I was raised as an only child for much of my life because my sister is twelve years younger than me. I also have an only child, just one son. So questions about only children aren't hypothetical to me. I often wonder about the effects of being an only and whether it has any bearing on the friendships people make and depend on in later life.
When I learned that my colleague, psychologist Dr. Susan Newman had just written a new book entitled, The Case for the Only Child, I prevailed upon Susan to share what she had found out in reviewing the research on only children.
Irene: Does being raised as an only child limit a child's ability to make new friends?
Susan: The short answer: NO. People have been under the misconception that siblings are essential to help a child navigate in the world, to teach them how to share, be empathetic, and play well with others-qualities that are key to making and retaining friends. Because children are socialized at such young ages today in daycare, playgroups, pre-kindergarten, only children learn pretty fast how to act if they want to be part of the group and have a group of friends.
Remember, all children today are in an endless array of activities especially once they reach school age. During six and usually eight or more hours a day, only children are out and about with peers and their friendship skills get pretty well-honed.
In a study they titled, "Good for Nothing: Number of Siblings and Friendship Nominations Among Adolescents," the researchers found that the very modest social deficit sometimes seen in kindergarten evaporated when only children reached middle school. A large number of children-13,500-in grades seven through twelve at 100 different schools were asked to name ten friends. The only children were just as popular as their peers with siblings. Furthermore, the authors noted, "These results contribute to the view that there is little risk to growing up without siblings-or alternatively, that siblings really may be ‘good for nothing.'"
Surely, there are benefits to having siblings, but being accepted and being well liked are not among them. Say good-bye to the myth of the lonely, friendless, only child.
Irene: Put another way: Do your think that growing up as an only sets a person up for growing up lonely?
Susan: Quite the contrary. For only children, friends are sibling substitutes and a priority. Only children value their friendships and put effort into maintaining them. In interviewing only children for The Case for the Only Child, the perspectives of Paul and Cheryl, both now adult only children, explain why only children are not lonely and friendless as youngsters or as adults:
Paul notes of his childhood, "We lived in a neighborhood with lots of kids. We did everything together as a group. I had lots of siblings that weren't my siblings, but they might as well have been."
Cheryl speaks of her lifelong friendship that began when they were babies and their mothers met. "It was like having a sister with different parents," Cheryl says. "It was ideal in many ways. We could complain about our parents and their unfair treatment or rules, but the competitiveness for our parents' love was absent."
Cheryl, sixty-six, was present and cared for her best friend, also an only child, until she died. Stepping in like an aunt, Cheryl continues to help her friend's daughter navigate life without her mother. It is a demanding role, one that exemplifies the true meaning of friendship and sisterhood, without any blood ties. I am confident we will see more of it as the number of one-child families increases.
Plus technology today keeps only children connected to friends more so than at any other time in history.
Irene: What are some of the trends that you've been seeing over the past 15 years in terms of changing family size?
Susan: The trend toward one-child families is unmistakable and a worldwide phenomenon in most developed countries (46% of England's families have one child; Spain, Italy, Japan among many other countries see birth rates below replacement level). In the US, the single-child family is the fastest growing family unit.
The economy and women marrying and starting their families later are the main fuel behind this trend. The National Center for Health Statistics states that in the 24 years between 1980 and 2004, the number of women giving birth at age 30 has doubled, at age 35, tripled and after age 40 has almost quadrupled. Those who wait until they are older often face infertility or secondary infertility. Age limits for parents can be a significant impediment to adopting a second child, too. And, adoption and infertility treatment costs can be steep, beyond the reach of many.
The other significant change that is making the one-child family popular is women's need to work to help support the family. Over 70 percent of women with children are working. For the first time in history there are more women than men in the workforce. Holding down a job and raising children at the same time are stressful and difficult-more than many feel they can tackle...or afford. According to the Department of Agriculture, parents in middle-income brackets need $286,000 to raise a child from birth to age 18, college costs not included.
Irene: What can mothers do to assure that their only children/adolescents form solid friendships?
The best things you can do to be sure your only child forms solid friendships are:
- Socialize your child early and engage him or her with peers as often as possible.
- Encourage neighborhood relationships and playtime.
- Involve your child in group activities and team sports as opposed to solely individual pursuits, if possible.
- Don't solve disagreements and problems for your child; let him learn to find his own solutions with friends (offer advice only when needed).
- Develop close relationships with other parents who have children roughly your child's age (and create traditions around the holidays).
- Pay attention to how you interact with your own friends-display caring, support, and the fun of doing things together. You are, after all, your child's role model-no matter how many you have.
- When you value your friendships, your child will learn to value his. As your child gets older, talk about how important specific friends are to you
Some prior posts on The Friendship Blog and parents and their children's friendships:
Worried Mom: My daughter doesn't have one close friend
Helping teens set boundaries with needy friends
Guest Post: How to handle toxic friendships?