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The Competent Parent: Only Children- Is Only Lonely?

Welcome to a new online series on parenting advice with our expert Dr. Deborah Wood.


Only, Not Lonely

Q: My two-year-old will, barring a miracle, be an only child. I’m worried he’ll grow up really missing the sibling relationship—not only learning to share and other things like that, but that he’ll miss out on the closeness siblings can bring. Are there ways I can help him learn the things that children with siblings seem to pick up naturally?

Dr. Debbie: You are on the right track in thinking that only-ness will affect your child in many ways.  Being the only child in the family or being cast in a specific place in the lineup has a definite childhood impact and can set a pattern for life.  And having even one sibling, no matter how far apart in age, gives your child someone who shares, among other things, an entire family history.  While sibling closeness isn’t ever guaranteed, there is much that parents can do to “round out” the experiences of an only child so that thinking of others comes more naturally.

Birth order theory predicts that distinctive childhood experiences shape social skills.  Depending on the presence or absence of siblings, younger or older, an individual learns to navigate a way through childhood.  A first born child is bumped from his “only” status when the second one comes along.  While the first born struggles to regain the starring role he has lost, the second born child learns from the get-go that there is competition for getting taken care of.  Sharing attention, space, and objects, therefore, is part of every day life.  The last born in a family has “seasoned” parents, but is always the baby.  As the others mature toward independence, a little less is usually expected of the one who, by comparison, seems the least capable.  Of course, there are many, many exceptions to these distinct roles.  Family dynamics can depend on such variables as parents’ stresses, the sexes of the children, the spacing between siblings, a disability, or a death in the family.  However, the behavior patterns that get set in childhood, the theory says, will draw that individual to future relationships that make it easy to repeat the role he or she finds familiar.

The only child, who starts out as the precious gift who turns a couple into a family, continues to be Mom and Dad’s miracle at every milestone.  Grandparents are called, friends are texted, and Facebook gets a video update to mark the occasion of taking a first step, heading off to school, riding a bike without training wheels, and on and on and on.  Since these milestones occur once and only once, parents may go a little overboard.  With no competition, family time and attention may revolve around the needs and interests of your one and only child.

To downplay the “little prince” or “princess” pattern, you can balance your son’s sense of importance through sharing family time and resources with other children of all ages. Find activities in which groups of adults share responsibility for groups of children.  Organized play groups and co-operative nursery schools work like this.  When Mom is a Daisy troop leader, there are now seven “sisters” to plan for each week.  (By the way, you needn’t have a daughter to be a troop leader!)  There are infinite opportunities for your family to be active in the community around you.  Participate as a family in a neighborhood clean-up.  When Dad helps his “prince” pack up used toys and clothes to donate to younger children who need them, they are acting on the belief that other children matter, too.

 You can reduce self-centeredness and increase social skills by supporting long term relationships with other children.  Cousins close in age fit the bill nicely.  They share some of the family history, too. (Competition for grandparents’ attention will be the same as if they were siblings!)   Hopefully the cousins’ parents are invested in helping your child to become a good person.  When adult siblings share their children easily and often, they give the children the sense that they are part of one big family – in each others’ homes and lives, and sometimes in each other’s way – with regular frequency.

If you don’t have such family members, you can create them.  Among your friends, think of those whose children matter to you, almost as much as your own.  Or look to your child’s friends, as he makes them, to find a connection worth forging.  Honorary aunts and uncles can be better than blood.  Through these relationships, your child can develop lifelong friends – to share and trade toys, to eat from the same bag of popcorn at the movies, to keep each other up with ghost stories, to play pranks on and suffer revenge from, to tease about first romances, and to have abundant pictures taken together to look back on as time goes by.  They will be a part of your family now and integral to family celebrations forever more.

Extending the boundaries of family, only-ness doesn’t have to equal loneliness.

Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis.  She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at www.drdebbiewood.com

Do you have a parenting question for Dr. Debbie? Email us! editor@chesapeakefamily.com

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