Fifty years ago, when only children represented just 10 percent of all kids under age 18, "onlies" were often thought of as lonely, spoiled, and socially inept. But the tide has turned, and as the number of only children climbs, their place in society has risen. Today there are some 14 million only children in America, representing about 20 percent of all kids, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
A small family differs dramatically from a large one and, consequently, comes with an entirely different set of challenges and rewards. Read the following pages for some strategic guidelines to parenting an only child.
Give only children the opportunity to interact with other kids. Social activities need to be engineered more for only children, even as early as 18 months of age, says J. Lane Tanner, MD, FAAP, associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco. Options for child socializing include:
Play dates should be scheduled both in the child's home, where she has to share her toys and her parents' attention, and at a friend's home, where she has to follow the lead of her peer. Also be sure to orchestrate play time with kids your child's age, since onlies often gravitate toward older or younger children.
Teach your child social skills. Only children don't have the benefit of the rough-and-tumble of sibling relationships. What we call sibling rivalry is actually a chance to get along with peers on a daily basis, explains Meri Wallace, author of Birth Order Blues. Losing a game, waiting a turn, joining a group -- all of these things are hard for an only child, she adds. To help children succeed in social situations, parents should:
Foster your child's independence. Since only children develop such a close relationship with their parents, some become too reliant on them for moral support, homework help, and entertainment. Parents, too, can unknowingly reinforce this dependence.
A parent can counter the dependency by giving her child some responsibility, such as chores, explains Wallace. An only child needs to learn how to occupy himself and have fun -- the parent doesn't always have to be the entertainer.
Set clear boundaries. Only children often feel like one of the adults and believe they should have equal say and equal power, Wallace points out. And while many parents of onlies do give their child a say in some family matters, there are obviously many decisions that should be made by the parents alone.
Experts also emphasize the need for parents of onlies to enjoy some couple time. Getting to spend a lot of quality time with your child is one of the many advantages of having a single child, but it's essential to nurture your marriage. Remember that Mom and Dad have a right to their own life.
Set realistic expectations. Since many onlies are verbally precocious and high achievers at an early age, it's sometimes hard to know what behavior is age-appropriate for them. It's also difficult to know when you're pushing too hard and when you're not pushing enough. By the age of 7 or 8, only children are like little adults. In their opinion, kids their own age are immature. Slow down, and make sure your only child has a childhood.
Don't ask for perfection. For most only children, perfectionism seems to go with the territory. Only children want so much to please their parents, and because they peer with adults, they take on adult standards, says Carl E. Pickhardt, PhD, author of Keys to Parenting an Only Child. While it's fine to want the best for your child, it's important not to make your goals and anxieties his.
Since onlies often receive parental approval for their many successes (or even their attempts), parents need to explain that their love is not conditioned on the child's performance.
Keep gifts in check. Experts warn that when onlies are bombarded with gifts and their every wish is fulfilled, they get the message, "I always get what I want."
It's never too late to rein in excessive gift-giving, notes Pickhardt. Emotional protests will likely follow, but taking this stand will be beneficial in the long run. Parents need to realize that it's not the gifts that matter; it's time spent with the child that's most important.
Don't overindulge your child. During early childhood, an only child's expressions of need are responded to quickly. In contrast, children with siblings need to "wait in line" to have their needs met. And learning how to wait, says Dr. Tanner, is a vital lesson.
To prevent only children from developing an attitude of "What I want, I get," parents should:
Parents of onlies also have to learn this valuable lesson: You can't get hung up on the notion that your child always has to be happy. If you dote on your only child and satisfy his every whim, you'll regret doing so in the long run, says Pickhardt. One of the repercussions of such overindulgence: Some onlies want to have everything on their own terms. They develop a mentality of, "It's either my way or no way at all."
As experts and parents note, the undivided attention an only child receives from his parents can be either a positive or negative force. But if you avoid some of the common pitfalls and offer your only child your unconditional love, he will no doubt thrive. In fact, many parents of onlies say that their relationship with their child is like a wonderful friendship. Best of all, they say, it's a great friendship that lasts a lifetime!
What do all these celebrated people have in common? They're all only children!