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Family Dynamics

Growing Up Without Siblings: Adult Only Children Speak Out

The benefits and concerns, from those who have lived it.

Gabriel Silverio/Unsplash
Source: Gabriel Silverio/Unsplash

People are having fewer children, and increasingly more only children. Nonetheless, those contemplating the one-child family ask themselves: Will my child be lonely? Am I cheating my only child? Is it fair for my child to be solely responsible for us as we age and may need care?

These are legitimate concerns, but as research and adults who grew up as only children tell us, parents need not worry so much.

Adult Only Children Have Their Say

When I wrote Is Being an Only Child a Problem?, roughly 700 comments were posted to Facebook by parents of onlies and adult only children. Most, but not all, who grew up as only children report feeling positive about their experiences.

A grandmother wrote, “I was an only child; my parents were older when they married and decided one was all they could handle. I went to a public school and learned how to interact with other children and adults. I was frequently chided for being a ‘spoiled only child.’ It bothered me for years until I finally realized they were jealous of the advantages my parents provided for me (advanced education, my own car, etc.). I do not believe I was hindered in life by being an only child. In fact, I think I really was privileged.”

Another explained the pros and cons of being an only child from her grown-up perspective: “I’m an only child. Pros: leadership, independence, comfortable with solitude, confidence, can entertain myself, acted like an adult as a child because I was more exposed to adult conversations. Cons: lack of diplomacy, my way or the highway. Plus you get all the resources of the family with no need to compete. I find many non-only children to be emotionally needy and constantly craving the presence and attention of others. It is what it is. Good and bad, just like all other birth order studies.”

For Claire, “It’s nearly all positive. I was the apple of both my parents’ eyes and encouraged to communicate at a more adult level from a young age. As a result, I was well educated, confident and independent. I wouldn’t swap being my parents’ best friend for anything else in the world. They wanted more children but unfortunately miscarried twice.”

And from another adult only child: “Super happy only child here. The idea it [being an only child] is abuse is absurd. Getting all a parent’s love and attention creates healthier attachments. And yes, I still share well. I’m highly independent and can live alone without feeling alone. I always had friends over as surrogate siblings and those people have been lifelong friends. And my parents actually had the energy to teach me things. Home was a peaceful, educational place. Now I have an only child who is now 17 and she’s horribly abused too,” she added, tongue in cheek.

Only Children Having Only Children

The research study for my book, The Case for the Only Child, revealed a pattern of only children having only children. One woman explained that she and her husband were both only children. They loved it so much they wished the same for their one child. “We both loved being only children and feel it has truly helped us throughout our lives.”

The Facebook responses were strikingly alike. For example, the phrase, “I am an only child and had one child” was repeated frequently in slightly different forms: “I'm an only that has an only child and she has only one child. All three of us have turned out okay.”

Janice, the mother of an only, supports that position: “There is nothing wrong with being an only. An only child is an independent child. I'm married to an only and I have an only. Both are socially adjusted and successful adults.”

The Grass Seems Greener

There are adult only children who believe having siblings is more desirable. One mother asked rhetorically, “Anyone want to hear from an only child? I'll give you a clue....I had four children! No regrets.”

However, the preponderance of responses was similar to this from a 51-year-old: “Never in my life have I wanted a sibling. I was perfectly happy having everything I wanted.”

Monique concurs: “There were MANY more positives to being an only child than there ever were negatives! I've never viewed it as a bad thing."

As is human nature, people wish for things they don’t have or for relationships that are or appear more positive than the ones they do have. And, for others, their view changes over time.

Michelle noted, “I am an only child and have always been happy to be one. I grew up with cousins so I was never lonely. The most important thing is that only children have enough of a social life. Now as I'm older though I do wish I had siblings so that my aging parents weren't only my responsibility.”

Who Will Care for You?

Those who have one child or are "on the fence" about the only child option, think about not wanting to burden their only child. Adult only children voice differing views. One wrote: “It does all become more challenging when you lose your parents and have no siblings to turn to, but that’s where chosen family and friends come in.”

Said another way, “İ'd rather have no siblings than have ones that are detached and not supportive. That would be more hurtful İ think.”

Although parents of only children do not want to burden their one child, it is not uncommon for siblings to disappoint when parents need care. Only children discover that others step up to help—cousins, close friends, aunts, uncles and partners—in short, the family they create.

More only children weigh in: “I am an only child, and while I resented it as a kid, now it's nice. Some of the people I know with siblings either don't interact with their siblings or when they do it's unpleasant. Some siblings have strong relationships. I think of the fights that tend to break out between siblings after both parents pass and am glad I'm going to avoid that. On the other hand, it would be nice to have help.”

Elizabeth voiced her opinion on getting sibling assistance: “I'm an only and took care of my mother. Though it can be lonely, I look at friends and their sibling disagreements over caring for parents, and I sure am glad I didn't have to do that, too!”

The mother of an only child reflected: “When we lost my dad, my brothers were godsends. However, a sibling isn't a guarantee for a friend, and the lawyer who handled my dad's estate said we were more the exception vs. the norm. In his experience, most siblings fight even as adults and especially when money/possessions come into play with a death. I could not imagine dealing with that on top of losing a parent.”

Benefits According to Only Children Who Lived It

The concerns of couples who have or are considering a one-child family are, like having a second or third child, complicated. Yet, the benefits of being only children give them an achievement edge as it does for firstborns. At the same time, studies show that the only child’s relationship with parents remains close, closer than those who have siblings. Hundreds of studies indicate that the stereotypes of the spoiled, lonely only child have little, if any, validity today.

As you make your family size decision, it’s a good idea to consider how you may be influenced. And keep in mind that parenting style, not the number of siblings a child has or doesn’t have, influences a child’s development as well as how your singleton or child with brothers and sisters will reflect back on his life.

Only child Deborah put it this way: “I feel my social and friendship skills were honed at a very early age, because my parents encouraged me to make and bring home friends even before I went to primary school. I guess it helped that my parents were both very social people with a wide friendship group themselves.”

The question Veronica raised in her comment sums up the importance of parenting style in raising children, be that of one child or several: “Shouldn't it only matter that parents know their limits and the child is raised with love?”

Related: Is Being an Only Child a Problem?

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Copyright @2019, 2020 by Susan Newman

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