Anecdotal Evidence – One More Time

June 14, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Anecdotal evidence seems more convincing, I tell my students in Week One, but if you want to find out general truths, you need systematic evidence.  The New York Times today provides my example for next semester.

The Times had run an op-ed  last week about only children. The author, Lauren Sandler, referred to results from “hundreds of studies” showing that only children are generally no different from those with siblings on variables like “leadership, maturity, extroversion, social participation, popularity, generosity, cooperativeness, flexibility, emotional stability, contentment.” Nor were they more self-involved or lonelier.  And they score higher on measures of intelligence and achievement.   

Today, the Times printed a letter challenging these conclusions.  
 Another problem with these studies is that they put families in boxes: the only-child box, the divorced-parent box, the single-mother box — all of which I am in. They oversimplify family situations. I have seen the offspring of single divorced mothers grow up happy and successful, and I have seen children of two-parent families turn out disastrously.

Regarding the precocity of only children, my granddaughter at 2, like Ms. Sandler's daughter, could tell the difference between the crayon colors magenta and pink, and she is not an only child. So much for boxes.
Or as a student will usually ask, “But doesn’t it depend on the individual?”

Yes, I say.  But scientific generalizations do not apply 100% to everyone in that box.  Are men taller than women?  Are smokers less healthy than non-smokers?   Of course. Yes, there’s Maria Sharapova and the WNBA, and there are no doubt thousand of pack-a-day octogenarians.  Does that mean we should throw categories (i.e., boxes)  like Sex and Smoking in the trash?

As the letter writer says, categories simplify. They overlook differences. But categories are inevitable. Pineapple is a category. We know that not all pineapples are alike, and yet we talk about pineapples.  And men.  And smokers. And divorced mothers and only children.

I’m not surprised that my students – 18-year old freshmen or transfers from the community colleges – need this brief reminder. But the New York Times?

In any case, the concern over the problems of only children seems to be fading, though I'm not sure how to interpret that.  The Google n-grams graph of the phrase in books looks like this: 

The first decline in the phrase only children runs parallel to the baby boom (though it starts a few years earlier) and the burgeoning of multi-child families.  But the second decline comes in a period when multi-child families are decreasing.  Perhaps there is less concern because single-child families have become frequent rather than freakish. 

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