You’re at Starbucks, enjoying a jolt of caffeine with a friend, when a little girl, about four, begins a red-faced stomping tirade. As she screeches at her mother, your friend tells you, “Her mom just had another baby.” What’s your reaction? Now imagine a different scenario. Your friend tells you this girl is an only child. Most people, on learning this news, will form a more negative assessment, blithely applying labels like “spoiled” or “selfish”.
As the mom of an only child, I know the stereotypes live on. I’ve heard it all — cracks about my “easy” life, my son’s presumed selfishness (or mine), pitying sighs, and invasive comments about my Fallopian tubes. My favourite though, is when someone compliments my son but adds “That’s not normally how only children are.”
But I have to admit, for an urbanite like myself, life is good. Nasty comments are rare, and attitudes more open all the time. My experience exemplifies a larger trend. According to Only Child magazine, the one-child family is “one of the fastest growing segments of our society” with 20 million households in the U.S. alone. The singleton trend is so hot in fact that Time magazine just featured the one-child family on its cover (see July 8, 2010). Basically, even if I do get slammed occasionally, I can call a friend to commiserate because I know plenty of families just like mine.
So why are one in five families today, as Time reports, stopping at one child? Reasons are multi-layered. Couples are delaying parenthood to focus on careers and other personal dreams. Fertility issues crop up. Then there is the state of our partnerships. As Susan Newman, PhD., notes in her book, Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only, “one out of almost every two marriages ends in divorce, often before a second child is considered or born…”
If you’re raising an only child, or thinking about it, take heart. You are not alone and the prognosis is good. Toni Falbo, a professor at the University of Texas and an authority on only children, says extensive psychological research confirms “onlies” are pretty much indistinguishable from other kids. Falbo told the New York Times magazine, “I’ve done this research up one side and down the other. Believe me, my career would have taken off—it would have been Nobel Prize stuff—if I’d found that only kids were sick, sick, sick. But they’re not. The conventional wisdom is wrong.”
That being said, one-child families—like other family configurations—have unique challenges. Here are some tips from the experts that I’ve found helpful in my own life:
Socialize early – Nowadays, parents have many options in helping their kids be kids (not precocious mini-adults). Whether you choose daycare, a play group, soccer camp and/or the kid next door, start early and give your child lots of socialization to learn vital skills.
Don’t forget downtime – Along with all those activities, also give your child time to chill out, alone and with you.
Foster independence – Sure, you could tie your son’s shoelaces until he’s twenty, but do you really want to? To keep up on developmental stages, see what your child’s peers are doing.
Watch the intensity – Carolyn White, author of The Seven Common Sins of Parenting an Only Child, says parents of onlies tend to over-do it—over-analyze, over-indulge, over-protect, etc. Managing your intensity is one of your biggest parenting tasks. Stay calm, maintain firm boundaries, and get out and do something nice for yourself once in a while.
Relax and enjoy – No matter how many kids you have, there’s one constant. Time goes by too quickly. Put aside any worries or regrets, and appreciate the many blessings that come with raising an only child.