When One Child Is Enough

By Julie Green on February 28, 2011
Where is it written that a family must have more than one child?

About 43 percent of Canadian families are raising an only child, and yet the only child is still misunderstood and much maligned.  As an only child raising an ‘only’, not a week goes by without someone asking when my second child is on the way. When I admit that, frankly, there isn’t likely to be a second – the disdain is palpable. “How could you?” they gasp. It is an assumed cruelty for a parent to rob her child of a sibling.

But where is it written that a kid shalt have brothers and sisters? After all, there’s no guarantee that siblings will even get along, let alone form a bond that will see them through the years. 
she didn’t have siblings because she saw her friends “constantly fighting” with theirs. But as an adult she longs for the kind of relationship her husband has with his siblings. “They’re close in this easy, unlimited way that’s very mysterious to me.”

There is no question that being an only child has shaped my own personality, just as everyone’s upbringing shapes them to some extent. It has made me who I am today, for better or for worse. I love people, yet often crave solitude. I am highly sensitive, with a tendency towards perfectionism. On one hand this tendency drives me to create, yet, paradoxically, makes me critical of my creation. 
Sarah Johnson Carter, a stay-at-home mom of three, is convinced that her imagination “blossomed as a result of spending a considerable amount of time alone”. I have no doubt that being an ‘only’ is the reason I am a writer today.

Said to be shy, lonesome, and pampered, ‘onlies’ have long been dogged by bad press and unfair stereotypes. At various times I have been all of these things. On the other hand, I have also been ambitious, hard working, and creative. ‘Onlies’ are at least as complicated as anyone else on the planet. Contrary to popular belief, a child does not necessarily end up maladjusted as a result of birth order, nor is there substantive research to suggest that being an only child is a social handicap.

Though ‘onlies’ may have to work harder at forging friendships, such relationships often prove as close-knit and loyal as a secondary family. Far from being lonely wallflowers, when given ample opportunity to mix with other children, ‘onlies’ can – and do – develop healthy ties with peers. Not only is it possible to learn to share and resolve conflict without siblings in the picture, ‘onlies’ typically report being content to play solo. I was fortunate enough to have a cousin my age who became a kind of surrogate sister to me. And my mother also made sure I was enrolled in plenty of extra-curricular activities with other kids.

But aren’t only children spoiled rotten? According to parenting expert Alyson Schafer, author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids and Breaking the Good Mom Myth, being spoiled doesn’t necessarily have to do with birth order, but with an attitude of entitlement that “comes from the early experience that ‘I am the centre of the universe’”. She says that when children are put on a pedestal, they develop the mistaken belief that people are there to serve them. By doing too much, parents actually prevent their kids from developing their own coping mechanisms, so they end up with “this odd combination of feeling entitled yet also feeling rather useless”.

If anyone knows about the perils of rearing the only child, it’s the Chinese. The single-child policy introduced in China in the late ’70s, in an attempt to curb population growth, has arguably led to a generation of ‘little emperors’. There are now programs in place to educate parents raising ‘onlies’, the aim of which is to redress the shift in power by teaching parents how to set limits.
In his book The Only Child, Darrell Sifford claims the effects of parenting are magnified on the only child because “there are no other children around to dilute the effects”. When all the proverbial eggs are placed in a single basket, the pressure on the only child to please and to achieve can be tremendous.

While many ‘onlies’ go on to be highly driven and successful in their chosen fields (Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Elvis Presley and John Lennon were all only children), such parental pressure is not without cost. In some cases, children are prematurely integrated into the adult world – a phenomenon known as ‘adultifying’ according to Carolyn White, editor of Only Child magazine and author of The Seven Common Sins of Parenting an Only Child.

By doing too much, parents actually prevent their kids from developing their own coping mechanisms, so they end up with “this odd combination of feeling entitled
yet also feeling rather useless”.

As a direct result of its exclusivity, the parent-only child bond often runs deep. White believes her own single-child family is extremely close “because it’s hard to hide behind masks. We spend too much time together.”
For Carter, though, the real pressure of being an ‘only’ comes later in life. “As an adult, I worry that I’m the only person available to take care of my parents as they age or become ill.” Still, the added intimacy of the single-child family dynamic can backfire, leaving suffocated and embittered ‘onlies’ to break away from their parents at the earliest opportunity and never look back.

In hindsight, I probably spent too much time at the kitchen table, listening to adult gossip. Like many ‘onlies’, I occasionally wondered what it would be like to have a sister to swap clothes with, say, or a brother to watch my back. But as with most unknowns in life, this is a mystery I can happily live with.

As for my son, I can only hope that his wonder years will be full enough and rich enough for him not to miss having siblings, and that he won’t grow to resent me for denying him a brother or sister. Time will tell. For now all I can do is what any parent in my shoes can reasonably do: try to foster his growing independence, and make sure he knows that I love him every step of the way. And if all else fails, I suppose I can always get him a dog.

Why ‘only’ doesn’t have to mean lonely

Try the parenting equivalent of a timeshare and take advantage of family pricing. Many attractions offer discounted tickets for 'families' with two adults and two children. Most public transportation also offers day passes catering to families. Pretend to be a fab foursome for a day by letting your child bring a friend along, and let your 'only' see what a day out looks like with a sibling in tow. Bowling, mini-putt, matinees, the zoo, and kid-friendly museums are sure hits with young ones. You and a trusted friend or neighbour with a similarly aged child exchange babysitting services for an hour or two, or if your child is old enough, a sleepover. Your child gets one-on-one time with a pseudo sibling. Sure, you have to look after two, but then when the tables are turned, you get a 'mani' or a leisurely trip to Starbucks. Everyone's a winner.

Here are Alyson Schafer’s 3 Top Tips How to Not Spoil An Only Child

Avoid exulting your child.
A child joins the family; he doesn’t supersede it.  Children feel their sense of connection and belonging as a result of participating and contributing to the family unit.

Help your child develop the skills to handle themselves. 
Take time for training. What may feel loving is actually robbing the child of an opportunity to learn to be independent.

Let them make mistakes. 
Never do for a child what he can do for himself.  Be consistent with tasks to avoid confusing them.  Once they can do it, it’s their job. Don’t do it again, even though it may be faster or easier for you.

Published in March 2011.

Julie Green is a Toronto-based writer and mother of one – which is enough for her.

By Julie Green| February 28, 2011

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