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Only Child Syndrome—Good Parenting

Improving Social Skills

Dear Dr. Debbie,

We have an only child. In many ways she seems more mature than other seven-year-olds, at least from what I remember before the pandemic isolated us all.

I suspect that many children are experiencing loneliness and boredom after COVID, but what are some things we can be doing to improve our daughter’s social skills? By the way, my husband is one of 8 children and I’m a twin. This child is having a very different childhood from the ones that we had!

Too Quiet Around Here

Dear TQAH,

A childhood with siblings is indeed different from that of someone who owns all the toys in the house. Birth order and spacing impact one’s childhood experiences and therefore can shape other relationships in childhood and on into adulthood. Parents can modify childhood experiences to prevent issues.

Attention, Please

The only child is in the limelight for all the milestones of childhood as well as the bulk of dinnertime conversations. When the family plans fun activities, only one child’s interests and abilities need to be considered. If the child needs a parent’s help with schoolwork, or planning an outfit, or working through a major disappointment, there’s no line to have to wait in.

The downside of these patterns of always being first is that the only child has trouble in situations in which a teacher or other helping adult isn’t instantly ready to acknowledge her needs. This may continue later on in a work environment with the expectation that a boss should always be available for support and compliments.

You can reduce how much attention you give to your daughter’s every day ups and downs simply by being busy. Schedule your days so that she knows when you are available and when you are not.

As much as is possible, have her in situations with other children. Until in-person play dates are possible again, try to work out times for your daughter to play with another child by telephone, FaceTime, texting (with lots of emojis), and Zooming. Get them started with some knock-knock jokes / which are very popular at this age. These classics of childhood have a simple pattern of give and take from the “Knock, knock” “Who’s there?” to the usually-not-too-funny punchline. Children don’t get tired of repeats.

Maybe your daughter would be interested in some good old-fashioned letter writing with a friend from the neighborhood or a cousin close to her age. Instead of waiting for, and expecting, your constant attention she’ll be watching for the mail truck.

Interactions between children who are more or less equals are important for the feedback loops that help each child to adjust their behavior according to the other’s reactions. There’s a back and forth of opinions, directions, criticisms, and compromises for the interaction to continue. This gives an only child valuable experience in having to consider another person’s thoughts and feelings.

Conflict Negotiation

A singleton has little experience with typical sibling squabbles – who left a mess on the table, whose turn is it to use the bathroom, and who gets to pick the family movie? Siblings provide frequent opportunities for working out conflicts and coming to an agreement so that life can go on.

When you make everyday decisions, give your daughter the chance to hear how you must consider other people’s needs. Let her join in on the process of checking with other people, such as planning the best time for a holiday Zoom gathering with the extended family.

In a previous column I shared the results of an interesting study  which determined that there are four principles children use when deciding property rights in a disagreement. “Creation” is the principle they apply if, for example, one child is drawing on a piece of paper. Formerly it was just a piece of paper, but now it is a piece of art that belongs to the artist. “Discovery” is the principle children apply to an apparently unowned item, such as a sparkly crayon found by one child among the otherwise mundane assortment of crayons. The discoverer gets to use it first but could be gracious enough to let the second child have a turn afterwards. Other principles can be discussed and decided upon, with your help as needed, as conflicts occur between your daughter and a playmate. Or, as a substitute for having another child as a playmate, establish consistent principles for disputes among the members of your household: if you find one cookie in the cookie jar, are you obligated to offer to share it?

Adult society is governed by rules for deciding the outcome of property disputes and other social conflicts. It is easier for adults to follow rules if many experiences in childhood have proven this helps us to live in harmony with others.

Other Consciousness

A third area of concern when raising an only child is to balance all that they get – materially and otherwise – with lessons on empathy. Singletons, as compared to siblings, have fewer first-hand experiences witnessing, and sometimes causing, another child’s fears, anger, and sadness.

Spend time talking about the needs of others and carrying out benevolent actions. This could be thoughtfulness toward friends and family members, or for wider causes in your community or the world. Hand-me-downs are a good example of charity being learned in the home. In a house with many siblings, one doesn’t even need to leave home to pass on gently used sports gear and clothes. A singleton can reach beyond her home to practice including other people in her consciousness of her own needs versus the needs of others. Raise your daughter’s awareness of and participation in humanitarian causes such as local food and clothing drives. Explain how you consider financial contributions to worthy causes. Maybe she’ll want to chip in.

Use the news about vaccine distributions as an example of how decisions and actions work best when the needs of everyone are taken into account. Until everyone has had their turn to be inoculated, we must continue with masks and social distancing.

What each of us does impacts us all, even if you are an only child.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Read more of her Good Parenting columns by clicking here.


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