Has living through lockdown been easier for children with a brother or sister?
This isn’t the methodology of advanced social science, but I’ve just walked through the house and put that question to the first child I came across. It happened to be Gwendolyn, fourteen and feisty. “It’s boring. It would be more boring if I didn’t have siblings.”
Do you think Gwen has a point? And if you don’t, is your opinion the product of considered empiricism or bound up with your own personal history and sense of identity? In other words, if you believe that quarantine for Gwen would be no tougher if she were an only child – rather than one of six – does that reflect who you are, not what she might be objectively living through?
My scepticism has deep roots. A decade ago, reviewing academic literature for a book about the merits of giving children siblings, I noticed a correlation between how someone argued for or against fecundity – and their own familial circumstances.
As with so much identity politics, what you are trumps what you see. – Colin Brazier
That’s rich, of course, coming from a Catholic “breeder” like me. But then, I’ve never made a secret of my “unconscious bias”. Indeed, I’ve always made a point of trying to enumerate the benefits of not having siblings, of which there are almost certainly some.
I’m not sure those on the other side of the argument are quite so punctilious. They have the means and the motivation not to be. The means? The parent of an only child who goes on to cheerlead for only-children has more time to write, research, tweet, lobby, publish and network. The motivation? It’s not just about free-time. If you feel, as many only-child advocates do, that they are only now emerging from a long march of unjustified patriarchal persecution, then you may be less inclined to give the other side a hearing. As with so much identity politics, what you are trumps what you see.
Recently, The New York Times carried a piece about life for only-children under the coronavirus lockdown. It quoted Dr Toni Falbo, a university professor who has written extensively about singletons. Her conclusion: “There’s no special problem or obstacle that only children have to overcome because of the pandemic.”
Dr Falbo is, herself, an only-child and the mother of an only child too. In that, she is an archetype. But not completely. She is happy to admit that her area of study may derive from her own family story. I applaud this transparent honesty and attribute it partly to the fact she isn’t young, having written about only-children for 40 years and, perhaps, belonging to an older academic tradition of acknowledging the possibility that the back-story might matter.
And so, back to Gwen’s point. Actually, not so much what she had to say, rather that anyone could be bothered to ask her. Even less, act on her reasoning.
Strange though it might seem, the question of “if kids” and “how many” is often airbrushed from an increasingly polarised debate. – Colin Brazier
Because, strange though it might seem, the question of “if kids” and “how many” is often airbrushed from an increasingly polarised debate. For a growing number of pro-natalist state actors, demography is destiny. Empty cradles mean everything from more immigrants to fewer future soldiers. For economists they point to teetering welfare models and retail outlets shorn of prospective shoppers.
For some politicians it’s about parental choice. In the US, half of all women reach the end of their childbearing years having not had all the children they want. In the UK the gap between the number of babies women want and the number they are actually having was running at 100,000 a year a decade ago. It is almost certainly higher now.
But when policy-makers introduce help for these parents in the form of workplace leave and subsidised childcare, the anti-natalists stir. It’s wrong to have more than two, say Harry and Meghan. It’s wrong to have more than one, say a growing number of environmentalists, worried about the pitter patter of all those tiny carbon footprints. It’s wrong to have any children at all, say childfree-by-choice campaigners and some Vegans. Unencumbered by anything as worrisome as offspring, they have the energy to challenge even the most fundamental rationale for reproduction. “It was not our decision to be born. Human existence is totally pointless.” So said a 27-year-old Indian man who last year sued his parents for begetting him.
It’s about the planet. It’s about the parents. It’s about the impact of plummeting birth-rates. It’s about graphs and catastophising in abstract terms. It’s not about Gwen. It’s not about the child-minder I met recently who felt that the slow abolition of brothers and sisters was an unspoken disaster for children.
These people, rendered voiceless by want of maturity or influence, will not suddenly discover their thoughts count for anything when the inevitable British public inquiry into coronavirus is convened. I predict you will hear lots about the mental health time-bombs primed by Covid-19. The scourges of 21st century childhood; depression, eating disorders, self-harm, bullying. They will all be invoked by a range of campaigning groups who will argue that lockdown has made these things worse, which they may have done.
But in a country where more than half of all families now feature an only-child, will any of those NGOs and charities draw upon the mounting body of data which shows that siblinghood has protective effects against these modern epidemics? Wait there, I’ll go and ask Gwen.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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