12 Tips for Raising an Only Child

Having an only child gives you a mature, diligent, and conscientious little perfectionist—but it also comes with some tough parenting moments. Here are our top tips for raising an only child. 

Parents on an only child in a park
Photo: DreamTeamStock/Shutterstock

Fifty years ago, only children 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. About 22% of children didn't have siblings once their moms reached the end of childbearing age in 2015, compared with 11% in 1967, according to Pew Research Center.

A small family differs dramatically from a large one and, consequently, comes with an entirely different set of challenges and rewards. Read on to learn our top tips for raising an only child.

Teaching Social Skills

Encourage Interaction with Others

To keep from feeling lonely, only children often develop imaginary friends or ties to inanimate objects, such as dolls or stuffed animals. It doesn't matter how much attention you lavish upon an only child; sometimes, they just need someone their own age to relate to. That’s why, when having an only child, social activities need to be arranged more often, starting when she’s 18 months of age, says J. Lane Tanner, MD, FAAP, associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco Schedule play dates both in the child's home (where she must share her toys and her parents' attention) and at a friend's home (where she has to follow the lead of her peer).

Lead By Example

Only children don't experience the rough-and-tumble of sibling relationships—but so-called “sibling rivalry” actually helps kids get along with peers on a daily basis, explains Meri Wallace, author of Birth Order Blues. This makes things like losing a game, waiting for a turn, and joining a group difficult for an only child, she adds. To help an only child succeed in social situations, parents should:

  • Demonstrate by example how to share, compromise, and show consideration for others
  • Reward children when they're being considerate and administer consequences when they aren't

Encourage Laughter

According to Dr. Kevin Leman, author of The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are (Revell), only children can be so logical, scholarly, and straight-thinking that they may become overly serious and fail to see the humor in things. While there's no set way to "teach" someone to have a light-hearted sense of humor, be a good role model: Avoid being an iron-fisted disciplinarian, and smile and laugh openly with your kid. Chances are, he'll follow suit.

Fostering Independence

Share Some Responsibility

Raising an only child gives you a super-close relationship with them. However, some only children become too reliant on parents for moral support, homework help, and entertainment— and parents can unknowingly reinforce this dependence. To help your child become more independent, give her some responsibility like 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.

Resist the Urge to Interfere

Only children tend to be perfectionists, so if you try to "redo" every little thing they do, like remaking their bed or re-dusting a shelf they just cleaned, you're only going to reinforce their perfectionist habits. As Dr. Leman writes, "Don't be an 'improver' on everything your firstborn or only child says or does."

Set Clear Boundaries

Only children often feel like one of the adults, believing they should have equal say and equal power, Wallace points out. And while many parents of only children do give their child 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 to enjoy some “couple time” without their child, since it's essential for nurturing your marriage. Remember that Mom and Dad have a right to their own life.

Setting Expectations for an Only Child

Be Realistic

Since many only children 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 seem like little adults, and they often consider other children immature. As parents, you should try sticking to realistic expectations—remember, she only has one childhood!

Don't Ask for Perfection

For most only children, perfectionism seems to go with the territory. Only children want 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. This can lead your piano-loving 10-year-old to put undue pressure on himself to learn the entire works of Tchaikovsky before bedtime. Let your child know that it's good to set goals, but that there are other things in life than just work, and that you won't be any less proud of him if he doesn't end up at Carnegie Hall by middle school—or ever.

Don’t Make a "Mini Me"

Only children "need time and space with freedom to do what he or she wants," write Cliff Isaacson and Kris Radish in The Birth Order Effect (Schwartz Books). Mothers need to realize that their 6-year-old daughter probably won't be the Olympic-grade gymnast that she never was, and fathers must come to terms with the fact that their son won't be a doctor, lawyer, Mensa member, and Grammy-winning rock star (oh, and a multimillionaire) by the time he turns 30. Your only child is your only child, not your second chance at redemption, so don't push your own agenda on him. Instead, let him explore his own interests without interference.

Spoiling an Only Child

Keep Gifts in Check

When only children are bombarded with gifts and rewards, they get the message, "I always get what I want." It's never too late to curb 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 Only Child

While raising an old child, you probably cater to her every need. 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:

Don't Strive for Constant Happiness

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 only children 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 only children 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!

Updated by Jocelyn Voo
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