11 Things NOT to Say to the Parent of an Only Child

Parents of only children know you don't mean to be hurtful (or irritating!) when you make comments like these, but please...just don't.

I'm an only child with an only child, so I've spent a lifetime hearing about the so-called "disadvantages" of being a solo kid. Even though there is plenty of research that says only children are just as likely to be happy, healthy, and well-adjusted as their peers with siblings, old stereotypes still bubble up.

With single-child households on the rise, it's time everyone got on board with what onlies and parents of onlies already know: Only children may grow up differently, but they're just as awesome.

With that in mind—and the help of other parents of only children—I put together this list of comments that make us cringe.

1. "He must be really lonely."

First of all, there's a difference between being alone and being lonely. I can say from experience that only children are actually less likely to feel lonely because they have more experience being alone. We're comfortable hanging out with ourselves and often have rich inner lives. That said, it's important to make sure only children have lots of opportunities to play with other kids, so if you're really concerned about the sibling-free boy down the street, I'm sure his parents would be happy to send him over for a playdate.

2. "She won't have anyone to help take care of you when you're old."

While this technically may be true, there's no guarantee that the children in a bigger family will share the work of caring for a parent, anyway. We have all heard about families where one sibling becomes the de facto caretaker, whether he or she wants to or not. This is a situation that's impossible to predict, so it's just hurtful to make someone feel guilty for it.

3. "It must be so easy with just one child."

Well, yes and no. Yes, parents of only children don't have to referee sibling fights, fill out school forms in triplicate, or spend nearly a decade changing diapers. But some of us made that choice because we know that we would have trouble managing a bigger family. When other parents start complaining about the stress of having multiple kids, I resist the urge to remind them that they chose to have a bigger family.

4. "You're not a real parent until you have more than one."

Several parents told me they'd heard variations of this hurtful line, as if only-child moms "fall somewhere between a mother and an aunt on the challenge and commitment spectrum," as a friend described it. We may have "just" one, but we have the important job of protecting and nurturing that life and feel all the same fears, worries, and boundless love other parents feel.

5. "You don't want him to grow up to be spoiled, do you?"

Trust me, parents of only children have internalized this stereotype so deeply that most of us are hyper-vigilant about not "spoiling" our kids. Even so, it's a given that an only child is going to get more focused attention from his parents. Research shows this is a positive in terms of self-esteem, achievement, and even intelligence. They even live longer. Is that so terrible?

6. "You're selfish for not having another child."

I was shocked to find out that a friend of mine heard this from friends and family after having a child on her own at age 38. Is it selfish not to want to risk medical complications, get into financial trouble, or feel too, ahem, old to keep up with young children? I call that being responsible to the child you have.

7. "That must be why she's so shy."

First of all, there is nothing wrong with being shy or introverted (but that's a topic for another article). The shy, withdrawn only-child stereotype is so pervasive that for a long time I actually believed that was why I was a shy child. Then I had my daughter. She would let anyone hold her as a baby, says "hi" to everyone we pass on the sidewalk, and is the ringleader of any group she's a part of. Lesson learned: Introversion and extroversion are not family-size specific.

8. "She doesn't seem like an only child."

That's a loaded complement if I've ever heard one. All kids have selfish and bratty moments, but only children are more quickly defined by these labels than kids from bigger families. Conversely, some people see an only child who actually has empathy and social skills as a rare unicorn. The reality is that all kids are in the process of acquiring these skills and should be allowed some mistakes as they grow.

9. "What if she doesn't have kids and you never get to be a grandmother?"

Well, yes, I'll be a little disappointed if I never experience being a grandparent, but having more than one child just to ensure it happens doesn't seem like the smartest gamble. Plenty of people never have kids. I want my child to grow up to be happy with her choices, not with pressure to make me a grandmother, so I make sure to make it clear to her that having children is her choice someday, no matter what anyone says.

10. "Are you having another?"

Variations include "Just one?" and "Don't you want one of each?" I especially like this sneaky one from the grandparents: "Our friends are asking us if you're having another baby." It should go without saying, but these are very personal questions. Some people will be happy to respond that they're "one and done," but others may have painful reasons behind their family size—money troubles, marriage problems, medical conditions. I like this mom's response: "We got the one we wanted, so it's fine to stop trying."

11. "She needs a sibling."

I love my child dearly, but I try hard not to give in to her every whim and want (see No. 5), and that includes creating another human being for her to play with. This is not to knock siblings—I am happy for (and a little jealous of) folks who have deep bonds with their sibs. But there's no guarantee that siblings will be friends. Do you want me to spoil her or something?

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