TOPIC: Only Child, Lonely Child
(Editorial Release Date: July 30, 2000).




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TOPIC: Only Child, Lonely Child

Hereís a small quiz for you. You are in the doctorís office, waiting to be seen by your physician (itís already 30 minutes past the time of your scheduled appointment -- why do doctors always keep you waiting? Ahh, but thatís another story). You see a small, dark-haired child in the corner of the room, playing quietly with some blocks that have been provided just for this purpose. You:

A. Feel sorry that this child has been left to amuse herself while her mother reads a magazine in the waiting room and then find yourself wondering where her brothers and sisters are.
B. Smile when the child glances at you and feel a sense of satisfaction that she is happily amused and well-behaved.
If you are like most folks, you probably chose the first response, even if you are reticent to admit this. Most people assume that a single child playing alone has been forced to do this by circumstances and is very unhappy about it. That she is lonely, even if there is nothing about her demeanor that would indicate loneliness or isolation. Itís just one of those myths about only children, one that we only children (Iím one) find interesting, sometimes even amusing. Iíve found there are many other myths as well. Here are a few. Iím betting they will sound very familiar to you.

In addition to being thought lonely, only children are often considered spoiled, self-indulgent, self-centered and maladjusted. A psychologist at the turn of the century, one G. Stanley Hall, even went so far as to say this: "Being an only child is a disease in itself." Whoa, Dr. Hall -- back up a few paces and put the pen down, baby! You couldnít be more wrong.

While it is understandable that these myths would have existed at the beginning of the 1900s when children were important in an economy that subsisted mostly on agriculture (i.e., more children to work on the farm meant greater success for their farming father), itís surprising that this belief that multiple children are critical to a family persists even now, when our society has moved away from agriculture to a more industrialized, information-based economy. Families with only one child are not only more plentiful these days, they are becoming a very visible and desirable part of society. U.S. Census Bureau statistics indicate that close to one in five families have just one child (thatís an estimated 20 million only child households in the U.S. alone). Further research indicates that this number will increase to 25% in the near future. Still, people cling to the old myths and persist in believing that only child families are somehow deficient and/or that only children suffer in some ways. To have only one child brands the family with a very hard to erase social stigma.

The reasons for having only one child are numerous and personal, but can be summed up under the following categories:
1. Economic: financial or career-related.
2. Our countryís high divorce rate.
3. Couples starting families later in life.
4. Fertility problems, which are on the rise.
5. Personal choice: people make the conscious decision to have only one child, though this is far less frequent than the other reasons.
Iíd just like to take this opportunity to say that all of these reasons are viable, and that none of them will forever scar the only child. And here are some statistics that prove me correct. Far from being self-centered, good-for-nothing brats, recent studies done on only children indicate that they score marks equal to firstborns in intelligence, achievement, and self-esteem. They also score quite high on sociability indexes, meaning that in terms of personal relationships with peers, they are doing better than just fine. And they score even higher than firstborns and later borns in leadership ability and maturity. So, itís not such a grim picture after all.

About that all important issue of making connections with other children (which most people will point to when they talk about how only children suffer), Iíd like to say that I believe it is an advantage, not a disadvantage, not to have siblings. I had no built-in playmates. I even remember my father being so concerned about this that he gave me my skates, sent me outside, and locked the door behind me. Told me to find a playmate in the neighborhood (this was in the days when neighborhoods were very safe places). I had no one my age in my own house to depend on for entertainment. All my social connections had to be initiated and sustained by me. I learned not only a good deal about independence, but interdependence for this reason. And even I am surprised at how many of these connections I made in childhood remain strong into my adulthood. My relationships have been long-lasting ones even if they were not based on blood connections. Perhaps they are strong because I chose these people; they did not come into my life through an accident of birth.

Iíd also like to mention the obvious advantages (since most people concentrate on the disadvantages) of missing out on sibling rivalry. I never had pointless arguments in the backseat of the car with someone whose best response was ďnah, nah, nah, nah, nahĒ and I did not have to compete for my parentsí attention. No one stole and broke my toys or wore and stained my clothes. My life and my parentsí lives were pretty peaceful.

Speaking of peaceful, there is one other thing that I have noticed about only children that not many people mention. We are very talented at entertaining ourselves. Like that only child playing with her blocks whom I mentioned at the beginning of this editorial, most only children are experts at keeping themselves amused and they retain this ability into adulthood. While I have heard many people complain of boredom, I have never experienced boredom myself. If there is no one around to keep me occupied, I occupy myself without giving it a second thought. Guess this flies in the face of the myth about being lonely, doesnít it? Iíd even go so far as to say that only children are probably less likely to be lonely than people with siblings. Being by ourselves is commonplace; therefore, our ďalonenessĒ never comes as a shock to us.

For me, I suppose, that relationship with my parents was the best part about being an only child. We were always very close and still are -- sort of a Three Musketeers, ďall for one, one for allĒ mentality. Iím not saying that this closeness does not exist in multiple child families. However, it is much harder to maintain when each parentís attention is split between many children. Letís face it Ė there are only so many hours in the day and parents can only give so much. Itís simply much easier to concentrate when there is only one child pulling at the hem of your skirt or pants. When there is only one direction in which your love need go, it is easier to stay on course. And for those who believe that every only child begs for a sibling or two, please let me assure you that there are some, like me, who do not. It never even occurred to me that I should have brothers and sisters. I just naturally assumed that being the only child was appropriate for my family, even though all my friends and relatives had brothers and sisters. I thought siblings applied to other families, not mine. I did not feel deprived.

Yes, there are also disadvantages to being an only child. I will admit that. Since you are the only one, you do receive all your parentsí attention which can be overwhelming at times. They do have a tendency to know exactly where you are every minute of the day and exactly whom youíre with. Itís not very easy to get away with murder. You are also the only one to carry their hopes and dreams into the future. If you allow it, this can become overbearing. However, since there is no one to compare you to, parents often assume you are a model child. They puff up with pride over your smallest accomplishments. That goes a long way toward making you feel competent and capable. So, the disadvantages seem worth it when you consider the benefits.

There is also another disadvantage, but this one applies only to older only children. Only children will be the main caretakers for their aging parents. There will be no one else to depend on to handle these responsibilities (or foist these responsibilities onto). However, there are many resources available today to help in this regard. And speaking of available resources, I would like to direct you to the following site for more information regarding the topic of only children:

Only Child

This well-designed and informative site and connected newsletter contain all kinds of information about only children. In fact, it is one of the only (no pun intended) sites and newsletters in existence that is solely devoted to this subject. Within the site you will find helpful resources, articles and links on all kinds of topics related to parenting an only child. You will also receive very valuable information for the adult and senior only child. The creators of this site and newsletter have covered all the bases, leaving no stage of the only childís life unaccounted for. It is one of the most all-encompassing resources I have ever encountered on this subject.

In case you think this editorial is unnecessarily biased in favor of only children, I will be fair and offer both sides. There are seven common sins of parents with one child, as outlined by Carolyn White in Only Child magazine, and I note them here (to be truly fair, though, I have to say this is good advice whether your household has one child or multiple children):

Overindulgence
Your child doesn't need everything and actually doesn't want everything. Maintain a safe distance from Toys 'R' Us unless it's a special occasion or your child has saved money to spend. Give your child chores at home.
Overcompensation
Avoid the tendency to become a substitute sibling. If your child interrupts you or wants another story before bed when you've already read three, you can say no. Practice the following phrases: "I'm busy now. You will have to wait." Or "This is your time to play by yourself, and it's my time to read the newspaper. I will be happy to play with you (specify a time)."
Treating your child like an adult
Don't talk to your child about problems in your marriage (or in your dating life if you're a single parent) or make your child take sides. Too often parents allow their only child to make family decisions, such as what to eat for dinner or where to go on vacation.
Overpraising
Be judicious and realistic when you praise. Only children rarely lack self-esteem, but are in danger of feeling entitled if praised for everything.
Overprotection
Your child needs to learn that failure is part of life but not the end of it. A certain amount of disappointment is important to his psychological and social well-being.
Expecting perfection
Don't live through your child. Don't examine every aspect of his or her behavior, accomplishments or lack thereof. One child isn't supposed to take the place of several children.
Failing to make rules and implement them
Be as consistent as possible. Your child won't respect you if you often allow rules to be bent or broken.


If you are a parent of an only child, or are seriously considering the possibility of limiting your family to only one child, I hope the information Iíve provided here will make you feel more at ease with your choice or help you in your decision. One child families can be a marvelous option and provide all the love and support of multiple child families. As always, I wish you luck on your journey if this has been an issue for you.

Authorís Note: My thanks to the U.S. Census Bureau and the owner of the web site I mentioned above where I found most of the information and statistics for this editorial.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this editorial is for informational purposes only and the author does not support nor discourage either the choice to have multiple children or an only child. She believes above all things that everyone should be allowed to make their own decisions in this and other highly personal matters.



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