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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Only children rock, part 2: bringing up baby (singular)

Alright then- you've decided, or nature has decided for you, that this baby is IT.  You'd like a manual for the singleton model, please!

I'm assuming you've already read the previous post, where I reassured you that you are NOT the Wicked Witch of the West for having just one child, and that your child is not doomed to be a bratty, insular, self-centred, dependent lap-dog. Yes? Good. Now let's talk about some sensible, reflective parenting of the only child.

The first thing we have to knock on the head is that only children are somehow different to bring up from other children.  They're not.  Children are children, and most have similar needs.  At the same time, every child is unique- the 'only' one you have of that particular model.  Good parenting is a matter of knowing your child and getting the balance right, no matter how many children you have.

But you may have to do a little tweaking from time to time, in the absence of siblings.  Siblings can certainly provide a bit of a reality check for each other, as the screams and wails issuing from the parent-of-two's playroom will attest.  Let's look at some specific aspects of 'only child' parenting balance.

My baby, my life!- the dangers of overindulgence

If you're silly enough to treat any child as though he's the centre of the universe and make your entire life revolve around him, instead of gradually helping him (and allowing him) to become independent, you're cruisin' for a bruisin'.

People will tell you that this only happens to only children, because they don't have any competition. Rubbish. It happens to a LOT of eldest children, and then there's hell to pay when Number 2 comes along. (See 'sibling rivalry'.) It can also happen to 'favourite' children or precociously talented children. Be very, very afraid. This is not the way to create a happy human being.

You may well fall madly in love with your new baby, but that's not an excuse to indulge yourself in indulging her, to the detriment of both the baby and your own life. It's not an excuse for you to live your life through your child.  Remind yourself he's not a possession.  Remind yourself she's a small person who needs to live an independent life one day.

Remind yourself that your job is not to play with, entertain, buy stuff for and wait upon this child 24 hours a day, because that's how people breed children who can't entertain themselves, have a dysfunctional sense of entitlement and think that 'mum' is a synonym for 'servant'.  In my very first post of this blog I talked about parenting as a process of letting go.  You'd better believe it.

Your job is not just to love and care for him, but to build realistic expectations. One day your baby will be a teenager.  Will you still be giving him everything he wants and jumping to attention every time he squeaks? Will you still prioritise her above everything that matters in your own life? (If you do, I promise she'll hate you for it.) When were you thinking of starting the transition to reality?

Obviously, you attend lovingly and patiently to all your tiny baby's genuine needs and give lots of cuddles and honest, kind communication. The trick is to gradually let her take the wheel as she gets older and take back the important parts of your own life, so that when it's time for your baby to leave home we have a tableau of happy adults excited about the future- not a terrified, unprepared, 25-year-old child and a pair of weeping, empty-nester parents. If you're having trouble getting the balance right when your baby is young- and yes, you DO need to think about this when your baby is quite young- Janet Lansbury's site is a mine of kind, non-judgmental information.

My one and only- the pitfalls of overprotection

Fear of abduction, death or injury must not be allowed to cripple your one-and-only's emotional growth.  If you went through hell to get that only child, or if you're a particularly fearful person, you might need to do a bit of emotional work on yourself before you can let your child take the minor, healthy risks they need for normal development. Do it. Hot-housing your child is bad for them, and for you.  That child needs to get out into the world and learn to cope without you.

Finding the line between acceptable and unacceptable risk can be hard for parents who only have one child and are terrified of losing him.  But if you protect any child from the realities of other people's quirks, differences and unpleasant behaviour- if you don't let her learn how to cope with other members of the human race, warts and all, from an early age- she's in for an unpleasant shock when she eventually has to assimilate without mum or dad at her side.

Children with siblings have to learn to deal with other kids at home every day (and their parents have to learn when to to butt out and let them sort it).  Children without siblings might need you to create opportunities for them to learn this, if your lifestyle doesn't lend itself naturally to this sort of interaction.

There's a good chance that an only child will end up preferring the company of adults, because that's what he's used to.  Once that's set in stone, it can become difficult for some children to integrate with peers once school starts (and it may be twice as hard if they're gifted as well; I refer you to the cautionary tale of 'only child, gifted child' Gavin, which you'll find towards the end of my post about gifted children.)  I wasn't an only child, but my brother was significantly older than me, and I still remember how awful it felt to be tossed into a sea of other children when I was used to adult company, civil behaviour and peace and quiet.

Want to avoid this for your child? Then that means- shock, horror- that you need to expose this delicate, precious little orchid flower of yours to Other People's Children sooner rather than later.

That might mean playgroup and daycare.  It might mean playing with their cousins and going to little athletics.  It could mean early music classes and plenty of time at the playground (without you being a helicopter parent). The idea is to let your child work out how to deal with other people from outside their family, and they can't do that if you're constantly hovering and 'saving them'.

The interactions don't have to be with children of exactly the same age.  Be guided by your own child's personality- as with every other aspect of parenting, you are the authority on your child and you are the best one to judge exactly what social activities will work for your child.  In my son's case, it often meant coming with me to choir rehearsals after school and interacting with a group of 15- to 18-year-old girls (who were not backward in coming forward when he did something outrageous).  Like Gavin, he was a gifted child and preferred the company of older people. I found that play dates with his peers were pretty useless, as he'd either be totally bored by their conversation or run rings around them instead of learning to co-operate and negotiate. (Or both.  Oh, the joys of parenting the gifted child... sigh.)

To this day he thanks me for exposing him to so many girls so young.  He swears it gave him an unfair advantage in the dating stakes later on.

NB: Note that working with choirs was a very important part of my life, and there was no way I was giving that up- my preschooler son just had to learn to fit in, and he did so with alacrity.  Let that be a lesson to you! Spend some time maintaining your own interests!  Maybe you too can work out a way to combine resuming your life interests with allowing your child to socialise.  Both are terribly important if you want to end up with that tableau of happy adults at parting time.

You're special- hello, so is everyone else

If you fail to nurture respect for other people's point of view in your child, then yes, you'll bring up a self-centred prat.  (Some parents manage to bring up whole families of self-centred prats, so don't you dare think that only children own the copyright on that one.)

And so, in the absence of siblings who will soon teach a child that everyone has a unique perspective (and last one with hands washed gets last pick of the cupcakes), you may have to make more of an effort to treat your only child in a slightly more pragmatic way and let him learn about reality. It's not called the human 'race' for nothing.

It's pretty natural to try to boost your child's ego and make her feel special, but you can't be hokey about it. (Kids pick 'hokey' very young.) You have to try to be realistic about where your child stands in relation to the world. By all means show interest in what he does, but don't give fake or excessive praise (this is a child, not a performing seal) and don't pretend he's infallible or The Best (what is that, anyway? The Best like Picasso, or The Best like Renoir?), even if he's precociously talented at something.

Try to be calm, try to be authentic, and be careful what you label as 'cute' or 'awesome'.  (Let me rephrase that: be careful with labels, full stop.) If you over-react to every little thing your child achieves, you're hard-wiring your child's brain to believe that the aim of life is to please YOU.  It's not. The first aim of life is to explore our own abilities and find and use our unique gifts, not to join the circus as a baby monkey and do handstands night after night till we die so people will throw peanuts.

Yes, you can be positive and interested without declaring that everything your baby produces is WONDERFUL.  (Even she knows that not everything she produces is wonderful- most of the time she's far more interested in the process of doing something than in the product that you hang on your fridge, anyway.) And you can, and must, create an atmosphere where he realises that there are other people in the world, and things are not always going to go his way, and that's not the end of the world.

So, for example, it's important that you don't spare your child the disappointment of losing when you play games. Again, you have to find a balance between the 'killer' parent, who plays to win regardless of the company, and the 'pushover' parent who constantly loses on purpose.

I remember learning how to play the card game "500" by having my father play my hand with me, until I had a decent grasp of the strategies.  That was brilliant.  I got the sense of being part of a team, I tasted a fair share of winning and losing- and then when I went solo, when I did win I knew I'd deserved it.  That's what we're aiming for here- a realistic balance.

You know, I've hardly said a thing here that only relates to the only child. I'll say it again: every child is unique, but most of them have similar basic needs.  Having one child means we might occasionally have to consider stepping in and replacing what siblings might contribute, but having more than one child means we have to consider dealing with a host of other difficult issues, like 'where did I put my life?' and 'how can I explain to Johnny that it's not okay to flush his sister's iPod down the toilet?'

For some of us, an only child is a choice; for others, it's imposed upon us against our will.  But honestly, it doesn't have to be an issue. If you have a pennyworth of common sense and enough interest in good parenting to keep you reading and learning about children, you and your singleton will be absolutely fine- and if anyone tells you otherwise, send them to me!!


  1. What wise advice. How did you read my mind- the fear of losing an (only) child who had a rocky start to life can threaten to overshadow common sense parenting skills. It's funny- sometimes you need to see something in writing before the penny drops; I was well on my way to becoming one of THOSE 'helicopter parents' (haha- I love that!). But these are GREAT tips- my small adult person will be well nurtured with your tips- THANK YOU!!!!

  2. That's an absolute pleasure, VK. We don't MEAN to make mistakes... but it's so easy to fall into unhelpful patterns when our emotions take over. It's great that you're reading and learning about bringing up your only child- so many parents assume it'll all come naturally, but what comes naturally is to repeat our parents' mistakes, or to follow our own inner fears and outer excesses. You're obviously prepared to try and avoid all that, so good for you!

  3. Thank you for both posts on only children. It is something i think about and wonder how it will work out for the child. These posts have really helped me realize that it's the way we parent rather than the number of children that matters. Thank you so much.

  4. That's a pleasure, Anon. You've obviously taken exactly the right message away from what I've written.


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