I am a third generation only child, and my son will be a fourth generation only child. I am not just pro-only children — I’ve even jokingly referred to myself as an “only child bigot,” prone to espousing how only children are a master race of superior humans. Really, I’m only half kidding, because I think singletons are AWESOME. (In part because we’re so confident!)
Of course there are logistical reasons for only having one child (concern about world over-population, financial constraints, fertility issues, etc) but these assume you’re making some sort of a sacrifice. For me, I see only having one child not as a limitation — but as a solid dose of pure WIN.
Obviously every family is different and every only child’s experience is unique (SO unique. La la la! I’m a special snowflake!). But here’s my anecdotal take on why I loved being an only child and why I’m excited to raise an only child:
Only children are precocious
Since only children don’t have other kids around as frequently, speaking to adults like an adult is just how things get communicated around the house. I called my parents by their first names until I was in pre-school, when my grandmother told my father that it was simply too weird to hear a three-year-old ask her father, “David, can I have more yogurt?”
I certainly don’t think parents of siblings baby-talk more than parents of onlies — it’s just a matter of numbers: when the majority of conversations in the house are conversations between adults and one child, onlies have no choice but to keep up with adult conversation. As a result, most onlies I’ve known have always had keen communication skills and been highly verbal.
As one adult only child explained, “being an only child prepares you for adulthood because when you’re the only child, your parents treat you like a little adult pretty much as soon as they can. My parents would take me to adult events, where I would be the only child, and expect me to behave and mingle with adults.” Of course, this experience can be frustrating for a child — but if your parents are cool people who mingle with other interesting adults, it’s awesome. (Because did I mention being an only child is awesome?!)
Existential comfort with being alone + imagination bonus!
The reality is that only children DO spend a fair amount of time alone. For me at least, this forced me to develop a rich imagination and overall comfort with alone time. This familiarity with alone-ness has been a major life skill in my adulthood. Because let’s face it: as adults, we ALL spend a fair amount of time alone. Knowing how to be comfortable with that is critical life skill that only children get a head start on.
I spent much of my alone time as a child working on a richly imaginative internal narrative. Was I lonely? Sure, but the result was that vast expanses of my childhood were spent up in my head, composing stories and entertaining myself. Coincidence that I became a writer? Who knows!
“I think most only children learn how to be creative or imaginative at an early age,” an adult only child told me. “Unless there are friends close by, most of the time it takes a parent arranging a play date to get what some siblings have built right in. I can remember going into my room for hours on end and just inventing games and entertaining myself as opposed to relying on playing with friends all the time.”
Being the center of the universe feels awesome
While I wasn’t spoiled with material stuff as an only child, I would never deny that I was spoiled with attention. And you know what? IT FELT FUCKING AWESOME. As one adult only child told me, “I didn’t really notice it until later in childhood, but let’s face it: I got all the attention and I loved it. Good or bad, there was no one to have to live up to or follow behind, and all lessons and experiences were catered to me. I always knew where I stood and that I had the sole attention of my parents.”
Now, I’m not stupid. While being an only child is AWESOME, of course there are significant challenges on the parenting side. Here are few that I’m mostly keenly aware of, based on my experience as an only:
Socialization is very serious business
When there aren’t siblings, it’s up to you as parents to prioritize your kid getting as much social stimulation as they need. I grew up an only child on 10 acres of forest on a dirt road with no neighbor kids, but have always been a pretty social creature. My parents tried to keep me engaged with our community (they co-founded a Universalist Sunday school, sent me to art classes, etc) but truth be told, they were more interested in getting OFF the grid than keeping me plugged into it.
I spent 4th and 5th grade at a tiny private school with only 10 other students — getting even more isolated. My report card for 5th grade says, “Socially, this was a difficult year for Ariel. Although she could recognize the social needs of her peers, it was difficult for her to respond to them.” This is like taking your dog to the dog park, and your dog hiding under a bush and peeing itself.
I feel like I dodged a bullet when, a week before my mom and I were going to start homeschooling me for 6th grade (Homeschooling an only child in the woods = the opposite of socialization!), I decided that I wanted to mainstream with the other kids. The transition to a 650-student middle school was brutal trial-by-fire socialization, but it was desperately needed.
One adult only child friend of mine was sent to “Miss Covington’s Dance School” for dance and etiquette lessons in fourth grade. While the idea sounds ridiculously old fashioned, I absolutely see the value for an only child.
Parents of onlies have to get their kid to the dog park. Er. You know what I mean.
You will pay for other people’s kids to come on your family vacations
Growing up, I thought that EVERYONE got to bring a friend with them on family camp-outs and vacations. It wasn’t until just recently that I realized that most family vacations are with, well, FAMILIES.
But as the parent of an only child, I can already see the advantages of having another kid with us on vacations. It’s more fun for them to have someone to play with and would be less work for us to entertain him. As an added bonus, the parents of the friend get a little break, ta boot! Sure, it costs money to pay for another person’s child to come along, but I think it’s worth it. The worst family vacation I had with my parents was the one where we didn’t bring a friend for me. We went to Puerto Vallarta when I was 12 and I spent the whole trip bored and whining at my parents, who spent the whole trip irritated and trying to entertain me. The vacation culminated in my fingernail getting bitten off by a parrot.
Moral of the story: bring a friend on family vacations.
You will have to teach your kid about sharing objects and space
Every child needs to learn about boundaries and generosity, but the issues become even more urgent with only children. Andreas, who has step-brother and a half-sister, is always laughing at my ongoing issues with sharing.
“What!” I sputter. “I’m very generous! I give things away constantly!”
“Giving is different from sharing,” he says, shaking his head. “You can’t handle sharing.”
And it’s true. I’ll take you out for a nice dinner (my treat! have a third glass of wine!), but stab your hand with a fork if you try to sneak a taste of something on my plate.
Sharing space is another biggie. Only children get accustomed to having things just so, and this particularity with their personal space can develop into an acute sensitivity. I haven’t always been the easiest roommate. And honestly? Sharing is a lesson I continue to learn into adulthood.
So, are you convinced yet? Do you believe me that only children are awesome? I pride myself on being convincing on this issue. After all, I managed to convince my parents of this when at 7 years old, when I heard them contemplating having a second child. I took myself to the library, did a little research, found a book, checked it out, and brought it home.
What was it you might ask? Raising the Only Child by Murray Kappelman.