Parenting The Only Child

Written by Jennifer S on July 23rd, 2011

Balance, Family Structure
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This post is a follow-up to The Only Child, a piece I wrote on the advantages and disadvantages of being/having an only child.

Parenting an only child is not the same as parenting multiple children. Parents must be aware of the needs of an only child and be careful to avoid some of the parenting pitfalls that can happen. My parents were very conscientious about their parenting styles but had an advantage as they were both only children. Some of my only child friends were not as lucky. Their parents had siblings, and so they really did not understand the intricacies that can be involved in raising an only child. I have listed those areas which I feel parents of only children need to be extra vigilant about in their parenting. I am not at all suggesting that parents of multiple children should ignore these areas or do not have problems in these areas. Quite the contrary. These are issues all parents can face. However, parents of only children who were not only children themselves may not be as aware of some of the nuances facing them.

Photo Credit: GoatGirl/Flickr

Do Not Fall Prey To Spoiling The Only Child – This is the number one misconception about only children but in reality, any child can be spoiled. But parents of only children might find it easier to give their child everything or most everything he or she wants or needs. Now not all spoiling is bad. If a child is spoiled by the amount of time and attention his or her parents provide, then I say, spoil away! If a child is spoiled by material objects, I do not believe that is beneficial to them. I feel that it is important to teach only children about privileges. Although I will disagree that the majority of only children are spoiled, I will agree that some are. Only children who are given more “things” need to be aware that their possessions are not a right but a privilege. I am not suggesting that things always need to be earned; I am suggesting that to avoid an “entitled” mindset, only child must experience the value of not just being handed something whenever they ask for it.

Avoid Overprotecting – With an only child family, parents do not have to divide their attention amongst other children. Therefore, parents are more in tune with what is going on with and around their only child. This can lead to parents being overprotective. There is a fine line between meeting all of a child’s needs because parental energy is focused on only one child and placing a child in parenting bubble wrap. In order to grow into successful adults, only children need to stumble, fall, and pick themselves back up. Interfering in this will prove harmful down the road.

Model Sharing and Generosity – Parents of only children must be diligent in how they model sharing and generosity. The natural give and take between siblings is not afforded to only children, so there is the tendency for only children not to understand the value of sharing. I was raised to be very generous as a child. My parents modeled sharing and generosity for me. I did not need siblings to learn how to share. I did not need a lot of friends to learn how to share. I learned how to share by watching my parents do so. I did hold my possessions to a higher standard than my friends who had siblings. My toys stayed much cleaner, never broke, and were highly valued. This was simply because I was pretty much the only person playing with them. This did not mean that I would not share with others. It simply meant that my friends needed to understand how we played with toys in my house. And they did. Because children are cool like that.

Photo Credit: Julien Harneis/Flickr

Be Mindful Of Loneliness – Anyone can get lonely, even in a house surrounded by brothers and sisters. Loneliness goes far beyond having people around you. It has much deeper mental and emotional roots. This is not an occurrence specific to only children. I think that only children might tend to feel boredom more often, although as a very creative child, my imaginary friends and I kept busy most of the time. Parents need to keep a watchful eye on the mental health of their only child. Certain personality types are more prone to loneliness and this, coupled with being an only child, could be a depressive cocktail.

Do Not Live Life According To Your Child – Children are self-centered by nature, as well they should be. However, there is a stark difference between developmental self-centeredness and “the world according to” self-centeredness. Only children are certainly going to be the center of their parents’ world by default. However, parents must make sure that their children learn that they are not the center of THE world. Parents must not indulge every whim. They should strive for balance in the family’s lifestyle and activities. In addition, parents should allow only children ample opportunities to engage with other children. The only child will learn boundaries and will naturally engage in and work through power struggles thereby learning that he or she is not the ruler of the kingdom.

Children are NOT mini-adults – Just because you only have one child does not mean that your child should be expected to enjoy adult company and activities. They are still children! Although having only one child may make it easier to attend and enjoy more adult focused events or activities, it does not mean that this is all you should do as a family. Parents need to allow their only child to engage in things which interest them, have friends that they can play with, and just do what they are supposed to do developmentally. In other words, give the only child the space and freedom to do what he or she wants as much as possible.

Reasonable Expectations – Do not expect your only child to live out your dreams. I see a lot of pressure put onto only children. Parents often develop the mindset that this child is “their one shot.” My dad was raised liked that and it backfired. My grandparents tried to make him into a doctor. He got his MBA and owned his own construction company. Most children will still follow their passions at some point irrespective of the will imposed on them by their parents. Parents need to realize that only children are not their second shot at redemption. It will not prove fruitful to push their agenda onto their child. Because only children are very obedient and eager to please their parents, it is important to give them the opportunity to explore their interests without interference.

Resist the Urge to “Fix” Everything – As I mentioned earlier, only children tend to be perfectionists. Therefore, it is critical that parents do not reinforce or increase these tendencies. Redoing the place setting on the dinner table because your child did not put everything in perfect order is only going to make your only child hyper-aware of everything meeting a standard of perfection.

Talking Your Child Down – Only children have extremely high expectations for themselves and can often times be crushed over something not going their way or going as planned. These children are also less likely to roll with the punches easily. As parents, it is critical to not feed into an only child’s self-deprecation and “woe is me” sulking. All only children will do this, especially as adolescents. Parents need to help only children learn how to set realistic expectations for themselves and then gently work them through disappointments.

Photo Credit:Mcbeth/ Flicker

Parent. Not Best Friend or Sole Playmate – Children need parents and children need friends. As an only child of a VERY shy mother, I sometimes felt like I was her only friend (which was not the case). Make sure that you keep a parenting relationship in place for your young children and save the friend-parent relationship for when your children are adults. Parents are not meant to be friends to their young children. However, it is certainly reasonable as a parent to engage in play with your only child. Parents of only children will often times end up being the default playmate. There is no harm in this as long as the child has friends his or her age to play with as well.

Do Not Exert Pressure on The Only Child to “Hurry Up” and Marry/Have Children – Only children (especially males) are often pressured to marry and have children to carry on the family lineage. No child deserves this pressure but it is most felt by only children. Parents of only children need to be supportive of the life that they are leading as adults. As impatient as parents may be to have grandchildren in the picture, it is not fair or reasonable to put pressure on an only child to do this.

Orderly Estate – I feel that it is important to ensure that as parents, your estate is in order should something happen to both parents at the same time. The financial and emotional burden of caring for elderly parents rests solely on the shoulders of an only child. Do not add to the stress by having an utter mess for your child to deal with. Be considerate of the fact that your child has his or her own life with the corresponding responsibilities.

Photo Credit: Anabadili/Flickr

I hope that the parenting nuances I presented give everyone some food for thought as it relates to parenting an only child. Only children and parents of only children walk a different road than those in larger families. Keeping these parenting tactics and challenges in mind and finding ways to avoid them will only benefit both you as the parent and your child in the long run. Good luck on your journey!

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.

One Response to Parenting The Only Child

  1. Kristin  

    Nice article! I am an only child and agree with a lot of these! Yes yes yes on the estate planning stuff, as an adult I am really really starting to appreciate what my parents have done to help with this when the time comes.

    There are two other things I’d add. One is to record and preserve what you can (to a reasonable extent, of course!) of your only child’s childhood via photos and videos, stories or notes jotted down, journals, scrapbooks, whatever. Writing down important dates, itineraries for big trips, whatever seems fun and memorable. I see how my parents, husband, friends and their siblings have such fun reminiscing and correcting each other about various childhood events, and I have this fear (perhaps due to my sloppy memory, I don’t know) that when my parents are gone, I will have nobody to help me remember this stuff — my story in the early years. I truly value the photos of my childhood my parents do have for me, and some memorabilia saved, just to allow me to remember or date various things that happened in my life.

    The other is somewhat related, though probably more important. I think it is really great for families with only children to try as much as they can to build a community or “tribe” of other families, with and without kids, to be close to and support as your child grows. Ideally (though I know this is hard to predict!) for the long haul, into adulthood – people who the only child knows is there if things happen, who will be around to talk to about those above-mentioned memories, who remember how things were years ago, etc.

    For me, my extended family (aunts/uncles/cousins) fills this role, as do various family friends from my parents work, and more, who’ve stuck around and become solid, familiar and loved members of my larger “family”.

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