Pop Culture Intervention

Where Are All The Only Children On Television?

Let's give smaller families something to relate to.

At A Plus, we're addicted to pop culture, and Pop Culture Intervention brings that obsession to the soapbox. Through this series, we'll recommend what you should be watching, reading or listening to; explore how arts and entertainment affect us; and interpret the important messages contained within various works.

Think about your favorite TV family. Now count the number of kids. How many are there? Chances are, it's more than one.

Leave It to Beaver, The Brady Bunch, The Cosby Show, Growing Pains, Full House, Roseanne, The Simpsons, 7th Heaven, Six Feet Under, The Middle, Parenthood, Bob's Burgers, Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, This Is Us — whether it's comedy or drama, live-action or animation, family-centered television tends to favor households with more than one child.

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While only children certainly exist on television, they're frequently on a show for which family is not the main theme (think Chandler on Friends), or they're part of a much larger extended family (think Lily and, for part of the series, Manny, on Modern Family). It's significantly more difficult to find a nuclear or even single-parent TV family with only one child and no cousins or grandparents stopping by every episode.

And believe me, I've looked.

As an only child whose extended relatives always lived too far away to form any strong relationships, and who, starting at 16, lived in a one-parent household (that parent being an only child herself), my own personal definition of "family" has always been small. Thanksgiving feasts leave plenty of leftovers, and the only hand-me-downs I've ever received are necklaces from my mom's jewelry drawer.

Although it may come as a shock to those accustomed to a packed dinner table, I've never wished for anything different. I didn't grow up feeling jealous of friends' crowded Christmas mornings, or blowing out my birthday candles and wishing for a sibling. If I wished anything, it was simply to meet more kids like me — indeed, sometimes I still feel like I'm the only only child. When I think of all the friends I've had over the years, I can count on one hand how many were only children, and still have fingers to spare. If I ever meet a fellow "only" in real life, I actually have to remind myself that we exist.

As rare as they may seem, only children have actually become more common over the years. In 1976, 11 percent of American women ended their childbearing years having given birth to only one child. By 2014, that number had doubled to 22 percent. 

Despite the statistics, I certainly understand why so many series choose to depict larger (or at least medium-sized) families. More family members means more characters, which means more conflict and story opportunities. Even on shows that aren't about family, characters' siblings are often brought in as guest stars to shake things up. But there are ways to flesh out a cast without plucking every character from a single family tree. 

Perhaps the best example of this in recent years has been Gilmore Girls. Not only is Rory Gilmore an only child, but she is raised by a single mother and — although her grandparents play a frequent role in her life — most of the colorful supporting cast is made up of friends, classmates, co-workers, love interests, and townspeople. (Notably, show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino is an only child herself.)

Similar examples from decades past include The Andy Griffith Show and The Flintstones (which featured not one but two single-child families). All in the Family and The Jeffersons, meanwhile, depicted parents whose only children were grown and starting families of their own. These titles are proof that shows about smaller families can be successful and enduring, so why aren't there more of them?

Beyond being relatable, shows about smaller families can demonstrate that family as a concept is not quantifiable. A mother and her daughter are as much a family as a house full of cousins and in-laws. At the same time, "family" doesn't have to be exclusive to those who share the same blood, last name, or roof over their heads — they can be friends, romantic partners, and neighbors who simultaneously love you and drive you just as crazy as your immediate family does.

That's not to mention how helpful these shows can be in dispelling stereotypes. If you're an only child, or the parent of an only child, you've likely had a few unfair assumptions made about you. Many think of us as spoiled brats à la Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka, or they pity us, believing us to be lonely or maladjusted. Seeing more one-child families on television could change people's thinking, and remind them that family is family, no matter the size.

Please don't get me wrong — I love shows about big families. Many of the shows I previously mentioned are longtime favorites, and I have a bit of a fascination with eccentric or dysfunctional families in particular. (Catch me quoting Arrested Development all day long.) But as entertaining as it may be to watch a dynamic that's different from my own, I also like to point at a character and say, "You get me." I said that when I first met Rory Gilmore, and I'd like to say it a few more times before my TV-watching days are over.

And who knows? If I'm intrigued by larger families, maybe there's someone out there with a house full of siblings who just wants to peek into the life of an only child for 30 minutes each week.

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