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A Lonely Child? Not in Today's World

Difficult to be lonely in this digital age.

Most concerns about singletons are without merit today especially the lonely, only child stereotype. Others border on absurdity, but that doesn't stop people from holding onto what they were taught or think they know. In 1896, G. Stanley Hall and then his followers were so wrong about only children being lonely children. That is especially true now in light of children's early exposure to other children in daycare, playgroups, in school and involved in endless after school activities.

One of the mothers I spoke with as part of the research for my book, The Case for the Only Child, framed the worry this way: "Older people, like my parent's friends who are more traditional and conservative, visualize my son coming home and being alone. Believe me, he isn't. There are a dozen children in our neighborhood, some older, some younger. They are knocking on our door all the time and my son is off to play. Because some of the children are older, he is not getting his way all the time. Part of my role is to share what his life is like to loosen up the stereotypes."

Parents have been primed to worry that only children might have difficulties sharing and making friends and hence, be lonely. But, it is easy to forget that a person can be lonely surrounded by a large family. "I felt sad and alone in a sea of people," Dana, the middle of seven children who chose to have one child, sadly confides. "People would say to me, 'you must never be lonely,' and it boggled my mind. I remember being lonely the whole time I was growing up."

The Wall Street Journal reports that some concerned parents of only children compensate for the lack of siblings by forming only-child groups.They meet weekly so that their only children can play, iron out differences, and, in essence, contend with pseudo sibling-rivalry situations. Their successful social interaction shows they can settle disputes, compromise, and understand that they are not the center of the universe. All skills that help them make and keep their friends, however, special groups are unnecessary.

Only Children as Adults-Not Lonely

Heidi Riggio, assistant psychology professor at California State University, Los Angeles, tried to put an end to some of the only child misconceptions and negativism in her work on the importance of family structure for personality development. In her study "Personality and Social Skill Differences Between Adults With and Without Siblings," reported in The Journal of Psychology, she looked at core personality traits and social skills including the ability to express feelings, to interpret verbal and nonverbal communication of others, and to control emotions and social sensitivity, among other traits generally thought to benefit children who have siblings. Riggio explained to me that the common thinking is only children "may experience social-skill deficits because of a lack of sibling relationships during key developmental periods."

Like Douglas Downey at Ohio State University, who studied adolescents and discovered siblings are "good for nothing," Riggio found that adult only children are quite the opposite of the lonely stereotype: They did not differ in social skills from those children with siblings. In fact, the two groups were "remarkably" similar. In other words, singletons turn out as socially competent as children with siblings-they make friends as easily as their peers with siblings. They are anything but lonely.

Technology's Role

Today's advanced technologies allow only children to be more connected to other children than ever before, and that connection gives them a social life that extends beyond school hours and after school activities they share with friends. From early ages, children connect online with relatives, and by the time they are school age, they are knowledgeable in most things electronic. Technology is the preferred method of communication in grade, middle, and high school. Your child can-and probably will-"talk" to friends constantly through social-networking sites, texts, and e-mail. Some experts in the field worry that this lack of face-to-face contact will inhibit social and emotional development-and that applies to children with or without siblings.

Others favor the 24/7 connection because it means ongoing interaction. For only children, friends are a mere instant message, call, or click away. Even if your only child had a younger sibling, it is a good bet that he would spend much of his time engaged in some sort of electronic "conversation" with his friends, not with a brother or sister.

You might also be interested in: Plays Well with Others.

Copyright 2011 by Susan Newman, Ph.D.

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