This Raksha Bandhan, I got thinking about China recently loosening its one-child policy, which means a couple can now choose to have two children if one spouse is an only child. The government policy change is more for economic reasons such as shrinking labour pool, growing age population and overall economic vitality. It makes me wonder how it must have been for a generation of children (policy enforced in 1980) to grow up without a sibling.
Countries like India and China have typically reveled in large complex families. (My dad is from a family of 9 siblings, my mum 8). As long as the lady of the house was healthy and was of child bearing age - the kids just kept popping out. (Maybe there were no Balaji Telefilms then, so couples retired early to bed). Of course, healthcare was not as advanced a generation ago, and people had more kids to ensure that in case one child died, there would be others. And in patriarchical and agrarian societies, boys were preferred. So they kept having babies till they had a boy or two.
So the more the merrier right? Not always. The eldest seem to have had it the hardest. They always had to be responsible not just for oneself but for the younger siblings as well. Usually serious personalities! Several ‘rumps' or youngest complain of never having been taken seriously their whole life. And the middle ones just grew up getting in everyone's way. But nobody seems the worse off due to lack of personal space; and things were fun - in a mini-kindergarten sort of way.
But times have changed, and for better or worse, we've witnessed the disintegration of the joint family or the large complex family. Be it India or China or perhaps around the world; couples these days are choosing to have smaller families.
Bulging costs of living and an increased focus on (expensive) higher education is a big factor in having a single child. Also the fact that women are becoming mothers later than say, 40 years ago, and perhaps would like to return to their careers makes them stop at one child or perhaps two. Let's face it, three kids in urban India (unless triplets or twins), raises eyebrows as an anomaly today. But some cons of having even one sibling remain.
Sibling rivalry and jealousies is one major concern when it comes to having more than one child. Tired overworked mothers who turn peacekeepers rather than caregivers; splitting time with children and sometimes not being able to focus on older kids; and stretching of family resources. Keeping all these factors in mind, the question arises - Is a single child really a bad thing? My friend Soumya Vijay (name changed) who has decided to have only one child says - "The idea that I had to share my parents with another human being, and that too with a bratty younger sister, was hard to digest while growing up and sometimes still is. I'm not proud to say this, but I made my baby sister's life miserable. But I guess we are friends now." She smiles sheepishly.
A sibling can be a lifelong friend. They may fight like cats and dogs, but they have a ready play-mate as well. Long after you are gone, your children will have each other and will look out for the other. As Shikha Mehra says, ‘I once broke my brother's tooth while fighting, but that's part of growing up. He's my brother and I know it's one of strongest bonds in my life.'
Having siblings is a great way to learn about conflict resolution and social interactions. A single child raised in isolation may always think that he or she is the center of the universe and take life's blows harder. Growing up with a younger sibling they learn about love, compassion and empathy.
But it's not accurate tosay all single children are self centered and children with siblings are saints.I know of a lot of single kids who are mature beyond their age, probably by spending a lot of time with adults. They are independent individuals who are used to making decisions on their own and manage themselves quite well as adults.
Soumya adds - "Sometimes my spouse and I look at my daughter (age 5) and wonder if she is lonely. I make it a point to always surround her with family and friends. She also goes to a Montessori, and as it's a mixed age class group, gets to baby some of other classmates and satisfy her need for a younger sibling. She seems to be growing up to be a nurturing well-balanced child. I think we've made the right decision."
Maybe there is no ‘right' number of children that makes a perfect happy family. The number is probably inconsequential, compared to the way you raise your child. So this Raksha Bandhan, if your child does not have a sibling, do not worry if it's the correct decision. Buy a Rakhi and ring the doorbell of a neighbor or drive down to meet cousins and extended family and friends and celebrate this bond between brothers and sisters. It's the sentiment that counts.
And remember; only your spouse and you are the best judge of how many children would work for you - not society, trends, textbooks and certainly not government policy!
China, are you listening?
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