Family Dynamics

When Your Child Asks for a Sibling

Reconciling your and your child’s concerns about sibling status.

Posted Nov 26, 2012

Children ask for siblings for a wide array of reasons — from not relating to the one they have now to seeing a friend holding her baby brother and wanting to be a big sister or brother, too. Some children request a sibling because their friends have more brothers and sisters than they do or because they are missing one in their own gender. From a child’s perspective, any of those seems like a sound reason.

In the case of only children, the rationale often leans in the direction of wanting to be more like their peers from larger families. You may not know precisely why your child is asking or how serious the longing is. Nonetheless, “I want a sibling” can be disconcerting and catch a parent off guard.

A few weeks ago, Cindy (not her real name), the mother of an only child, emailed me; she was disturbed by her 10-year-old daughter’s out-of-the-blue request for a sister. She wrote:

The topic hasn't come up since she was quite young. I'm not sure if it’s because most of her friends have sisters and as girls do, they talk among themselves. Is this a normal question or should I be concerned?

Wanting a sibling is “normal,” particularly when there are no other children in the family. Like most things in life whether you are a child or an adult, many of us want what we don’t or can’t have. Some children with siblings say they want to get rid of their annoying sibling. 

Only children are the most likely to want a brother or sister, yet some singletons never ask. For many singletons, the question is fleeting. It may be asked once or a couple times before your child reaches age eight or ten. At that age, children realize how good their circumstances are.

When I was conducting research for The Case for the Only Child, many mothers reported that their only children never asked about having a sibling. And when parents asked their singletons if they wanted a brother or sister, the answers often were surprising. One 4-year-old said, “I just need you and Daddy” and a 5-year-old told his father, “I don’t want to share you and Mommy.” 

Unlike Cindy, those parents were unconcerned about having one child. Cindy felt otherwise:

Our greatest hope is that she grows into a happy confident person who enjoyed her childhood and thought it was 'awesome' to be an 'only child.' I think we need to have a good open conversation with her about her family size and being a singleton.

Answer with age-appropriate honesty

Some parents feel compelled to offer an explanation. If it makes you (and your child) feel better, then you should. Responses ride a fine line between wanting to share your thoughts — and possibly your disappointment if you and your partner did indeed wish to have more children — and making sure your child doesn’t feel as if he or she is not enough.

Some children are simply curious about why they have no siblings. Older children can understand, for example, that you didn’t feel you could financially afford more children and be able to give them all that you wanted to. At a certain age, they can grasp the fact that you tried, but another pregnancy didn’t work out. You can be forthright about the desire to work and be a mom and that’s why you chose to have one child.

Or let your child know that you had a difficult relationship with your sibling(s) growing up and want what you believe to be a less antagonist environment for her. Any reason should be underscored with the fact that you love and adore her, that she is more than you could want.

Accepting and being content with one child 

A child — with or without siblings — is more likely to be content, if his parents are comfortable and happy with their family size. There is no way to convince an only child or teenager that life without siblings is wonderful unless you can accept one child as your own positive reality no matter what the circumstances or choices that got you there. Cindy added: 

I must admit that other families and kids don't always see our family as ‘typical.’ My husband and I try not to dwell on us being 'different.' In fact, we pride ourselves on being as normal and loving as a family gets, but the looks, remarks, and stereotypes from family, friends, and strangers, trigger my sensitivity on the subject.

Consider if you are being overly sensitive or misreading cues or comments. For myself, I am thrilled that I was able to have my son—and that has been enough for me. I try hard not to allow what people think or infer affect my attitude. It seems the world is judgmental about just about anything and it is best to ignore those who try to make you feel as if you should live your life their way.

Cindy felt so much better—“wonderful”—was her word, after she and her daughter discussed why there was only one child in their family. And, that may be all it takes to ease your mind and ensure everyone in the family is happy.

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Copyright 2012 by Susan Newman