Family dynamics are changing all over the world. Whether it’s same-sex parents, adopted children, or single parents, the definition of a family is no longer mom, dad and two children.
In fact, in the UK, 45% of families now consist of one child. Parenting expert Dr Susan Newman says, “One child is quietly becoming the new traditional family.” She puts this down to economic changes and instability, which have led to more women joining the workforce and starting families later in life. Since 1980, the number of women having children after the age of 35 has tripled. “Holding down a job and having children is stressful and difficult,” she says.
The idea that it is undesirable to have “just” one child originated over 120 years ago when Granville Stanley Hall conducted a study on a small group of children and concluded that only children were “peculiar”. Despite the changes in family circumstance, there is still a stigma attached to only children – both for the child and the parents.
We consider the validity of some of these and look at how parents can make it work if they choose to be the parents of an only child – regardless of the reasons why.
The lonely only
“I’ve often been told that an only child is a lonely child when people ask me when I’m going to have a second and my response is non-committal,” says Veronique Lang, whose son is two and a half years old. “What they often don’t know is that I am an only child myself and experienced none of these feelings of isolation growing up, so I’m not concerned about my child experiencing loneliness. On the other hand, is keeping your first child company a good enough reason to bring another child into the world? I think you have to choose to have a second child because it’s what the parents want.”
Jungian analyst Fred Borchardt, also the parent of an only, says, “I wouldn’t necessarily say that an only child is a lonely child. Many children with siblings also report growing up lonely − feeling that they disappeared and were not seen in their families. This could be because they were not understood by their siblings, there were disagreements, age differences, opposing interests, as well as competition and other forms of sibling rivalry that isolated them from their siblings.”
Recent research backs this up with large studies in the US and China concluding that only children tend to have a similar amount of friends to peers with siblings. However, Fred concedes that only children will, inevitably, have fewer opportunities to socialise. “For this reason, there needs to be special arrangements made to allow them connection with peers. Playdates and participation in sport and other activities can help.”
Only children are spoiled
As the parent of an only child, Tarynn McMillan, principal and founder of The Park on 8th pre-primary school in Johannesburg, explains, “Sometimes, you just need to say no to your child for the sake of it, so she can understand that there are boundaries and limitations.” So, even though you can afford to buy your child anything she asks for, it may be in her best interest to make her wait for something special as a birthday present.
On her website, Dr Newman highlights the other side of this coin. “Twelve men have walked on the moon. All of them were firstborns or only children. In terms of level of education, aspirations and achievement, firstborns and only children excel,” she writes. So, while it’s important to set boundaries, a family’s undiluted resources can provide opportunities an only child might not have if there were siblings. In fact, a study from Essex University published in Advances in Life Course Research found firstborn children were 16% more likely to complete higher education than their younger siblings.
Only children are bossy and antisocial
In his book Parenting with Panache, parenting and discipline expert Dereck Jackson says siblings provide one of the earliest and most effective ways for a child to learn conflict resolution. But if there are no siblings, will your child either buckle and avoid conflict, or become overly confident with little regard for the feelings and thoughts of others?
Following the idea that peer groups are an important aspect in moderating behaviour, Dr Newman says, “Only children learn quickly that attempting to run the show, a ploy that they may get away with at home, doesn’t work with friends and that a bossy, aggressive attitude is a quick ticket to ostracism from the group. Lacking siblings, only children want to be included and well liked.”
Siblings are also not the only people in your child’s life who will moderate this behaviour. “We always go on holiday with family and my daughter has grown up with plenty of cousins, so a lack of company or opportunity to socialise has never been an issue,” explains Tarynn. These social situations can be implemented by you as a parent whether it’s at a soccer club, Scouts or playgroups. Fred also points out that although onlies may have more limited peer interaction, their communication skills (often considered the single most important aspect to getting ahead in life) don’t need to be hindered and their interactions may help them feel more confident and able in adult conversation.
Advantages of growing up as an only child:
- More resources, which offers the opportunity for a broader experience of the different things life can offer.
- The attention of adults, exposure to the adult world and maturity. Only children often speak and think more maturely earlier.
- The opportunity to develop a clear idea of who you are as an individual, because you are not being generally lumped together with “the kids”. You may be more closely watched, supported and allowed to be yourself.
Pros of growing up with other siblings:
- You learn to share from an early age.
- You learn to negotiate your needs with others, which teaches you conflict management skills.
- You do not carry all the expectations of both your parents. Often, parents expect their children to live out the unfulfilled parts of themselves, and only children might be expected to carry these. With larger families, these expectations are usually shared.
Marianne is a freelance content creator and copy editor. She has been part of the Living and Loving team in various capacities over the last six years, but since becoming a mom to a boisterous boy, she has found a special interest in parenting issues including discipline, education and early childhood development. When not running after, and negotiating with, her three-year-old, you’ll find her experimenting in the kitchen.