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Only Children are Doing Better Than You Think

Why they may be better poised to cope with alone time.

Source: TawnyVanBreda/Pixabay

The assumption seems to be that an only child and his parents are having a tougher time being quarantined for long stretches than children with siblings. The reality is Covid-19 created a new family landscape for all families. The challenges are not the same, but they are there.

Because of consensus thinking, parents of one can feel guilty and think their child would be more content if there were a sibling in the house. Maybe yes, maybe no.

If you are the parent of an only child, be delighted that you are not settling disputes, soothing escalating tensions or monitoring pleas for individual and undivided parental attention. When children are bored, parents will be called on no matter how many children to play games and fill in the gaps. I hear complaints from children with and without siblings: Their peers can’t visit, school is closed, no extracurricular activities. They tell me that they have nothing to do.

Only children have spent more time alone and many are be quite good at using the additional time social distancing has generated. Sibling status has little to do with a child’s ability to entertain herself. With or without siblings, one child may need you to orchestrate his time; another could be independent, able to amuse himself and be perfectly content left to his own devices.

Filling the Gaps

Parents of only children often feel they need to be the ones to fill their child’s time to avoid their child feeling lonely or bored. Left to their own devices and without constant parental input, only children become good at utilizing the extra time they have. When you worry that your child may be bored or lonely without a sibling to act as playmate, consider the significant and useful upside of alone time.

It fosters creativity, and most importantly, encourages a child’s independence and ability to entertain him or herself—both helpful as a child gets older. In her book, Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self, Manuoush Zomorodi, explains that “Boredom leads to its close cousin, mind-wandering...Letting one’s mind wander is the key to creativity and productivity.”

Connect, Connect, Connect

Be permissive about online connections. If your only child complains, acknowledge his boredom, be empathic so he knows you hear him, keeping in mind that the Internet is a boon for most children and particularly helpful for only children while social isolation remains in effect. Parents who have scheduled limits for reaching out online to friends will want to allow increased online time as a means to stay connected to their peers.

A study of young children and their online screen time, led by Douglas Downey, professor of sociology at The Ohio State University, reports little or no effect on children’s social skills. The researchers studied more than 30,000 kindergarten through 5th graders using teacher and parent evaluations and found, "In virtually every comparison we made, either social skills stayed the same or actually went up modestly.”

There are endless interactive choices and your child probably knows them. For example, there’s Game Pigeon—an iPad or iPhone app with 20 different multiplayer games from checkers and chess to basketball, darts and miniature golf.

Children and teens who text do what they always do—connect online and through different apps and on their phones. If you have ever watched children on their cellphones when they are together sitting side-by-side in the same room, you have probably noticed that they don’t interact other than tapping out texts. All that connecting fills time, maintains peer friendships and helps to keep your child busy and not focused on coronavirus fears and worries that are inescapable on the news.

Loosen Your Watchful Eye

In one sense, the only child is accustomed to having attention focused on him and that factor alone may make it easier to live in protracted close proximity 24/7. However, if your only child didn’t like being the center of attention before social distancing, she will probably like it less now.

Many parents of only children admit to doing too much of what an only child could and should be doing. Social distancing is an opportunity to pull back and to give your only child more responsibility. Put an older only in charge of the laundry or making dinner a certain number of days of the week or vacuuming. You’ll be surprised at how quickly a child—even one who complains—begins to feel good about contributing to the family. Pitching in serves a reminder that your child is part of a family and does not need to be the center of attention at all times.

Widen Your Only Child’s World

Unless you have an infant or toddler, your child will remember sheltering-in-place. Encourage empathy and tighten connections to family and close friends. Make a practice of video chats or FaceTime calls with your child’s grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. This helps to remind the only child of her wider support network and can bring her closer to family members beyond you.

Volunteer in ways that involve your child. Shop for elderly neighbors and have your child come with you when you leave the groceries at their doors. Talk about where donations are needed and donate if you can. Ask your only to call her grandparents or someone in the family who may be struggling to see how they are doing every few days. Come up with caring gestures that will remain in place long after the pandemic.

Build on Your Close Bond

Studies dating back to 1978 and more recent ones indicate that only children tend to be closer to their parents than children with siblings. Take advantage of social distancing to build on that bond: Add to your child’s memory bank by starting a new tradition around something your family has not done before—learn to play chess, bridge, backgammon or another game neither parent nor child has ever played. Try baking different kinds of bread or start a new type of exercise program you can all do.

Because of the parent-only child tight bond, many only children are alert to and sensitive to their parents’ feelings and attitudes. Lacking siblings to divert or diffuse parental worries, be mindful of keeping your stress and anxiety in check to avoid your only child absorbing it and carrying burdens that are not commiserate with her age.

Copyright @2020 by Susan Newman


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Downey, Douglas B. and Benjamin G. Gibbs. (2020) “Kids These Days: Are Face-to-Face Social Skills among American Children Declining?” American Journal of Sociology, 2020; 125 (4): 1030 DOI: 10.1086/707985

Kidwell , Jeannie S. (1978) “Adolescents' Perceptions of Parental Affect: An Investigation of Only Children vs. Firstborns and the Effect on Spacing.” Journal of Population Vol. 1, No. 2 pp. 148-166

Newman, Susan. (2011). The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide. Florida: Health Communications, Inc.

Roberts, Lisen C. and Blanton, Priscilla White. (2001). “I Always Knew Mom and Dad Loved Me Best: Experiences of Only Children,” Journal of Individual Psychology, Vol. 57, No. 2, 125–140.

Zomorodi, Manoush. (2018). Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self. New York: Picador.