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The whole concept of having an only child can seem odd for grandparents who came of age during the Baby Boom. Same for the millennials who arrived during the Baby Boomlet of the ’80s and ’90s, when the birth rate surged again. But if you’re considering having just the one child in this generation, science and psychology both say it’s okay to do so.
Some of the long-held ideas about only children being self-centered and poorly socialized have persisted into the 21st century. But research has shown that certain only child stereotypes aren’t all that accurate. And while there are a few issues that seem to dog only children more than those who have siblings, savvy parents can limit the negative effects with a few preventive measures. Here’s how to weigh the advantages and disadvantages before you decide to have just one kid:
Only Child Syndrome defined
The idea that an only child was destined to be spoiled and selfish gained traction in the 19th century. A certain E. W. Bohannon from Clark University in Massachusetts conducted “A Study of Peculiar and Exceptional Children” and his 196 self-reported cases all said only children were given undue attention and worldly goods. Then at the turn of the 20th century, society, on the whole, decided that kids who didn’t have brothers or sisters also became hypersensitive, more or less falling apart due to having their parents’ undivided attention.
It would take almost eight decades before some of those sweeping judgments about Only Child Syndrome were more closely examined. Psychologist and only child Toni Falbo conducted a survey in 1986 that offered conclusive evidence that kids who have siblings differ not at all from their fellows who are only children. The only difference Falbo turned up was a stronger bond between onlies and their parents. That finding was later confirmed by a 2018 study conducted at the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences. Still, the outdated idea that only children were little emperors persisted.
Only children have some challenges
Having just one child can still create a less than ideal situation. Only children can feel like another adult in the household and expect to have equal say, Meri Wallace, author of “Birth Order Blues,” told Parents. The child might also come to expect a parent to entertain or do homework, or rely on them too heavily for moral support in place of friends. And without some checks and balances in place, only children can veer straight into perfectionist territory. This happens when they only have adults to compare themselves to, so it’s not that tough to prevent if parents anticipate this difficulty.
Only one child?
Deciding whether it’s cool to just have one child can dredge up a lot of guilt for parents. But just because having one kid is easier than two, three or four doesn’t make it a bad thing! According to psychologists, having only one child gives you more control over your environment and tends to involve far fewer personality conflicts. “Having only one child also allows the parent to be more attuned to the individual emotional needs of the single child,” psychologist Seth Meyers noted in Psychology Today. “The fact that the parents of only children have more time and energy to become and stay attuned to the child shouldn’t be overlooked, because attunement to the emotional needs of a child is crucial for positive emotional and cognitive development in children.”
In the final analysis, there are lots of good reasons to have an only child. “There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that unless the parents don’t build in other supports in the child’s life to make sure that they can simulate (as close as possible) the benefits that come from children having sibling relationships,” Meyers added.
Parenting the only child
Instead of worrying about an outdated idea that only children will have ingrained traits, parents considering stopping after one child should take a few extra steps. The most important is creating a plan so your only child has lots of chances to interact with other kids. This strategy should start when your child’s 18-months-old, associate clinical professor of pediatrics Dr. J. Lane Tanner told Parents. A few ideas for forging peer friendships in those early days include pre-school, playdates, and special classes like Kindermusik.
Wallace also recommended mom or dad take on the socialization duties usually fulfilled by siblings. “Losing a game, waiting a turn, joining a group–all of these things are hard for an only child,” Tanner told Parents. “To help children succeed in social situations, parents should demonstrate, by example, how to share, compromise, and show consideration for others. Reward children when they’re being considerate and administer consequences when they aren’t.”
Also, when there’s two of you and just one child, it’s critical to resist the urge to splurge constantly, Tanner added. The lone kid in a family never has to wait to have needs met, from getting a fruit snack to getting a ride home from school. But knowing how to “wait in line” is a critical life skill. To make sure your only child develops the knack, make sure to set household rules and abide by them. Set up a plan to save for an outing or big purchase, even if you can afford it now. And most importantly, let go of the notion that your only child needs to be happy every second. That’s not how children experience a happy childhood, whether they’re the one child in the family or growing up with a house full of siblings.