Only Children: Why "Only" Isn't Lonely

Raising Your One and Only

Parents of onlies face their own particular challenges. Here are the most common pitfalls and effective strategies on how to sidestep them.

  1. Being overprotective "These parents put all their eggs in one basket, so it's natural for them to be extra cautious," Newman says. "When an only child starts to walk, his parents hover over him and don't let him fall. When an only child gets in a fight with a friend, her parents rescue her. She can't learn how to navigate the world if her parents always are interfering or fighting her battles." When it's appropriate, try to look the other way, and check in with parents of siblings. Asking them what their parameters are can help you strike a balance between protection and overprotection.
  2. Providing limited peer interaction Since only children are the center of their parents' universe, these kids may have difficulty relating to peers. "Early socialization helps them learn how to share, take turns, and resolve conflicts," says Patricia Henderson Shimm, associate director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in New York City. Make sure your child spends plenty of time with other kids her age through play dates and classes. If you live near family, time spent with cousins in the same age group can offer sibling socialization benefits, too.
  3. Setting unrealistic expectations Some only children become perfectionists to please their parents, who may impose high (or even unrealistic) expectations on them because the child is their one shot at parenting success. Keep your expectations in line with your child's age and natural abilities, and assure him that he doesn't have to be the best at everything. If your daughter loves to draw, for example, that doesn't mean she has to (or will) become a gifted artist. Focus on her enjoyment of the activity rather than the goal of creating a mini Picasso.
  4. Making too many decisions for your child "When Mommy and Daddy are the sole directors of a kid's life, an only child can end up relying on their input before making a move. If you're always doing and thinking for your child, she won't learn to do and think for herself," says Shimm. To set the stage for future decision-making, give your toddler simple choices: At bedtime, does she want you to read her Babar or Curious George? Also, try not to make too many suggestions when your little one is playing, such as what color crayon to use or where to put the piece of puzzle. With a lot of love from you and some help from friends, your only child will turn into a well-adjusted little person.

Cynthia Hanson, the mother of one, is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, November 2004.

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