The Truth About Being (And Having) An Only Child

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This piece was published by Role/Reboot on October 3, 2013.  You can view it here.

A few years ago I found myself sitting across the kitchen table from the mother of a friend, while he and his sister were occupied downstairs. “Do you have any siblings?” she asked me.

“I’m an only child,” I said.

“Mmm.” She smiled knowingly. “Spoiled.”

This wasn’t the first time I’d been slapped with the “spoiled only child” label, and I’m willing to bet it won’t be the last. Despite the ever-growing number of only child families and the overwhelming amount of social changes we’ve undergone over the past hundred years—more women opting for higher education, pursuing careers outside the home, waiting until later in life for marriage and children—the same stigmas remain: Only children are selfish, attention-seeking, precocious, and socially maladjusted. 

We owe much of this thinking to child psychologist G. Stanley Hall—whose studies on only children in the late 1800s led him to conclude that “being an only child is a disease in itself”—while ignoring more recent studies proving otherwise.

Contrary to Dr. Hall’s assertion, I had a great experience growing up an only. And when I posed the discussion to other only children, I found that their experiences were also generally positive, fulfilling, and dare I say it, fun! Here’s why:

1. We’re creative, because we had to be.

If you’re looking for a little ingenuity on the playground or in the sandbox, only children make great playmates. I was raised on the quintessential fad toys of the ‘90s—Grand Champions horses, TY Beanie Babies, Littlest Pet Shop—and believe you me, every animal had a name, motive, and intricate backstory. My mind was free to roam uninterrupted over character traits, tones of voice, dialogue, and even “set design” until Grand Champions looked and sounded more like an equine version of Lord of the Rings. I found even more enjoyment in combining my epic sagas with those of other only children—my friend Rob and I were able to fuse our imaginations, resources, and combined hours of solitary rehearsal to become the Joel and Ethan Coen of Beanie Babies. 

2. We know that being alone isn’t the same as being lonely.

Chanel Dubofsky wrote on the distinction between loneliness and “alone time.” The truth is that solitude does not necessarily equate to alienation or boredom. “Being an only child,” my friend Amy noted, “definitely helped feed my imagination and made me very willing and able to entertain myself.” Another friend, Devin, appreciates that she became “used to a very quiet, controlled environment”—key to losing ourselves in books, movies, playtime, or simple daydreaming. “I had so many characters…that kept me company,” she said, “that it hardly seemed lonely to me.”

3. We’re highly self-aware and motivated.

As Katharine Coldiron mentioned recently in her article on only children, being highly self-aware can have its pitfalls—overanalyzing words, actions, and what others may think; occasionally missing the forest for the trees—but overthinking can also pay off in careers and hobbies where attention to detail is crucial. As a teacher, for instance, it is vital that I “tune in” to the vibe of a classroom and pick up on signals that an individual student may need help.   

A lot of the only children I heard from also reported feeling highly motivated. Devin attributes her “great work ethic, high [personal] expectations and low expectations of others” to her upbringing, in great part because less children means more available resources and more attention. Because my parents weren’t stretched as thin and had the time to develop an active interest in my schoolwork and hobbies, I was able to utilize all resources in order to succeed.

4. We can hang with the grown-ups. 

Only children are often called “little adults” because our household contact is limited to our parents, who may talk to us like adults at an early age and regularly take us to “adult” gatherings. “The running joke was that I was 6 going on 30,” my friend Stephanie reported, and I felt the same way growing up. Even though I had plenty of friends from school, church, and daycare, being a part of adult environments helped me understand that it is possible to have friends of all ages. To this day I’ve worked to maintain relationships with former teachers, bosses, and co-workers who have influenced me for the better, and often find myself seeking out friendships regardless of age difference.

5. We’re extremely loyal friends.

I’ve established some of the most nurturing and unwavering friendships with other only children, quite possibly because we’ve had to “create” sibling-like relationships for ourselves. Twenty years of history and companionship with two fellow singletons who grew up in my neighborhood—and yes, we’ve certainly fought like siblings—has led the three of us to feel like family. “Honestly, I know most of my friends better than most of my family,” my friend Rob says.

Only children develop a tremendous appreciation for loyalty, especially during the bad times. Having no siblings to lean on during my parents’ divorce, I was relieved that I could turn to my cousins who had gone through the same situation for comfort and advice. We went from having virtually no relationship to being thick as thieves in the span of a few short years, and today there is nothing we wouldn’t do for one another. Overall, growing up without siblings has caused me to fiercely value trust in my personal relationships, and on the flip side, feel especially let down when that trust is betrayed. 

6. Yes, we’re real families too.

Shortly after giving birth, my mom was met with a barrage of “when are you going to have the second?” questions, to which she responded that she was happy with one. A co-worker took this opportunity to inform her that “you’re not a real family until you have two children.” 

“Real families” come in all shapes and sizes. Some have one child. Some have several. Some are childless or childfree. Some children are raised by single parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or older siblings. And sometimes, making a “real family” work for you means striving for balance. By limiting herself to one child, my mom was able to enjoy both the experience of taking time off work to raise me and finding her identity in a career once I had reached a more independent age.

A recent New York Times op-ed written by the mother of an only child (and an only child herself) concludes with a familiar idea: “Most people say they have their first child for themselves and the second to benefit their first…But if children aren’t inherently worse off without siblings,” she asks, “who is best served by this kind of thinking?” In other words, if the happiest women are mothers of one child, and the only children I spoke with didn’t turn out to be veritable circus freaks, then what’s the harm in letting our creative, loyal, self-aware flags fly?

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