But don’t you wish you had a sibling? Perspectives from an only child.

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Only child raising an only child
Amanda Oakes Photography || www.amandaoakesphotography.com

Full disclosure: I’m an only child raising an only child, so I know no other way. But, I know that having (or being) an only child still carries negative stereotypes of being bossy, lonely, bored, spoiled, selfish… the list goes on. Believe me, I’ve heard it all. Mostly from well-meaning people. 

A family of three is a mystery to most people. When I’ve had the chance to share the positives of being (or raising) an only child, though, it tends to reframe someone’s traditional thinking. I hope those small moments of understanding get us to a day when I don’t feel the need to explain why I only have one child, and my son isn’t asked if he wishes he had a sibling. Or better yet, someone doesn’t say to me, “I’d have never guessed you were an only child!”. I’m still not quite sure what that means.

Here are my answers to the three most common questions I hear about only children.

#1 – But don’t you wish you had a sibling?
I mean… yes? I think both my son and I would say that, if given the choice, it’d be nice to have a sibling. It’s a built in playmate, after all! But I refuse to give into the narrative that kids “need” a sibling or that siblings are your friends for life. 

By choosing to have one child, we aren’t depriving our son of making lifelong friends. And who’s to say that people’s siblings are always friends for life? As for play, there is plenty of that in our house. It’s just required us as parents to be active participants rather than our son and a sibling keeping each other occupied. (it helps that my husband is a play extraordinaire!)

I think it’s because I’m an only child that I’ve come to understand how you can build sibling-like relationships with friends and count on friends like they’re your family. 

#2 – Aren’t you bored a lot?
Yep, you are. Boredom and being an only child go hand-in-hand. I experienced it as a kid myself, and I see it in my son. But I remain convinced that great creativity comes out of kids being bored. For me, I became an amazing mix-tape maker, Barbie doll player, and random competition-against-myself creator. For my son, he’s made a YouTube channel, creates worlds out of LEGO, and practices umpiring non-stop (that’s a topic for another blog). 

It’s when we’re alone that we come up with random things to do and explore what’s in our minds without the influence of a sibling telling us it’s a silly idea. Boredom fosters imagination, and quiet time is important for development. I have to remind myself of that often. When I was young, it was much more common for kids to have free time. Now, I feel pressure as a parent to entertain my son all the time and that every second in life needs to be about creating memories. 

I have to consciously stop and remind myself in those moments that I actually want my son to be bored sometimes. I want him to sit with his own imagination and creativity. When you’re an only child, getting time alone to do random things that interest you is easier. And I hope my son will come to appreciate that in the future like I have.

#3 – You’re spoiled, right?
Uhhh…. This one is tough. I get what people are saying, and now that I’m a parent of an only child I totally understand. All of our resources go into one child, and these precious 18 years when we will live under one roof. Whatever we budget for Christmas, for vacations, for sports, for college savings, etc. is designed around our family of three. We aren’t faced with the same choices and challenges of larger families to feed, clothe, educate and entertain multiple children. 

I’d say it’s the hardest part of parenting an only child. Luckily, my own parents set a great example. They would provide for me, but I didn’t get whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. They grounded me and taught me that life isn’t about material things. It’s the same lessons my husband and I are trying to teach our son. 

For anyone who grew up in a large family, I completely understand the mystery that surrounds the life of an only child. I wonder what your life is like, too. No matter your family size or structure, you’ll have days when you envy those that have something you don’t. But rather than assume an only child is living a lonely (or wildly spoiled) life, you might first ask them what it’s really like. You may be surprised by the perspective they have to offer.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Well said Karen. I was an only child for 12 years then along came my sister. She seemed more like my child for a few years —until I had children. Then she became my helper, sitter and as years passed,the best aunt,sister, friend and medical advocate in the world. I’ve been on both side of the question at hand and there is truly no answer which is better-only child or lots of siblings. You just make the best of whatever your lot in life is and enjoy life as we are handed. Enjoyed your column and looking forward to next time.

  2. This is so well written! I’m so blessed to have what god gave us. I’m not saying she’ll be an only forever but for right now it’s what we have. And I wouldn’t change it for the world!

  3. Although we have these generalizations or stereotypes about only children, oldest children, middle children, and youngest children, the developmental psychological research does not show consistent differences in social or cognitive development based on your birth order or number of siblings. Sure, sometimes being an only child has its downsides (as Karen mentioned), but having siblings can also have its downsides (e.g., sharing parents’ time, rivalry, comparisons from family members). In the end, a child can have optimal outcomes no matter how their family is structured. Full disclosure: I have one amazing child, and I teach courses on human development at Augustana. (Hi, Karen!)

    • I really appreciate this perspective, Jamie! Thank you for sharing your expertise and experience. (Hi!)

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