Being the parent of an only child

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  December 5, 2011 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,
Love your column. For a number of reasons, my son is an only child. I'd say it's part decision, part circumstance.

Some days I am at peace with this fact, and other times I am just worried sick about what I am "doing" to him. I've read plenty of very positive articles about only children and try to take the information to heart, but there's always 1 or 2 comments on said articles from adult only children who say they hated it/are resentful now, and that's what sticks with me, of course. And I feel like you never see an adult only child with an only child, which is both telling and understandable.

We are somewhat older parents (son was born when I was 37) so that feeds my fear that we'll be gone and he'll feel so alone in the world. He does have cousins close by, but I feel like they'll naturally be closer to their own siblings. I suppose it's ultimately up to him to forge the bonds he needs or wants to as an adult. In the meantime, how can I feel at peace?

From: Jane, Duxbury, MA


Dear Jane,

Been there, done that.

As long-time readers know, I have one child and, like you, knew pretty early on that there would be no more. So I'll share some personal history. I began writing Child Caring when Eli was 6-months old and, for years, I didn't -- wouldn't -- write anything about only children because I shared many of the concerns you raise. Writing about it was too close to the bone.

I can't say exactly when that began to change, but I know it had a lot to do with my son, who showed, early on, that he was a self-reliant person, someone who enjoyed his own company. At first, even that was a source of angst: Was that his really temperament or did circumstance force him to be that way? Here's what I came to realize: It didn't matter. He was who he was and my job, as his mother, was to figure out his strengths and feed into them.

Many of the ideas about the pros and cons of being an only child are stereotypes that were never valid to begin with and are without merit today. There's no magic to coming to grips with this, Jane, but there are plenty of adult only children who have chosen to raise only one child. There's one in this story of mine who suggests making a list of the pros and cons of the fact that your child is a singleton. Just seeing them, in black and white, is helpful.

It's also important to be honest with yourself about the two sides of parenting a singleton. For instance, aving only one child means you don't have to spread your resources too thin. That's a good thing, right? Well, not if he becomes an entitled brat.

With only one child needing your attention, both parents have plenty of attention to give. That makes for a super close bond, and shared values. Also a good thing, right? Ah, but that closeness can make it so hard for a child to not to disappoint that it can become a burden.

All parenting is a matter of balance. Parenting an only child takes a lot of thinking. OK, now hold on, all you parents of more than one child. I don't mean that in a self-righteous way and I certainly don't mean that parents of more than one child can get by mindlessly. Here's an example of what I do mean. In a family with two or more children, there's no question that kids have chores and responsibilities. It's how a family functions. It's how children learn about collaboration and cooperation and team work. We all know that. And yet.... When there's only one child, it's often easier to just get the job done yourself, rather than take the time and effort to assign a chore and supervise a chore and be the collaborator.

Here is some recommended reading. I personally found White's book really helpful.

Susan Newman's book, "The Case for the Only Child, Your Essential Guide," and her blog, Singletons."

Carolyn White's book, "The Seven Common Sins of Parenting an Only Child," and her website, onlychild.com.

Readers, I look forward to some constructive comments about being/raising only children.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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14 comments so far...
  1. LW, I bet when you imagine what you are "doing" to your son, you compare your/his life as it is now with a hypothetical life in which he and his hypothetical siblings play together and love each other and are close as adults.

    But some kids grow up with terrible relationships with their siblings, or merely distant ones. I have a close friend who hardly ever speaks to his sister. At family gatherings, there is the briefest "hello, so nice to see you" small talk and that's all they have. Are close and loving siblings great to have? Absolutely. Trouble is, not every person with sibs has that kind of relationship.

    So realign your thinking; remember you're comparing your reality to a fantasy.

    Posted by jjlen December 5, 11 12:30 PM
  1. Agree with jjlen. Plus, I look at families with one child and think to myself, how lucky that child is! To have his/her parents' undivided attention, what an awesome gift! I've got 3 little ones, and I'm actually very sorry and guilty that they never get the individual time and attention that an only-child gets. Yes, having siblings is a blessing (in most cases), but being an only-child comes with its own set of gifts too. LW, I'm sure you know all this already, I was just sorry to read that you are not yet at peace with your situation. I hope you get there soon!

    Posted by J. December 5, 11 01:35 PM
  1. I so wholeheartedly agree with jjlen. My sister and I have essentially disowned each other and I've never felt freer. I sadly can't think of a single friend I have now that doesn't have a serious issue with one or more of their siblings either. : (

    I truly believe that the honorifics we give family members are just that: honorifics. The label isn't what makes someone a mother, father, brother, or sister - it's whether or not we and they live up to what we want those terms to mean. I, for one, am proud to call my best friend my sister. My sister by dint of being in the same family unit? Notsomuch.

    That all being said, the siblings we may dream of for our onlies are not necessarily the reality that could be.

    Posted by mom to an only December 5, 11 01:49 PM
  1. LW, your story reminds me of my own feelings as a child but in a different way. I am one of 5 and I remember I had an only child friend that I was so jealous of. She had her own room, got to eat out more, didn't have to share much, always got new clothes, and more importantly, was very close to her parents in a way my parents didn't have the time to be with each of us. I wouldn't trade my sisters for the world, LW, but I recognize the pros of both sides. I have met many children from big families who only want one kid because of the hectic lifestyle of living with multiple siblings. What I'm saying is that it goes both ways. As for my only child friend-because of her upbringing, she is incredibly resourceful at making and keeping really good, genuine friends (a byproduct, I imagine, of having the most loyal first friends a person could ask for-her parents) and she is super successful and happy. Don't doubt your child will be just as successful. A million things influence a kid's life, including whether or not they have siblings. But I think that it's low on the totem pole of what really shapes children. Don't give such a small thing so much power.

    Posted by Linney December 5, 11 02:37 PM
  1. You can find someone out there who will blame any aspect of the way they were parented for whatever goes on in life. No siblings, another sibling, too many siblings, being spaced too close together, being spaced too far apart...all are things that someone, somewhere will blame for his or her life circumstances and kvetch about in the internet. Don't take stray complaining on the internet as a prediction of how your son's life will turn out.

    I have three only-child friends. Of the three, only one came from a particularly wealthy background. They each hail from different states. All three ended up at Ivies. Two of them married each other, and they have two beautiful kids. The other is married and they are talking about maybe one, maybe two children. All are quirky, kind, well-adjusted, loving adults who I am proud to call my friends, and whom, quite frankly, anyone should be proud to call their friend. If my friends are any indication of how your only child will turn out, then praise the heavens, my friend.

    If your kid grows up messed up, it isn't going to be because he was an only child. If you impart values, a sense of community, of being inherently of value and help him make close connections to his cousins he should turn out just fine. You can't be so sure that his cousins will be closer to each other and leave him out. My MIL was an only child and she is thick as thieves with her only female cousin whom everyone confuses as my husband's aunt, and she may as well be. Family is what you make of it! The fact that you are a conscious parent who cares enough to worry about this kind of thing bodes well for your son's future.

    Posted by Meri December 5, 11 02:44 PM
  1. Piping in as a mostly only child here (sister was born when I was 12). I enjoyed being an only til no end. I was a well adjusted child, who was able to play by myself when needed. Sure, sometimes I wished I had a sibling, but I never felt I was missing out on anything. And something to keep in mind; an only child doesn't know any differently, so these fears your kid is missing out are relative to what you know a child to potential miss out on!

    Posted by KatieD December 5, 11 03:34 PM
  1. Look, if you love your child, he will grow up well adjusted. If you care about him, and nurture him, he will do well. I know only children who are messed up, and only children who are awesome. I also know children from multiple sibling households who mirror the onlies I just mentioned. Love your child, and nothing else will matter.

    Posted by patches2 December 5, 11 07:55 PM
  1. If you start researching multi-child households, you will find plenty of negative anecdotes and contradictory research as well. There are positives and negatives to everything, so just be a great mom and try to focus on the positives.

    I have two boys, one with special needs, and I constantly worry whether the healthy one is getting shortchanged or will later feel that his brother is a burden. As moms, I think we are all hardwired to second-guess and feel guilty, even about things we can't really change. Don't let the guilt stop you from enjoying your little boy.

    Posted by Dawn December 6, 11 06:15 AM
  1. I'm a Boston filmmaker making a doc on only children. What I'm seeing is that the only kids who hate/resent being an only are in large majority the ones who grew up in a house where there was something upsetting going on: divorce, illness, bickering parents, etc. Only kids who grew up in emotionally stable homes by and large have positive associations or don't think about it at all. I hope that's helpful. Meantime, if there are Boston onlies who would would like to be interviewed, contact me via www.riseoftheonlies.com. Thanks!

    Posted by Michelle December 6, 11 08:00 AM
  1. Jane noted in her question, "I feel like you never see an adult only child with an only child." In doing the research for "The Case for the Only Child" and an earlier book, "Parenting an Only Child," I found the opposite and was surprised by the number of only children who had only children. Today, that is partially because women are starting their families older and as the Center for Disease Control points out, partially a result of the economy and cost of raising children.

    Posted by Susan Newman December 6, 11 10:34 AM
  1. I was an only child and was very happy. I never wanted siblings. My friends with siblings on the whole seemed to fight with them a lot.

    My husband and I now have a (thankfully) beautiful, healthy child who (due to circumstances) will likely be the only one.

    My only regret now about being an only child is that our son has only one first cousin. (My husband has two siblings but one will probably never marry, and the other, while married, is unlikely to have another child.) We both had many cousins growing up, due to our parents' siblings having many children, and enjoyed large family gatherings. But that certainly isn't a reason for you to have more children. You can never predict what the future will hold.

    Posted by E.T. December 6, 11 11:42 AM
  1. It's always interesting to see how knowledgeable all of these parents are about what its like to be an only child. The typical expert is not an only child herself, but is the mother of one. As a senior citizen only child, I obviously don't know as much about what it is like as Barbara does. I can tell you that at my mother's funeral, at which I was alone, that I was almost as lonely and suicidal as I was during the eight years that she had Alzheimer's, and during my early life when I lacked all of those sibling social learning opportunities, etc. But then what do I know. If you want to know what it is like to live the life of an only child, I suppose it is better to consult someone who really knows, like Barbara.

    Posted by John Day December 12, 11 11:09 PM
  1. I just read every single comment posted and I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I don't think the mommy guilt will ever go away but I do beleive that my daughter will be happy in the loving environment that my husband I provide for her. Thank you all for your thoughts and comments. They are very much appreciated.

    Posted by Kim February 1, 12 08:30 AM
  1. I am an older first time mom (son is 3 1/2 and I am 41)....and it is so frustrating to hear other moms who have a lot of kids put moms like me down. They always make comments about how easy it is "with just one" and all of that kind of stuff. If I have one more person ask me if I'm going to have another, I am going to scream. I don't have more as I can't have any -would love 12 if I could have them, but I can't. I give my son everything I can of myself (emotionally and time wise) and am grateful for each and every day with this sweet soul. I did not marry until I was close to 37 and feel very blessed that I have "just one".

    Posted by Daniela February 23, 12 03:18 PM
 
14 comments so far...
  1. LW, I bet when you imagine what you are "doing" to your son, you compare your/his life as it is now with a hypothetical life in which he and his hypothetical siblings play together and love each other and are close as adults.

    But some kids grow up with terrible relationships with their siblings, or merely distant ones. I have a close friend who hardly ever speaks to his sister. At family gatherings, there is the briefest "hello, so nice to see you" small talk and that's all they have. Are close and loving siblings great to have? Absolutely. Trouble is, not every person with sibs has that kind of relationship.

    So realign your thinking; remember you're comparing your reality to a fantasy.

    Posted by jjlen December 5, 11 12:30 PM
  1. Agree with jjlen. Plus, I look at families with one child and think to myself, how lucky that child is! To have his/her parents' undivided attention, what an awesome gift! I've got 3 little ones, and I'm actually very sorry and guilty that they never get the individual time and attention that an only-child gets. Yes, having siblings is a blessing (in most cases), but being an only-child comes with its own set of gifts too. LW, I'm sure you know all this already, I was just sorry to read that you are not yet at peace with your situation. I hope you get there soon!

    Posted by J. December 5, 11 01:35 PM
  1. I so wholeheartedly agree with jjlen. My sister and I have essentially disowned each other and I've never felt freer. I sadly can't think of a single friend I have now that doesn't have a serious issue with one or more of their siblings either. : (

    I truly believe that the honorifics we give family members are just that: honorifics. The label isn't what makes someone a mother, father, brother, or sister - it's whether or not we and they live up to what we want those terms to mean. I, for one, am proud to call my best friend my sister. My sister by dint of being in the same family unit? Notsomuch.

    That all being said, the siblings we may dream of for our onlies are not necessarily the reality that could be.

    Posted by mom to an only December 5, 11 01:49 PM
  1. LW, your story reminds me of my own feelings as a child but in a different way. I am one of 5 and I remember I had an only child friend that I was so jealous of. She had her own room, got to eat out more, didn't have to share much, always got new clothes, and more importantly, was very close to her parents in a way my parents didn't have the time to be with each of us. I wouldn't trade my sisters for the world, LW, but I recognize the pros of both sides. I have met many children from big families who only want one kid because of the hectic lifestyle of living with multiple siblings. What I'm saying is that it goes both ways. As for my only child friend-because of her upbringing, she is incredibly resourceful at making and keeping really good, genuine friends (a byproduct, I imagine, of having the most loyal first friends a person could ask for-her parents) and she is super successful and happy. Don't doubt your child will be just as successful. A million things influence a kid's life, including whether or not they have siblings. But I think that it's low on the totem pole of what really shapes children. Don't give such a small thing so much power.

    Posted by Linney December 5, 11 02:37 PM
  1. You can find someone out there who will blame any aspect of the way they were parented for whatever goes on in life. No siblings, another sibling, too many siblings, being spaced too close together, being spaced too far apart...all are things that someone, somewhere will blame for his or her life circumstances and kvetch about in the internet. Don't take stray complaining on the internet as a prediction of how your son's life will turn out.

    I have three only-child friends. Of the three, only one came from a particularly wealthy background. They each hail from different states. All three ended up at Ivies. Two of them married each other, and they have two beautiful kids. The other is married and they are talking about maybe one, maybe two children. All are quirky, kind, well-adjusted, loving adults who I am proud to call my friends, and whom, quite frankly, anyone should be proud to call their friend. If my friends are any indication of how your only child will turn out, then praise the heavens, my friend.

    If your kid grows up messed up, it isn't going to be because he was an only child. If you impart values, a sense of community, of being inherently of value and help him make close connections to his cousins he should turn out just fine. You can't be so sure that his cousins will be closer to each other and leave him out. My MIL was an only child and she is thick as thieves with her only female cousin whom everyone confuses as my husband's aunt, and she may as well be. Family is what you make of it! The fact that you are a conscious parent who cares enough to worry about this kind of thing bodes well for your son's future.

    Posted by Meri December 5, 11 02:44 PM
  1. Piping in as a mostly only child here (sister was born when I was 12). I enjoyed being an only til no end. I was a well adjusted child, who was able to play by myself when needed. Sure, sometimes I wished I had a sibling, but I never felt I was missing out on anything. And something to keep in mind; an only child doesn't know any differently, so these fears your kid is missing out are relative to what you know a child to potential miss out on!

    Posted by KatieD December 5, 11 03:34 PM
  1. Look, if you love your child, he will grow up well adjusted. If you care about him, and nurture him, he will do well. I know only children who are messed up, and only children who are awesome. I also know children from multiple sibling households who mirror the onlies I just mentioned. Love your child, and nothing else will matter.

    Posted by patches2 December 5, 11 07:55 PM
  1. If you start researching multi-child households, you will find plenty of negative anecdotes and contradictory research as well. There are positives and negatives to everything, so just be a great mom and try to focus on the positives.

    I have two boys, one with special needs, and I constantly worry whether the healthy one is getting shortchanged or will later feel that his brother is a burden. As moms, I think we are all hardwired to second-guess and feel guilty, even about things we can't really change. Don't let the guilt stop you from enjoying your little boy.

    Posted by Dawn December 6, 11 06:15 AM
  1. I'm a Boston filmmaker making a doc on only children. What I'm seeing is that the only kids who hate/resent being an only are in large majority the ones who grew up in a house where there was something upsetting going on: divorce, illness, bickering parents, etc. Only kids who grew up in emotionally stable homes by and large have positive associations or don't think about it at all. I hope that's helpful. Meantime, if there are Boston onlies who would would like to be interviewed, contact me via www.riseoftheonlies.com. Thanks!

    Posted by Michelle December 6, 11 08:00 AM
  1. Jane noted in her question, "I feel like you never see an adult only child with an only child." In doing the research for "The Case for the Only Child" and an earlier book, "Parenting an Only Child," I found the opposite and was surprised by the number of only children who had only children. Today, that is partially because women are starting their families older and as the Center for Disease Control points out, partially a result of the economy and cost of raising children.

    Posted by Susan Newman December 6, 11 10:34 AM
  1. I was an only child and was very happy. I never wanted siblings. My friends with siblings on the whole seemed to fight with them a lot.

    My husband and I now have a (thankfully) beautiful, healthy child who (due to circumstances) will likely be the only one.

    My only regret now about being an only child is that our son has only one first cousin. (My husband has two siblings but one will probably never marry, and the other, while married, is unlikely to have another child.) We both had many cousins growing up, due to our parents' siblings having many children, and enjoyed large family gatherings. But that certainly isn't a reason for you to have more children. You can never predict what the future will hold.

    Posted by E.T. December 6, 11 11:42 AM
  1. It's always interesting to see how knowledgeable all of these parents are about what its like to be an only child. The typical expert is not an only child herself, but is the mother of one. As a senior citizen only child, I obviously don't know as much about what it is like as Barbara does. I can tell you that at my mother's funeral, at which I was alone, that I was almost as lonely and suicidal as I was during the eight years that she had Alzheimer's, and during my early life when I lacked all of those sibling social learning opportunities, etc. But then what do I know. If you want to know what it is like to live the life of an only child, I suppose it is better to consult someone who really knows, like Barbara.

    Posted by John Day December 12, 11 11:09 PM
  1. I just read every single comment posted and I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I don't think the mommy guilt will ever go away but I do beleive that my daughter will be happy in the loving environment that my husband I provide for her. Thank you all for your thoughts and comments. They are very much appreciated.

    Posted by Kim February 1, 12 08:30 AM
  1. I am an older first time mom (son is 3 1/2 and I am 41)....and it is so frustrating to hear other moms who have a lot of kids put moms like me down. They always make comments about how easy it is "with just one" and all of that kind of stuff. If I have one more person ask me if I'm going to have another, I am going to scream. I don't have more as I can't have any -would love 12 if I could have them, but I can't. I give my son everything I can of myself (emotionally and time wise) and am grateful for each and every day with this sweet soul. I did not marry until I was close to 37 and feel very blessed that I have "just one".

    Posted by Daniela February 23, 12 03:18 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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