“When are you having your next?”
“Just one? Aren’t your worried about her being spoiled?”
“An only child is a lonely child.”
These are the well-meaning but insensitive comments that parents of one child hear regularly from family members, friends, and strangers on the street. Such remarks and inquiries can lead us to question our decision to have a small family, or perhaps make us feel guilty about our inability to have more. Our culture has maintained many of these myths since the late 19th century, when a scientist who established one of the first psychology research labs to observe children released a study that described only children as misfits and oddballs and suggested that having no siblings was akin to having a disease. He did not use credible research practices, but for decades, these negative conclusions remained entrenched in the practices of child development specialists as well as advice columnists.
Happily, for all families, we now know differently! Since the early 1970s, researchers in psychology and sociology have studied only children and their families, who now comprise more than 20% of the overall population of families in this country. What we have learned is that only children generally are high achievers as adults, have excellent verbal skills, enjoy higher self-confidence and self-esteem, appear more mature than their age, and maintain very high standards for themselves when compared to children with siblings. Research finds that only children are similar to first-borns in their relationship to parents, who often hold higher expectations for achievement, give them more attention, and tend to be overprotective. As I raised my son, Jordan, and spent time with other parents of one child, I learned about strategies and tools to avoid some of the pitfalls that can lead to these myths becoming reality.
When a child does not have to share parental attention with siblings, parents have to work a little harder to provide opportunities for her to play independently and to wait to have her needs met. Even though we CAN play all the time with our child, or always sit with him to help with homework, we need to discipline ourselves to encourage our children to look inside themselves to find activities and meet challenges. This leads to resiliency and self-confidence.
As parents, we tend to have high expectations for our only child, who often will compare their skills and achievements to their parents’, since they don’t have siblings with whom they can compete or compare themselves. Our focus needs to be on allowing mistakes and failures and praising efforts, not results. We can model making mistakes and handling frustration to remind our children that everyone struggles sometimes, even adults. This leads to a mindset that trying hard is the most important factor in learning new things and in being successful.
Finally, parents of only children want to build a sense of responsibility and compassion in their child. We are more responsible for creating a socially balanced life for them, since the companionship of siblings is unavailable. This can create more loneliness or boredom, but may also lead to more peace in the home. We need to help our child develop close friendships and learn to manage the give-and-take of being in a relationship: loyalty, taking turns, being flexible. Having play dates, sleepovers, and bringing friends on family vacations all contribute to your child’s ability to navigate social relationships and their sense of being part of a larger community.
These are just a few of many strategies that families of only children can incorporate into daily life to feel confident that being an only child is not a deprivation, but an advantage and a blessing in so many ways.