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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Only children rock, part 1: the myths

Being the parent of an only child can be fraught with awkward, spiky social situations. Believe me, I know- my son is an only child.  I sometimes find it hard to believe that having just one child can cause so much judgment and controversy.

The parenting forums always have at least one thread, or sometimes a whole group of threads, devoted to the only child.  Do you have an only child by choice or circumstance? Are you an only child yourself? Did you wish for a sibling? Are you happy? Would you choose to have an only child yourself? What are the disadvantages? What are the advantages? What do you do when someone asks you when you're having another child?

And yes, there are plenty of people ready to jump down your throat if you've decided to have just one child.  Really, it mystifies me why other parents are so quick to attack the parent/s of the singleton- but I've seen it many times over.  My theory is that these people are so desperate for affirmation of their own choices that they strike out at anyone who chooses differently. (Read, insecure.) 

Certain myths are thrown at us with monotonous regularity.  She'll be spoilt.  He'll be lonely.  She'll never learn to share.  He'll miss out on having  an extended family group when he grows up. She'll have to take sole responsibility for caring for her parents in their old age.  He'll be too dependent on and attached to mum.  Believe me, I've heard them all, and for each myth there's a balancing one which suggests that all these problems are magically solved by having another baby.

Reality check: a baby doesn't solve any problem, ever, for anyone, regardless of where that baby comes in the sibling line-up. Having a baby is a gamble. You have no idea who you're going to get, how he or she will fit in with the family you've already got, and what challenges beyond the average that particular baby will bring.

Don't believe me?  Read this. Amy was desperate for a child when she and her husband adopted Kylie.

So while I delight in babies and love looking after them, just as Amy delights in and adores Kylie despite her challenges, in reality I think that any baby is far more likely to cause a problem than to solve one.  A second child is not a magic wand warding off the evils of selfishness, isolation and dependence; reflective, well-informed parenting practice is the way to achieve that. And I believe that NO child should be conceived JUST to avoid having an only child, or to fit in with society's knee-jerk expectations; every child's conception should be planned and considered equally carefully.  (Don't even start me on parents who have baby after baby of the same sex because they're 'trying for' the opposite sex. Poor children.)

If you read my post about the myth of the happy family, you'll understand that I take off the rose-tinted glasses when I view the relationships within a family unit.  Just because two babies are born to the same parents, there's no guarantee they'll love or even like one another. They don't necessarily even share a majority of genetic material- it's the luck of the draw- so to assume that siblings will automatically develop a close bond just because they're siblings is optimistic at best, and plain old self-delusion at worst.

There's considerably more likelihood that a first child will feel usurped and threatened by later children, especially if he or she has previously experienced an over-attentive parenting style or if the subsequent babies are challenging and need a lot of attention.  The term 'sibling rivalry' doesn't need to be explained to anyone, does it? It's common.

And because it's common, most of us have some experience of the strains felt between siblings.  I'm fortunate to get along perfectly well with my brother- but I spent part of my life in a relationship with a middle child, who had teamed up with the first child to bully their younger sister mercilessly in childhood and was still laughing about it years later. I didn't find it funny, and it didn't reassure me about the value of having siblings at all.

Nor did I find my relationship with a highly competitive eldest child amusing or reassuring, given that he regularly started roaring rows with his younger brothers over family lunches.  Give me my current peaceful relationship with an only child any day; he seems to have a lot more respect for other human beings' feelings.

Yet despite us knowing, really, that a larger family doesn't guarantee a happy family, our culture seems to demand that we aspire to at least two children.  If we decline, we are regarded with a certain suspicion and questioned relentlessly.  And so I present my evidence for the defence.

I am glad these days that I had an only child.  And honestly, he hasn't turned out too bad (she said with a proud grin, trying not to brag).

Was he spoilt? Possibly, at first, but that was hard to avoid given that he was the first grandchild on both sides of the family (and I knew a lot less about sensible parenting than I know now).  When my financial circumstances changed and I had to start saying no, he got unspoilt very quickly.

Was he lonely? Never- in fact he developed a wonderful ability to entertain himself, as well as attracting a wide circle of friends when he finally found some like-minded peers; he's now a leader within his chosen social/recreational activity.  (Did he ever complain of being bored? Of course. Doesn't every child?)

Did he learn to share?  He's generous to a fault, and has been since childhood.

Did he miss out on the extended family?  No, he has great relationships with his cousins and makes far more effort to stay in touch with the extended family than I do! 

Will he be burdened by caring for me in my decrepit old age? Absolutely not- I would never blight his life against his will.  I'll take my chances in a nursing home if I have to.  (How dare people do that to their children?!  It must always be a choice, not a demand.)

Is he too dependent on me?  Roars of laughter at that one.  He's incredibly independent.  I have absolutely no illusions that I have undue influence on his choices!

So no, I don't see that my academically high-flying, socially fluid, free-thinking, generous, self-sufficient child suffered by being a singleton- not at all.  To this day he says he liked being an only child.

More telling than his words, I think, is that he's chosen to marry another only child. Within his wife's character he finds a complementary independence and resourcefulness.

Only children rock.  Don't let anyone tell you any different.

Read Part 2 here!


  1. I'm not sure why some people feel the need to judge or tell others what is best. We should all support each other. It's nice you are offering your support to others.

  2. I don't have children yet but I plan too... and while sometimes I think I'd love to have many children at once, after spending years as a nanny I also believe it can be great to have just one child, or put about 4-5 years between children, because you have so much more time and attention to focus on that child. You don't have to spoil them,obviously; you can still teach them manners and gratitude and everything else; and they can learn to socialize and share from playing with friends, cousins, etc.

  3. @Pacrapacma- neither do I, believe me- neither do I. I really believe that someone who judges like this is feeling insecure about or unhappy with their own choices.

    And Angel, I think it's so great that you are thinking about this stuff BEFORE you have children. For so many people it's unconsidered and random, and they do more research before they buy a CAR.


  4. Bridget:
    We would probably have an only child....but they are twins! So like you should be thought through, but all the outcomes work if you make them. I am delighted with my siblings of the same age, and wouldn't have it any other way.
    I think you are dead on about looking for validation for our choices. Unfortunately that leads many into criticism and negativity.

  5. This is EXACTLY what I needed to read at the moment.

    Thank you :)

  6. Mumma? GOOD! :) Stay strong and do what's right for your own context!

  7. Thank you so much for this post! My little boy is almost two and we're under a lot of social pressure to commit to a second. But after several years to conceive and a horrific pregnancy (which would repeat, I'm told) I don't think our little family could cope with even trying. I didn't plan to have an only, but I think that's the way our family will work out and it's reassuring, very reassuring, to hear what you have to say!

  8. That's great, Amanda- glad to be of assistance. You just let that social pressure run off your back- it's ill-founded.

  9. I found this post through the link you left in the comments at Childhood101. I'm so glad I read it. I'm in tears, but I feel very reassured.

  10. Ness- that's great. Nothing wrong with a few tears, no matter whether they're due to relief or compassion for Amy.

  11. I'm so glad to have stumbled on your post on my internet search for some sensible advice on having an only child - this is the first I've seen in a good three years. It has confirmed everything I truly believed in. I know that other children are more spoilt, selfish and bossy then my son but I also know he can show these traits if I don't parent with mindfulness.

    I also have put a lid on sentimentality because there is no other child to come up and make those first steps again therefore it is easy to see each time as the last. But now I view ever ending with complete excitement - what will he do next, what books will he read when he's 7,8,9, his first heartbreak, will he go to college, where will he travel to? A much more positive way to parent is to enjoy it fully and not working about what ifs. Tx for the reassurance.

  12. 'Parent with mindfulness'- exactly, Anon. That's what I talk about in the second part of this post (link at the bottom of the post).

    You make such a good point about looking forward, not back. What's the point of the journey if you're always wishing you were somewhere else instead of enjoying where you are?

  13. Thanks for sharing the information. That’s a awesome article you posted. I found the post very useful as well as interesting. I will come back to read some more.
    Only Child Traits


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