I am an only child. I come from a long line of only children. There are a lot of only children in my life. Both of my parents were only children. My husband was an only child for 20 years and was never raised with his sister. So in effect, my husband and my sister-in-law were both raised as only children. My mother-in-law is an only child. One of my best friends is an only child, raising an only child. Several of my dear friends growing up were only children, and several of my friends now are raising only children. And my daughter will be an only child. And of course, there is me. The only child raising an only child.
I think that it is safe to assume that I REALLY understand the life of an only child and the family structure of those with only children. And to be completely honest, I am very biased in my views about only children. After all, it is what I know.
Over the years there has been a lot written about only children. These books and articles have outlined the advantages, disadvantages, the good, and the bad and have often created what I consider to be a rather negative view of life as an only child. Some of what has been written is based on scientific studies and data. Others are based on personal experience and observations. I would like to outline what I see as the advantages and disadvantages of being an only child/parenting an only child as well as look at some of the nuances of parenting an only child.
Advantages of Being an Only Child/Having an Only Child
Financially less stressful – In today’s tough economy it is no surprise to hear parents expressing how expensive children are. There are certain things that all parents will have to invest in in order to raise their children. Having multiple children will not necessarily cause you to go bankrupt, but it is considerably more expensive to raise more than one child. There are more bottoms to diaper, mouths to feed, doctor visits, clothes to wear, and child gear (car seats, beds, etc.) to purchase. You will find slight variations in the total dollar amount, but the widely accepted estimate is that it costs a minimum of $200,000 over the course of 18 years to raise a child. That is a lot of money, and the more children you have, the less “extra” funds you will probably have available to do things like family vacations, trips to the zoo, and other activities requiring some sort of fee or dollar amount. In addition, private schools or fee based schools may not be an option for those families with multiple children. Families with only children may be able to budget for a private education if that is something important for them.
Warmth, love, and attachment – As an only child I KNEW that my parents loved me and were always there for me. I never questioned this. I saw many of my friends who had siblings constantly questioning and wondering “who was loved more” in their families. This always made me sad as a child. Why should a child feel like they are competing for their parents’ love? I am not at all suggesting that this is the case in every family. I personally feel that there is simply a better opportunity for parents to create a deep bond based on love, trust, and warmth when they only have one child to focus on. I think that only children are able to develop an emotional closeness with their parents that may be lacking in families with multiple children. Even if that closeness is there in the early years, it may fade down the road if not cultivated. Again, that is something more difficult to do with multiple children. However, it is not impossible.
Time and attention – An only child does not have to engage in the proverbial fight for his or her parent’s attention. The only child has all of the attention on them. Personally, I saw less of a reason to “act out” as a child as I did not have to resort to less than desirable behavior to get my parents’ attention. This is a benefit to parents as well. They do not have to split their mental, emotional, or physical resources between multiple children. They are able to be more grounded and focused on their single child. They hopefully will be able to give them the time and attention desired in any given circumstance.
Parents are more patient and less frazzled – The more children in a household, the louder, messier, more chaotic things can be. I mean, let’s face it – you can only stretch yourself in so many directions as a parent, and sometimes parenting multiple children can be like herding cats. The workload of parenting multiple children can easily create a frazzled parent who is at the end of his or her patience rope. I am not saying that this cannot happen in a single child household. Quite the contrary. I know that I exasperated my mother often, and I know that my daughter can wear out my patience. However, I think that these moments are sparser and that as parents, we have the opportunity to collect ourselves in a more peaceful manner when only parenting one child.
Only children have a very unique connection with their parents – Their parents KNOW them and understand them deeply. My parents always knew when something was bothering me, when I had a concern or secret, or when I just needed a hug and no words. Parents of only children are able to take more time to support their children in their educational endeavors, their extracurricular activities, their hobbies, and their interests. Parents are not stretched as thin, having to decide whose soccer game to attend or whose recital to watch. In addition, if children are at different schools, parents are often left scrambling to figure out which open house to attend, which back to school night requires their attention, etc. This is not the case with an only child. Parents will only have to commit to that one child and can support them with 100% of their time.
Typically Organized and Straight Forward – Only children are often uber organized with tendencies towards list-making. They are the task masters ready to write up their daily list and cross them off one by one. They are strong multi-taskers, very logical in their thinking, and highly motivated. For parents who are not this way, only children can actually serve to bring some structure and order to what might otherwise be a chaotic household.
Disadvantages of Being an Only Child
Attention – Only children do not get away with much, so there is a little fun lost in trying to see if you can put one over on mom or dad. Parents of only children are very aware of what their child is up to, even if the child believes otherwise.
Opportunity to teach – Only children do not get the opportunity to teach their younger siblings how to do things. This is not necessarily a disadvantage that I view as critical, but there certainly is a sense of pride and even joy in being a model and a teacher to a younger sibling. In my case, I took on this role with younger children in the neighborhood and was fulfilled.
Blame game – There is no one to blame when you are an only child and do something you shouldn’t. I tried to blame the dog constantly. It never worked! (But on the flip side, not having anyone else to serve as a scapegoat teaches a child to take responsibility for their actions).
Over Reliance – Some only children may become overly reliant on their parents, depending on how they are parented. Only children may get very used to mom doing everything (or a lot of things) for them. This is not a case of only children being spoiled, but rather a case of workload. Parents of only children do not have nearly the amount of laundry, cooking, cleaning, shopping and the like to do as, say, a parent of six children. Therefore, they may do most of those tasks themselves instead of having the child pitch in.
Stereotypes – Only children are subject to numerous stereotypes, all of which are pretty negative. They are viewed as spoiled, overprotected, unable to share, lonely, domineering/pushy, and bratty to name a few. I was constantly under review for being an only child. It seemed like every adult that I came in contact with wanted me to fit the mold that they saw only children fitting into.
Pressure – There is often a lot of pressure placed on only children. This pressure comes from a variety of sources: parents, family members, teachers, friends, and yourself. Parents and family can pressure their only child to get straight A’s, as they are afforded the opportunity of increased parental involvement with schoolwork. Parents and family can also pressure only children to participate in and excel at extracurricular activities. Teachers expect only children to serve as better role models for their peers. I personally never understood this; however, I was subject to it. Friends pressure the only child to convince his or her parents to buy a particular item, take them all somewhere, etc., since they have nothing better to do or spend their money on. But worst of all is the pressure an only child will put on his or herself. Only children have a tendency to become perfectionists and type “A” personalities. Every only child I know fit one or both of these categories. Not having siblings to hide behind or blend in with can make it tough for an only child to just be “average.” There is a strong desire to please other people, and unfortunately most “other people” will have you think that pleasing comes in the form of perfection. I grew up placing a lot of pressure on myself in a variety of areas. I have let some of this go as an adult but for the most part, I am still very much the only child putting all kinds of pressure on myself to be better than my best.
One last thought before I leave you to ponder life as an only child. Growing up, everyone (except for my parents) asked me if I wanted a sibling. My parents were chastised for not giving me a playmate. All children need a sibling to play with, right? No, children do not. Children need love, affection, and good role models as parents. Children then need the opportunity to engage in play either by themselves or with other children (siblings or friends). Only children often have imaginary friends, which are very healthy. No harm is done by not having a built in playmate in the house. What if there is a 15 year age difference between siblings? Not the ideal playmate for a toddler, right?
I absolutely loved being an only child, as did my husband. This is why we have decided to only have one child. We know the pros and are aware of the cons, but we feel strongly that this is right for our family. Raising an only child is no easier or harder than raising four children. It is just a different journey.
Stay tuned for part two (posting tomorrow) where I look at what I call “parenting nuances” as they relate to the only child.