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The Only Child

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Raising an Only Child

One of Alfred Adler’s contributions to psychology is the importance of “birth order” in the development of a child’s personality. Largely, people misunderstand this term to mean the child’s ordinal number in the family. Researchers prove (smugly) there is no “birth order effect,” and conclude that Adler must be wrong.

However, Adler’s concept of birth order is not concerned with the numeric ordering of siblings. He was pointing out that every child is born into a different social milieu. No child is born into the “same family,” per se. For example, when I arrived home from the hospital, a pink bundle in my mother’s arms, there were already three loud boys on the scene! That is a very different picture from my oldest brother Larry, who would have had Mom and Dad all to himself. They were nervous new parents, especially since they had just had a miscarriage before conceiving Larry. You can bet Larry’s pacifier was sanitized in boiling water while mine was wiped on a sleeve!

It is not the “order” that matters, but rather the social environs, and what our children decide about it. We can make some guesses, but the child is the creative meaning maker, and they decide for themselves what they consider to be the merits and disadvantages of their situation and how to cope. Don’t assume–observe.

For example, I enjoyed being the only girl. It made me stand out and I felt special. Another girl born into the same situation might have creatively decided they were a misfit, thinking, “This is a house of boys and I am not one.”

So when we study the “only child,” we notice certain characteristics of their social world. Things like the fact that they live in a mostly adult-dominated world. Everyone is a competent giant but them! What do they think of that? Does that discourage them? Or do they strive to keep up and act like “little adults” themselves?

Chances are they spend more time listening to “adult talk,” so its a good guess that they have a large vocabulary. They probably have more attention placed on them since there are no other siblings to cut into their time. And hey, did you notice they do not have siblings to fight or share things with either?

What do you think? Is this a “good” birth order?

It doesn’t work that way. There is no “better” order here. Please don’t worry that you are in some way hurting your child if you decide NOT to have another child. You are not “denying” them siblings. Likewise, please don’t worry that you may be somehow compromising the precious life of your toddler if you now have to share your time and attention with a new baby.

Instead, let’s look at potential growth-enhancing and inhibiting characteristics so we can do our little bit to moderate the effects.

For example: The only child who has no “built-in playmates” (a.k.a. siblings) will benefit from joining play groups and other activities where they can interact with other children. This gives them the chance to learn socializing skills that only other children can teach them.

For example: Only children can be so “hyper-observed”  by their parents that the very short feedback loop between when they stack a block and when you shout “Hooray!”, along with their desire to please, can potentially create a child with a perfectionist bent. I would suggest not hovering; two steps back please…

For example: Emphasize that mistakes are okay! We can help them learn that it’s all right to be imperfect. They are comparing themselves to adults, and that is a tough measuring rod!

If you are an only child yourself, you know firsthand that wanting time alone doesn’t mean you are anti-social or unloving–you are just accustomed to self-entertaining and genuinely enjoy it.

If you are an only, you probably don’t want to share your basket of chicken wings with others at the table, and wish they’d order their own, thank you very much! (And don’t even THINK about asking to use an only’s toothbrush!)

With all that in mind, you can now see that if you are the fourth-born in your family (ordinally), but your three older siblings were 10, 12 and 14 years old when you were born, you were really raised by 6 parents! Everyone got their chance to look after you and keep an eye on you. Still, you had no “sibling peers” to scrap with or to pick a fight with over who got the top bunk.

You are numerically the fourth but this social situation can make you a combination “super-baby” and “psychological only.”

So what is “the baby” like? I guess I’ll have to post on that birth order some time soon!

About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

More about Alyson

One Response to “The Only Child”

  1. Angie Purdy

    Thank you so much for your comments on only children. I fretted for many years over the fact that my husband and I could not provide our son with a biological sibling due to fertility issues. I worried about every sterotypical comment that was passed my way on only children (such as “only children are bossy”; “only children can’t share”; “he must be so lonely” and so on). I even contemplated setting up a support group for parents of only children.
    Over time, I realized that every child has their own birth order issues. I started to face the only child sterotypes with courage and determination (such as exposing my son to as many social situations as possible). I realized that he does not interact with younger children naturally well, but this is more because of his personality than his birth order. I started to appreciate the fact that I didn’t have to deal with sibling rivalry. Most importantly, I realized that my social son was actually happy and content as an only.
    My son is now eight and we are in the process of attempting to adopt a child in Canada. I realize that if and when this does happen, we will be presented with a whole new set of challenges. But I am ready to face them, and I realize that, either way, my son will grow up to be a happy, well adjusted adult.


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