The Only Child

Written by Jennifer S on July 22nd, 2011

Balance, Family Structure

Photo Credit: Stock.xchng

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.

Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal

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.

Photo Credit: Psychology Today

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.

Photo Credit: Rafa/Flickr

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.

About The Author: Jennifer S

HybridRastaMama My NPN Posts

Jennifer blogs about conscious parenting practices, mindful living, holistic health and wellness, natural healing, real foods (with a focus on coconut oil) as well as Waldorf based parenting approaches at Hybrid Rasta Mama.

17 Responses to The Only Child

  1. Karen  

    Thanks so much for this I am bringing up an only child not through choice but just because that is how life is. I am doing all I can to combat the negative side of this but I really need to take a good look at the positive side from someone who is one and has that insight.

    Going to print this off so I can keep reminding myself being an only child can be positive and OK and not a negative as I keep being told it is.

  2. Michelle

    Thanks so much for sharing this. We are raising an only child. We wanted more children but that didn’t happen for us. We have a well adjusted son who has come to accept the fact that he won’t have siblings. It was a hard corner to turn, but he has done it. He has close relationships with his cousins and with his “friend-cousins”…these are the children of our best friends. We work really hard at letting him be a kid and not a grown up in a kid body, since he spends so much time in the company of adults. He makes friends easily, but prefers small groups vs. big groups of kids. We have seen that he has a hard time fighting for attention in large groups of kids. Other than that, he does just great.

  3. Lauren  

    I really appreciate this. My niece is an only child by her parents’ choice, and I do get where they’re coming from. It’s good to hear the positives stated so clearly — thanks!

  4. Moorea  

    My parents always said they didn’t want to mess with perfection and I never forgave my parents for not giving me a sibling..but now that we have had one child with complications in pregnancy that would happen again, I am realizing that it may not be so bad to not have another. I like the freedom and my friends who have two little ones are so consumed by motherhood, I might be resentful of having less time to myself. I also enjoy deep attention and mindfulness with my one child.

  5. Michele

    Thank you so much for this. I am an only child raising an only child by choice and I can not imagine things any other way. I loved being an only child and can relate to everything you wrote.

  6. La

    Great piece and very hopeful.

    We have an only child who is nearly 3. My husband (one of two children) only wants one; I (one of three), on the otherhand, want two.

    While all the reasons you state are true and are concerns of ours (e.g. financial, time, opportunities for travel and education, attention, etc.), I do worry that as an older parent (I’m 42), that our son could be lonely without siblings as an adult. I love that my parents are healthy and are 70 and 68 years old. When my son is my age, I’ll be 79. Our family frequently travels together and I love the closeness we share.

    But in addition to possible loneliness, I also worry about the burden placed on an only child when their parents are older and illnesses happen. Both of my parents have had major hospitalizations and in both cases, my older brother could not be there (due to new job or other reason), yet my younger sister and I could be there (and we are both full-time professionals). I like that there are three of us, and, in an emergency, at least one of us can jump on a plane and be there for them… what happens to the only child who has older parents when there’s an emergency? I don’t want to be a burden to my son, and feel that if there are two children it’s a responsiblity they can share and be there for each other. Is this something we should consider when weighing the pros and cons of having an only child? I’d love to hear your view on this, because it’s something that keeps nagging at me.

    • Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama  

      Hi La! Yes, the whole “sole caregiver/emergency responder” weight is certainly something to consider. However, I have watched BOTH of my only children parents deal with their aging parents (all of whom are now deceased) and somehow it just worked. I think that it is important to have a financial plan in place so the financial burden is not on your child when your health fails. My father’s parents had money set aside for my father to use for their care. My mother’s parents did not. It was a struggle for my parents to pay the bills for my ailing grandfather but somehow they managed. They also made sure that they had “other” people who could be called on in am emergency. Neighbors, people from church, family friends, etc… were all willing to step in if my mom or dad could not be there. THAT was key! It lifted any guilt from my parents and there were always several people willing to help. I think that you have to work with your child to set up a plan for these exact sort of scenarios. Make your wishes clear, help set up an extended support system, and figure out how to ease any financial burden. Beyond that, there is no real “easy” answer. I hope that this sort of helped! My parents are nearing 70 and I am on them all the time now about figuring out how we will all handle declining health and age related issues. Communication is key – HONEST communication!

      • Momani

        I so relate to both of these posts from you and La, I can’t tell you. I come from three siblings, my husband from two, and we have a beautiful, vibrant 4 yr old girl. I so so appreciate your sage advice to have a network and a plan. You put into words things I’ve naturally begun doing but hadn’t been able to put all the pieces together to know why. I can make sure she is supported with a plan when her father and I get old, but making sure she has all the emotional support – the kind a sister or brother can provide – is much harder. My sisters and I are with each other through all the ups and downs in life – breakups, divorce, work and career upsets, and death. I will do my best but, I think in the end, it’ll have to be she who creates a strong emotional network for herself – as it is for all of us.
        I’m worried yes. But then I’m really not. How can I be worried about this sweet girl with a raucous laugh who hugs her friends in pre-school and looks out for them. Since she was 18 months she wouldn’t jump in the ball pit until the kid below her moved out of the way. At 2 she started telling me about the unhappy kid in the room before he’d start crying. Suffice it to say, I have to believe she will have a lot of friends and people in her life who she loves and who love her.
        So thank you for these posts! I wish there were more. 🙂

  7. Casey  

    While I realize there are many stereotypes out there about being/having an only child (which I don’t buy, by the way), I’m not sure that this list is necessarily all that objective. 🙂 It seems like there are assumptions made in the advantages of only children that could be considered stereotypes of multiple child families. The disadvantages of having only children reads like backhand compliments to only children. It sort of reminds me of someone saying in a job interview, “A weakness of mine is that I care too much, and I work too hard.” 😉

    While you and your family may have chosen an only child path and be very happy with it, I’m not sure that I consider this post to be much more than justification for a decision you’ve already made and are happy with.

    • kim & family

      I tend to agree that the reasons stated in the article and the “tone” with which it was written is biased. I am raising an only child, married to an only and my father was an only, so I have experience as well. I had two brothers. I was just wishing for a better article then this as I forge ahead raising my only child.

  8. Jennifer

    Thanks for this article. Very relevant for me — I’m an only child and thinking about having more than one child.

  9. Cassie

    A bit late I know. But, having come to the end of my tether as an adult only-child who now has had to return to the parental home to live with and care for my elderly father, (who else is there to do it?), I couldn’t agree less with this article. It’s a very one-sided viewpoint, based on someone who had no potential problems to deal with in terms of purely being an only child, as her parents obviously were very loving people who made sure their daughter felt loved. Without that sense of ‘knowing you are loved’ inside yourself because your parents basically didn’t give you that, you have an uphill fight day-in-day-out, feeling like a cuckoo’s egg in the wrong nest, trying to do what they want to please them and make them love you for who you are or who they want you to be, only to find it doesn’t work. I don’t remember ever really FEELING loved by my parents – ever. And I only ever felt protected by my father from my mother’s mental torturing of me – once, (when she threatened to ram hot soup down my throat if I didn’t eat it within the next five minutes). Only then did he tell her to ‘lay off’ me, and that was the only time I ever felt protected. And on top of that I had to deal with all the stereotypes from so-called friends who called me ‘spoilt’ and such.
    Consequently, as an adult, I have problems with all my relationships, have therefore not even got close, (I am 45 now), to having the sort of loving relationship that would lead to contemplating nurturing a child, because there were so many hidden emotional problems I had to endure as a child, which all the therapy in the world would not heal, (been there, done that, doesn’t work).
    So this article only applies to those only-children who felt loved, and it is indeed irrelevant whether you have one or eleven children, (my father had ten siblings in a tiny house). If there’s a sparsity of love, it life is difficult for you as a child of one or ten. Equally, if there is love, then one or ten makes no odds. Love is truly all you need, and if you’ve never known it as a child, then everything as an adult is a struggle. I’ve ended up feeling that the entire purpose that my parents had me was to have someone to take care of them when they are old. Did they ever consider who would be there to help me with this?

  10. nitya

    excellent point Cassie. A loving upbringing is the heart of the truth! If parents are going to fight with each other, they are not going to have time for an only child or children. I experienced this, my brother was 8 years younger to me. My brother and I were apart most of the time – but I relate to him better as a sibling than I did with my parents. We, understand each other and know what not to do when we bring up our children. He has two and I have one.

  11. Blair Scheepers  

    As I have struggled for the last two years to fall pregnant with my second child, the reality of only having one child is starting to sink in. I am the youngest of four and my husband is the youngest of three. One child had never crossed either of our minds. So as biased as many of you might see this article, I want to thank you for it. It shows that with love and dedication from parents, only children can be just as “normal” as children with siblings.

    • Sandra

      I tend to agree. Having one pregnancy loss then finally my daughter made me appreciate having children at all. It is god’s will what our fate will be and to thank him for one child or many after. It’s up to him ultimately as he knows what we can handle.

  12. DeeJ

    I liked this article, I was an only child for eight years and have a brother who is eight years younger than me, and sister who is ten years younger than me. My husband and I have a son who is 5 who we are raising as an only child. We are all reading this article because we clearly have some questions or interests in different perspectives of being an only child and raising an only child. How can a person write an article on something that they have not experienced? This article was written by someone who is saying that she is an only child and she turned out great, so OF COURSE the article is a little biased. She is able to speak on her experience of raising one child also. There are advantages to having one child and there are disadvantages to having more than one. I was an only child long enough to remember my life before my siblings and I remember the financial struggle that hit my parents after my brother and sister came along. There is no right or wrong number of children to have, each family has to determine what they are able to do emotionally, mentally and financially when it comes to raising a family, no matter or small or large. We all can hear other opinions but the ultimate decision is up to us. A child(ren) need loving parents who are willing to spend time with them, that is the most important. Thanks for writing this article.

  13. Ariel Rodriguez

    My husband and I are contemplating on having more than one child. Right now, we have a two year old and some days I can see us having one more and other days I feel having just one is what we should do. All the articles I’ve read had made excellent points on both sides. How do you know when having an only child is right for you? Is it a feeling? How well you can logically explain it? I’m don’t want to figure out 8-10 years down the road that we want more kids, they would hardly be raised together. And the flack we get for just having one, even though he’s only two, is sometimes overwhelming. Obviously, you can tell how utterly confused we are. Some days you know for certain and then others days it’s the complete opposite.