According to the Pew Research Center, American families in the 1950s were having an average of 3.7 children. Today, it’s 1.9 kids, and the U.S. Census Bureau says a solid 23% have just one child, some by choice, others due to factors beyond their control. There have even been popular books published over the past couple years highlighting the benefits of this particular life decision, including One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One by Lauren Sandler.
And while we can assume having just one child provides parents with plenty of positives — perhaps a more rapid return to their profession, more financial breathing room, or more moments to themselves, for starters — what about the impact on the child growing up without siblings to play, compete, and conflict with? How does being an only child influence personality and success later in life?
Jack Agati, counselor, author, and creator of the audio series, Why Do Kids Do The Things They Do?, emphasizes several advantages. “Only children tend to be wonderful readers, very creative, and imaginative in problem solving,” he says. “Their creativity early on is entertainment for themselves and is hardly ever stifled. There are no siblings to criticize them or their ideas.”
This comes in handy later in life and in their careers because they don’t worry about competition. “Firstborns, on the other hand, have got to keep themselves #1,” he adds. “There’s always someone behind them. When an only child approaches a project, there’s a confidence, a self-assuredness about getting things done.”
He notes, however, that the only child does have a lot in common with firstborns, in that they’re born into an adult world and are used to the organization and everything else that goes along with that. “We also see that only children at times wish they weren’t an only child, while firstborns sometimes wish they were!” Agati adds.
One of the challenges that has historically accompanied parenting an only child is the child learning to play with other children and working through the various natural issues that arise in those social situations. Because an only child doesn’t grow up with siblings in the household, they aren’t faced with the same daily scenarios as those from larger families.
“Socialization is important for them,” Agati says, but notes, “things are better than they once were with the prevalence of daycare centers and preschools. An only child today is learning quicker than they used to — that’s a good thing.”
To help things along, he suggests organizing regular play dates early on, but not play dates with several children at once. One-on-one play dates work best for only children as they navigate social cues with peers as opposed to adults.
“Identify one or two children who might be loyal in friendships. Nurture those,” he says.
If you invite more than one child — children who are used to interacting with more than one peer — the child guests may naturally connect with one another, and your child may end up feeling left out and playing alone. Inviting another child to join in on short family vacations may also be beneficial, he adds.
As an only child gets older and more comfortable and the bumps of socialization have been smoothed out, they may be selective about their friendships, and the relationships they build tend to be strong.
“The friendships of an only child are different. It’ll likely be a relatively small number of people, friendship that’s slow and gradual in development, but loyal and long-lasting,” Agati notes. He adds one warning: “If you are a friend of an only child and you violate that friendship, it’s over.”
Another common only-child trait is they love their “me time” and are particularly affected by overstimulation. Those who grow up in a house with siblings are used to an environment that can be a bit loud and chaotic. They can handle it well.
“An only child needs quiet time. They need alone time,” Agati emphasizes. “They can take bombardment and noise and the social give and take only so long.”
Parents can help by simply being aware of that fact. Plan on leaving birthday parties or large gatherings a little early or lend an understanding ear if you find your child in another room away from the crowd. Some parents may feel social pressure to push their child back into the lively setting “for their own good,” but it’s important to allow them the down time.
“They may be playing and seemingly thriving, until a point comes and you’re, like, ‘Where’d they go?’ It’s almost like a circuit breaker. The stimulation gets to them,” Agati says.
The same applies for school, especially at first. “An only child watches the teacher thinking, ‘I have to share you with 18 other kids? This is crazy!’ They’re used to sharing themselves between adults. Sharing themselves among other kids is a hard thing to do because onlies aren’t used to being competitive,” he adds.
Parents can help school adjustment by communicating with a child’s teacher and let her know your child may not volunteer to answer a question in a sea of other hands, but he can probably give the right answer if called upon. Only children may need a little more prompting.
Another trait parents of only children should be aware of: “Onlies tend to live ‘in their own heads,’ which can make you either think that your child’s lying to you or you’re losing your mind!” Agati says.
A 12-year-old only child may “remind” his parents he’s meeting a friend on Saturday — certain he told them the week before — yet the adults have no recollection of the conversation. The child is probably not lying, but more likely, he had the conversation with his parents in his head and didn’t quite get around to the real-life exchange.
Similarly, in a work setting, an only child adult tends to think he’s done a task because he’s gone through the steps in his head already — which can certainly lead to some confusion with the boss! On a positive note, however, this type of thought process makes onlies very independent thinkers. Before making a decision, they tend to debate pros and cons to themselves before deciding what they want to do — free of outside opinions — not a bad trait to have.
Next month: The final installment in our five-part birth order series: multiples.