhausted.

If I had known this in advance (which I might have, by observing how families with children live nowadays), I would have had at least one other child.

2

I had a brother, and therefore I always had an ally. As a child, you're not always happy with your parents, and being unhappy with them together with my brother made everything feel much less serious. If two children have to go to bed at eight, that's fun. If one child has to go to bed at eight, that's unfair.

My only son has to bear every mood, stress or conflict of his parents alone. There is no way out for him when his parents are unhappy with each other. If a child does something to anger his parents, it is always him. As a child, I could sometimes relax because it wasn't me, but my brother. The pressure to please me is much greater for my son than it was for myself.

3

A large family makes for a safe haven. It is not the same sleeping in your parent's bed than sleeping in the same bed with your sibling. It is not the same being brought to kindergarten by your mother than going to kindergarten with your sibling and having him as emotional backup all day. It is not the same calling your parents from college than being visited there by your brother.

4

My son has often complained about not having a brother. Although my brother and I often quarreled, I have never complained about having him.

To me, having an only child is the one biggest parenting mistake I made. I would never do it again, but it is now too late to rectify.

B

If you live in circumstances where your child has playmates, where other family members like aunts, grandparents and cousins serve as allies and a large family network, then siblings are not important. Many families from a Muslim background, that live here, form large extended "tribal" families, unlike the Western nuclear families, and within those all children are communally brought up by all adults, and all children play together, so even the only children have siblings of sorts.


It is completely irrelevant what other people think about your family planning. All I recommend is that you carefully consider how your family will live for the next twenty years, as compared to how much trouble a second toddler would be for the next two years. A good guide for your decision may be how you feel yourself: are you happy being alone, spending much time by yourself, or do you enjoy having someone around you? Looking at myself, I can say that I don't like being at home alone. If that happens, I usually go out and sit to work in a busy place. I like to be alone, but only as an exception. Both my wife and I are extremely social and outgoing persons. I think we passed on this gene of loving company to our son. Having him grow up alone is against his nature.

As a trained psychologist I am familiar with much of the research on children. Only children do not differ from children with siblings in their performance and social adjustment. And of course there are many, many children who hated their siblings and have no contact to them as adults. But these are average results. This does not contradict the fact that people are different and an individual child might have profited from growing up in a different situation, or that a well performing and well adjusted only child might have been more happy having siblings. So again, look carefully at your family and try to understand what you will need for yourself as well as for your child not only over the next two years or so but in the long run. A year of sleepless nights is over quickly, but a lonely child lasts a lifetime.

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Your part B really gave some insight that I have not picked up from reading many other articles on this topic. Thank you for sharing. –  justinl Apr 30 at 0:04

Frankly, if you have economic reasons for only having one - ie, you're concerned two will be too much of a burden financially - then one sounds like a good plan to me. Kids are really, really expensive. Regardless of the evidence that may or may not exist on the matter, in your personal situation it seems like one child with a happy stable family will be happier than two in a family struggling to manage financially.

Personally, I don't think there can really be concrete evidence of one or the other, because every situation is so different. Some children are undoubtedly happier with siblings, and some are undoubtedly happier alone. My first would've been happy to be an only child - very independent, happy to play by himself. My second would've been a terrible only child. Very social, wants to play with others. I'm very happy we had two - it gives us two perspectives, two very different boys who amaze us in different ways, and will grow up to be entirely different people - but if we'd stopped at one I don't think either us or our child would've been unhappy.

Certainly, if you're concerned that an only child cannot be happy, that's not true. Some children are unhappy to be only children, and when they grow up blame their problems on being unhappy; hence the belief of many that it's necessary to have multiple. But some people are unhappy in every scenario; that's just life. I imagine the real reason society tends to push on multiple children is that for a long time that was necessary for the human species' continuation. Not that long ago, a population who had only one child per couple would've died out in a few generations, due to infant and maternal mortality. Now, one child per couple is probably good for the species in some ways.

What I'd do is answer all of those questions directly; by doing so, you give a clue to the other parents to stop putting their nose where it really doesn't belong.

  1. By the time we're all gone, he'll have made his own friends and probably his own family.
  2. He'll have two loving and open parents to talk to about his issues, as well as his many friends.
  3. Anyone who's had two or more knows that 'easy' is not an appropriate word for it.
  4. He'll develop differently, sure; but that's okay. He'll learn to develop close bonds with others, just as he would with siblings.
  5. I think it would be selfish to put our son's future, college, etc., at risk in order to have a second child. We're making the right decision for our family based on our particular needs.

Seriously, though, 'easy' is a very odd word for someone who's had multiple children. Trust me, there is nothing easy about multiple children. Beautiful and wonderful, sure, but not easy.

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Your gut feeling is correct! Stereotypes aside, all the actual scientific research done on this indicates that not only are only children equally well adjusted, but they tend to (slightly) outperform children with siblings, the theory being that they face more parental scrutiny and are thus helped/pressured more. Wikipedia's "Only child" article goes into detail.

From a parent's point of view, having more children is obviously more work, and entails additional costs as well. However, as a friend of mine put it, while the transition from zero children to one child is "infinite" (more or less everything in your life changes), the transition from one to two is "1.5x" -- you've already gone through the learning curve once, so everything is easier.

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I wouldn't say it is better, just different. A single child can have exactly the same attitude as a child with siblings, its how they are brought up that matters.

There are arguments on both sides of the coin, it is nice for children to have siblings, but then it can put more of strain on finances and space.

Just as a side note, I have three children and it actually seemed easier the second and third time round so i wouldn't worry about the extra stress and work, its up to you if you want more children and you shouldn't feel pressured.

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To answer the immediate question: It depends on the personality of your current child. If they start asking questions about or expressing a desire to have a sibling maybe (big maybe) you should revisit the topic.

Now, let's talk about this unnecessary pressure from these other parents. They have no binding as to decide the number of children you and your wife want to have. It's not their choice because it's not their family. Whether you want one or one-hundred, it's none of their concern. If they offer up their hands to help take care of a new child and also provide financial support, since you mentioned economic reasons, then by all means, consider a second child. They won't provide that support though.

My wife and I got this exact kind of pressure several years ago after our first was born. "When are you starting on the next one?" It drove us crazy. Eventually It got to a point where I avoided those people. While we have since had another child, we did it in better times for our current situation.

This is unnecessary pressure. While it would be a little preposterous to say cut them off from your life, I would say that the next time it comes, don't beat around the bush about your ideal family size. Tell them point blank, "We want one child and do not foresee having another one. This is our decision and not yours to make, so please respect that."

No one can force this decision on you. It's your family. Let it be known.

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I don't know that I agree that "expressing desire to have a sibling" is very relevant in the decision. Young children don't really have any idea what they want - they're as likely to want a pony or a unicorn, after all. And here they have zero experience with which to judge that they will be happier/less happy with a sibling, since they don't have one yet. Otherwise, I agree with your answer. –  Joe Apr 23 at 17:19
    
@Joe, thus I said "maybe (big maybe)". Despite that existing children should not have complete say in decisions like this, their opinions should still be acknowledged in the matter. It is a family after all. –  ChristopherW Apr 26 at 8:49

Speaking as an only child I never missed having siblings. I often got the question "don't you get lonely when your parents are away?" and the answer is no. I usually didn't, and if I did I had friends I could play with. When I compare myself to my best childhood friends (who all had siblings, by the way) I find that I am more independent than they are, while they handle conflicts better than I do, for instance.

Of course, these things depend a lot on the personality of your child and it may be that I would have been introverted even if I had had siblings. I may have expressed a desire to have siblings as a child (I don't remember), but as an adult I feel that I never missed having siblings. The same goes for most of my only-child friends.

I'm writing this answer to give you my point of view as an only child, and not to try to convince you not to have more children, that is your choice (and not the other parent's either). It is your family after all.

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There is no way you can give the same amount of attention to two kids that you give to one.

also

There is no way that what you do with a child will ever replace what a sibling will do for them.

When your "friends" ask about you having more kids, let them know that as soon as they volunteer to come take care of your kids, they can have some input on how many you have.

The absolute worst decision you could make would be to have more kids because people are pressuring you to.

Everyone who is a parent, who cares about their kids, wonders if they are somehow screwing up their kids. That's normal.

The best advice I can give you is that you should listen to other people's parenting ideas, but don't implement them unless they resonate with you. People parent in wildly different ways, and kids do ok. The worst stuff I see people doing is stuff they do because they feel forced to by some outside influence. Your family is your family; the rest of society may have some influence but they should never have final say. You need to be the barrier between your family and the world's fickle whims.

I would also echo what others have said--you probably can handle having more, financially and emotionally and everything. But you should not have more unless you're sure it's what you want to do. There is all the difference in the world between a challenge you personally chose and a challenge that you blundered into or had forced on you.

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When your friends say:

  1. Shame! Poor child, he'll be all alone when you two are gone.

If your child is brought up in a way that allows them to form healthy relationships there is no reason why they should be 'alone'. Also, having more than one child makes no guarantees that they will be any less lonely as they may not get on or want to spend time with each other out of choice.

  1. Shame, he won't have someone to talk to about issues at home.

If you do your best to may sure your child is as comfortable talking to you about any topic as possible, I don't see why this should be a problem. Even if you were to have further children, if they only ever felt able to talk to each other about 'issues at home' without feeling they could come to you to do something about said issues, that would not be a good situation.

  1. It's much easier to have two or more, they can play with each other.

Having more than one child should never be a substitute for forging a relationship with your children directly. I have heard this argument used a fair few times and having more than one child does not absolve you of any responsibility. You can't just stick them in each others company and think it takes care of itself. I know it is only my personal experience, but my sister rarely ever wanted to play with me or keep me company, resulting in me being a very lonely child despite having a sibling. If she did interact with me, it was when she was bored and she would cruelly constantly bully me throughout my childhood. Although I am an adult now, I hold a deep resentment towards her for that. How my sister treated me, which was allowed to happen because adults often left us unsupervised, has damaged me and the way I can form relationships and trust people as a result.

I realise this is only one person's experience and know that some siblings can get along well. All I'm saying is that there are no guarantees of good relationships between siblings and that parent/childcare supervision is important.

  1. He'll develop much better by learning close bond only siblings can give.

Once again, SO much depends on whether they get on and whether they even want to be in each others company, which is impossible to predict.

  1. Isn't that a bit selfish, you should think about your son, he'll be better off with a brother/sister

Once again, this is impossible to predict. People can have vastly different personalities and some children are perfectly happy as only children. It is important to let them socialise with other children often, but plenty of after school clubs and having other children round/ going to other children's houses should be plenty.

If your reasons for just wanting one are primarily economic, that is perfectly valid too. Being able to give him more attention and support than would otherwise be possible sounds great as well. If having a second would cause a lot more stress for the both of you, then that would be bad for your son. I am very sorry I have not given you any 'concrete evidence' one way or the other, but I don't think any study that claims with complete certainty that having a single child or having more than one is better is likely to be very reliable as there are so so so many factors at play. It's not that clear cut. Do what is best for you. Your 'friends' may criticize/judge you, but you are far better off following your own instincts.

I agree with what ChristopherW said when he said to tell your friends "We want one child and do not foresee having another one. This is our decision and not yours to make, so please respect that."

All the best and good luck. :)

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When we talk about abuse - sexual, physical, or emotional - we find that siblings are a disturbingly high source of that abuse.

Siblings are a higher source of sexual abuse than parents. Rates of sibling sexual abuse may be five times higher than parental sexual abuse.

Any decision to introduce a new child needs to be informed by the knowledge of this potential abuse.

http://www.mosac.org.uk/downloads/sibling-abuse-leaflet.pdf

http://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/111312p18.shtml

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i feel that having a sibling is essential for the overall development of a child. He learns to share and care, a trait that is wanting in most children with no siblings.

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Hi and welcome to the site! This is a good start to an answer, but we prefer answers with a bit more detail, and in particular references if possible. –  Joe 1 hour ago

We had one child, and without our knowledge or consent nature served us up another one 13 months after the first. NEVER would we have made such a foolish and ill advised decision, I am an Ivy-League graduate-level degree holder in a quantitative discipline! I know better than that! Yet, James, our second, was the greatest gift we've ever gotten, and the most beneficial thing we EVER could have done for our cherished first born, and we never knew! How are we so lucky that chance, fate, the universe delivered James, not to us, but to our first born son, Thomas. We are not smart enough, not broad minded enough, to see beforehand all the benefits that James has brought into not only our lives, but THOMAS' life. PLEASE BELIEVE US. AS PARENTS THRUST INTO HAVING MULTIPLE CHILDREN, THERE IS NOTHING GREATER YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR CHILD. They are so happy together, they teach each other, they depend on each other, they each make the other better and more complete. I will go to my grave with the stongest conviction on this topic. One is a terrible mistake.

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I have just one thing to say:

All my friends who are only children or didn't grow up with siblings in the house really suck at sharing. That being said, there's nothing wrong with them as people, they just didn't grow up with someone else using their toys all the time.

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while that may be so, plenty of children with siblings also "suck at sharing" because their parents got them their own rooms, tvs, etc. Also, the plural of anecdote is not data, and you didn't address whether making your first child better at sharing (a by no means guaranteed result) is enough of a reason to have a second child. –  Chrys Apr 28 at 18:42

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