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Only child

only; child; siblings; parents; family ;

Having an only child may be a matter of choice for some parents, but not for others (a parent may have died for example or the parents are not able to have another baby). Many people have strong opinions about effects of being an only child but all children are different and what works for one may be a problem for another. Research in this area is not clear. 

Contents

An only child may live in a 2 parent and 1 child family, or a 1 parent and 1 child family. Some people say that there are problems if a child does not have brothers or sisters while others feel that this has few, if any, bad effects and there are other gains in being an only child, such as more parent time and attention.

Some time ago it was seen as good to have a large family and there was disapproval of having a single child. Now, with concerns about the environment, having a small family is seen as a responsible thing to do.

The English words 'only child' might sound as if there are not enough children. The French words for only child - 'un enfant unique' and the Italian 'un filio unico' mean that the child is special - only one of a kind!

Myths

Some of the myths about only children are that they do not get on well with other children, that they are spoilt and selfish and that they can not stand up for themselves in the playground. No proof has been found for any of these views. Children vary so much that it is not possible to say that their feelings and behaviour are 'due to' being an only child or a child with siblings.

What the research shows

Some research has shown that only children are:

  • more highly motivated to do well with study
  • have good language skills
  • have higher self esteem
  • have better relationships with their parents.
  • be more likely to learn to do things by themselves and to learn to like to do things that you do alone.

Other research has shown only children are similar to children in bigger families in generosity, popularity, leadership, independence or anxiety levels.

An only child may find it hard at first to relate to other children and to manage aggression. But may:

  • enjoy solitude and peace
  • live in a calmer home
  • develop ways of 'escaping' such as reading or playing on the computer
  • have the undivided attention of parents.

However, you can't tell what it will be like for any one child from this research. Children vary a lot (some are shy and some are confident), and some households are noisy even when there is only one child, while others are peaceful even when there are several.

The family situation

Some family situations have a greater effect on only children than others.

  • In a family where there is abuse and fighting an only child is at risk in having to face scary adult behaviour without brothers and sisters to turn to for support and comfort.
  • In a family where parents do not get on well together the child may be forced (or asked) to take sides.
  • In a family where relationships are good a child may take on an 'older' role at some times, and be more like a child at others.
  • Where parents are separated a child can be an only child in the family of one parent and have brothers and sisters in the family of the other parent. This could be like having the best of two worlds, or it could be difficult for the child as she moves from one family to the other.

It can be important for an only child to have some outside support - eg from people in the wider family.

What you can do

It is helpful for children to learn to share and interact with other children before starting school. 

  • Child care and kindergarten can be good.
  • Invite other children to your house so that your child learns to interact 'on home ground'.
  • If your child has difficultly coping with others it may help to encourage a friendship with one child at first and then branch out. Give your child help if you can see ways that she could relate better.
  • Choose a school in your local area so that there are friends within easy reach.
  • Take your holidays where there are other children for your child to make friends with, or take another child with you. Camping holidays may be good. Take bats and balls and start games that others can join in. You could also team up with another family with children on a joint holiday.
  • Some children are happy to amuse themselves alone - reading or making things. Others may be naturally sociable and you will need to provide contact with other children more often.
  • You may need to help your child build up a range of things she can do on her own or with you, such as hobbies that one child can do.
  • Team sport and musical activities such as playing in a band are a good way to learn to cope in a group and interact with others.
  • To change things around a bit make sure there are some times when your child does something special just with one parent, and other times with the other parent.

Finding a happy medium

An only child who is the sole focus of the parents is one extreme and a child whose parents work late, lead a busy social life and are never home is the other extreme - the happy medium is where parents live their own life and don't depend solely on the child but also spend quality time and have a happy relationship with the child.

Problems and ideas

  • Parents of an only child may need to be extra careful to let go of the child and allow more independence as the child grows up. Check what your friends' children are allowed to do. Make sure you have your own interests as well so your child does not feel the need to look after you.
  • Parents who have chosen to have only one child in order to give them better opportunities need to be careful that the child does not feel burdened with 'high expectations'. This can happen even if you don't mean it to. Make sure your child knows that you value and love him for who he is and don't let him think that you expect more than he can reasonably achieve. It is useful to be guided by someone like a teacher about what is realistic for your child.

Remember

  • Some children will thrive, and others will have difficulties, and this may have happened no matter whether the child was in a small or large family. You cannot ever know.  
  • Don't let anyone make you feel guilty about having 'only' one child - relax and enjoy your 'unique' child.
  • Miriam Cosic says: "For most [only] children, however, no matter how the rest of their lives turned out, childhood had a dreamlike quality, full of peacefulness, the contented pursuit of solitary pastimes such as reading or mucking around in the garden, and the undivided attention of parents. Even if they wished for brothers and sisters, whether vaguely or actively, the overarching memory is one of peace and serenity - a quality usually missing in families with a number of children."
  • Life may be different, but it is not 'better' or 'worse'.

More reading

Parenting SA - Parent Easy Guides 
http://www.parenting.sa.gov.au/ 

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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