Three’s Company

Raising an only child.

There are many benefits to this decision. In general, only children I have seen as a psychologist are extremely well parented. Because of the complete parental attention they receive, only children tend to feel secure, attached, cared for and nurtured. With a single child, there are no tensions from sibling rivalry, conflict, comparison and competition.

Parents and their only child are also spared the painful dethronement adjustment that comes with the arrival of a second child— when a child has to share center stage, parental attention and family resources with a new brother or sister. Parents often discover they can never give as much to child number two as they did to number one, and they can never give as much to child number one as they did before having a second child.

Of course, there are also drawbacks to having an only child. Chief among them is the performance pressure that only children feel. The only child family is generally not laissez-faire, laid back and relaxed. Because the child is the first and last child in one, parents can be fixated on doing right by him or her. They might go to all lengths to avoid any harm to the child. Methodical, anticipatory and often protective, parents of only children might put excessive thought into parenting decisions. This is labor-intensive parenting. In response, the only child tends to want to do right by his or her parents. As a result, the child might try to no avail to be as conscientious as the parents. A positive aspect of this is the child’s intent to act responsibly— one of the hallmarks of many only children.

How can parents of only children help to bring out other positive attributes in their kids? The following are three guidelines to consider for raising only children.

  1. Teach your only child to be an attention getter as well as an attention giver. Most only children love being on center stage, performing for the approval of doting parents. In the parents’ preoccupation with their child, they might treat the child as the most important person in the family, and the child can come to believe this entitlement as valid. This is how the self-centered tendency of the child— the only attitude or “only what I want matters”— can develop. Counteract this tendency by teaching your only child that successful relationships benefit all parties involved. Show your child that everyone needs to feel respected, that he or she must compromise occasionally and not always get his or her way. Explain and demand mutuality: “We do for you, but you also do for us. We compromise with you, but you also compromise with us. We are sensitive to your needs, but you are also sensitive to ours.”
  2. Adequately allow your only child to socialize with peers. Part of what the only child misses without siblings is the opportunity to be a child among other children in the family. The only child typically becomes “friends” with his or her parents, who are the child’s primary companions. Unless adequately socialized with other children, the only child misses out on the push and shove, rough and tumble, give and take of peer play. The only child might thus lack a kid’s frame of reference when it comes to peer interactions. Encourage playdates and activities with peers to avoid another hallmark of only children: discomfort with conflict from not spending enough time among friends while growing up.
  3. Help your only child develop realistic performance expectations. With just parents for companions in the home, the only child identifies with the parents, becoming verbally and socially precocious as he or she imitates the parents’ grown-up ways. In the process, the only child can presume equal standing with the parents, as if deserving of an equal say. Part of the problem when equal standing is assumed is that the only child also applies equal performance standards with thoughts like, “I should be able to do as my parents do if I am their equal.”

However, the only child is a child, not an adult. And these self-generated, unrealistic standards create enormous pressure. This is why parents need to say: “Don’t expect to do just as we do, or as well as we do, because that’s not fair to you. We have had much more practice and experience. It’s acceptable if you try hard, but it’s not acceptable for you to judge yourself harshly if you fail to measure up to us or don’t do as well as you want.” Another hallmark of only children is being ambitious, and being hard on themselves when they do not achieve enough in their own eyes. In general, don’t push an only child to perform. He or she is usually pushing hard enough.