How one-child families are transforming India
In a country where lifestyles are being transformed by capitalism and aspiration, this new family format is both a reflection and a harbinger of change.
It used to be a criticism. In every previous generation, a family with only one child was met with disapproval: What’s the matter? Can’t have more? Can’t afford more?
There was a stereotype for kids without siblings: self-absorbed brats, spoiled from never having to share their toys.
But in a country where lifestyles are being transformed by capitalism and aspiration, change is brewing. A significant sliver of the middle class — urban, well educated, well-paid — is choosing to have just one child, even when that one is a girl (unusual in a country with a strong bias for male children).
A 2011 study conducted by the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER) indicated that close to 10% of Indian households now opt for only one child, and nearly a quarter of college-educated women said they would prefer to have a single child.
In 2018, India’s National Family Health Survey-4 showed that only 24% of married women (between 15 and 49) and 27% of men want a second child.
But you’ve probably noticed it already, if not in your own or extended family, then in your neighbourhood, among your former batchmates and current colleagues. One-child families are more common than ever. And they’re subtly changing India in ways we haven’t yet considered.
ALL IN ONE
Sonalde Desai, sociology professor and director of the NCAER’s National Data Innovation Centre, first noticed the trend a decade ago. “There is interesting work in the US on ways in which women combine career and motherhood by limiting themselves to a single child,” she says. “I was surprised to see the number of people I saw around me with a single child and wondered if the same processes might be operating in India.”
She undertook a study, co-authored with Alaka Basu, visiting professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, titled Middle-Class Dreams: India’s One-Child Families, in 2011. It showed that Indian families weren’t shrinking for the same reason as families in the developed world were.
“Indian women with a single child are no more likely to engage in paid work than those with more children,” she says. Couples with a single child do not work longer, or have more free time either. Instead, educated couples preferred to make a greater commitment to one child than split the family’s time and resources among two or more siblings. This, they believe, gives that one child a better education, a monopoly on the family’s attention, and eventually a greater advantage in the job market.
At the non-profit, Population Foundation of India (PFI), executive director, Poonam Muttreja, finds strong links between a woman’s education levels and employment status and preferred family size. “Women with less education and less wealth tend to choose to have more than two children. Women with longer years of education and more wealth often want to have fewer than two,” she says.
THE FLIP SIDE
Modern research from the West indicates that growing up without siblings puts a child at no intellectual, social or emotional disadvantage. In China, which enforced a brutal one-child policy from 1979 to 2015, other repercussions are now apparent.
There, household savings rose. But many parents took extreme steps to ensure that their only offspring was male, giving China the world’s most skewed gender ratio: 117 boys born for every 100 girls. Now, the working-age population in China is declining, resulting in fewer tax payers and more elderly dependents. Only-children couples end up caring for their parents on both sides, with no one to share the responsibilities.
“The consequences for India are likely to be twofold,” says Desai. “Sons will definitely have more elder care responsibilities. But what happens to daughters is going to be even more interesting. Historically we have not expected support from daughters. These attitudes may well change when she is the only child.”
Desai agrees. “We are placing a huge psychological burden on the one child, to care for the elders in the absence of formal pension, health insurance or social security plans.”
Some families are already bracing for it. Mumbai couple, Rajeev Kumar Singh and Pallavi, were both sure they wanted only one child. “We wanted to provide her with the best we could, with none of the compromises we had to make with our siblings,” Pallavi says. Their daughter, Vidita, is nine. “Our aim is to be financially self-sufficient so we’re not a burden on the child we raised to be free to do what she likes.”
Desai finds that there’s pressure, nonetheless. “There is an increasing sense that this is a precious child in whom all of their parents’ hopes are vested. That is a kind of burden too.”
A NEW WAVE
For India, the single child preference might trickle down as lower-income families consider it a better shot at economic success. It might change family dynamics too. Desai says that Indian families, “which typically cared for children well into their 60s”, might find they have more time to themselves, and might need new outlets for their energy. Social inequalities within the same class might worsen between privileged only-children and those from larger families.
Perhaps the bigger transformation might be how families operate. Dharini and Kunal Turakhia are careful to ensure that their only son, Dev, 11, spends time with his cousins, benefiting from the company while still having his parents all to himself. They also fill the “parent-as friend” role more strongly, given the absence of siblings.
Is the single-child a guarantee of domestic bliss? Of course not. “We know from experience that family size is not and cannot be a determinant of happiness,” says Muttreja of PFI. “The decision to have a child should be based on informed choices. For us, it is a woman’s reproductive right to decide if, how many, and when she wants to have children.”