Only Child Syndrome? The Fun and Challenges of Raising an Only Child

Only Child Syndrome? The Fun and Challenges of Raising an Only Child


Mother holding her toddler son. Her husband is behind her. They are in the kitchen looking happy. Family together at home

After we had our daughter, we were constantly asked, “When are you having your next baby?” Heck, some people even asked me that while I was still pregnant. We were constantly bombarded with what I can only hope was well-meaning advice to have another child so we didn’t burden our existing daughter with loneliness or traits associated with being a solo child, like selfishness, bossiness, or becoming spoiled.

Let’s park the commentary about people minding their business about other people’s family planning. But it is interesting to explore why people are so weird about only children and are so impacted by this notion of the “only child syndrome.” It is a widespread theory that only children are at some deficit because their parents couldn’t or wouldn’t give them a sibling, and it can put enormous amounts of pressure on couples and families who might not be ready for, be able to have, or even want more than one child. So, is there any truth to this theory? New research is telling us probably not.

History of Attitudes Around Having a Solo Child

In the 1800s, psychologists surveyed children and concluded that only children tend to have disadvantageous and peculiar personality traits.1 Their research and concept of the only child syndrome continue to be quoted in broader society despite being found to be incorrect and rejected in research and academics. Although only children have a different experience than those with siblings, as they don’t have to compete for parents’ attention or financial resources, research says that doesn’t always influence personality.1 More recent research has identified that personality development is more ingrained and less influenced by birth order or family size than we think because genetics, life circumstances, and family stressors and environments surrounding children are a better way of predicting their personalities.2

Worries or Concerns About Having an Only Child

Several key worries are associated with only children, including that only children are selfish. However, new research tells us that altruism (being selfless and concerned with the well-being of others) does not particularly differ between only children or those with siblings.3 Another concern is their social skills and whether only children are lonely. Well, that depends on what else is happening within the context of a particular family. While only children do miss out on socializing with siblings and have less exposure to learning how to compromise than their peers who do have siblings, it doesn’t mean they won’t develop those skills.2 However, we may need to support only children differently to give them the same social opportunities as children with a built-in social network within the family home.

Parenting Tips for Raising an Only Child

If you have an only child or plan on having a single child, you might be curious about the challenges and rewards of having only one little. Here are some tips to encourage and support the development of your only child.

Teach Them Social Skills

People are curious about how to help an only child not feel lonely. Although they don’t have a playmate at home, parents and families can still intentionally create opportunities for socializing. This might include:

  • Planning playdates: You don’t need to stress too much about the frequency of playdates before the age of around 18 months to 2 years, as children are still playing alongside their peers rather than with their peers. However, as they enter the toddler years, regular playdates are a great way of practicing socializing.4
  • Socializing in various venues: Have playdates at your place, other people’s homes, or in neutral venues like parks or play centers. This way, children learn how to navigate social situations in various settings with different rules and expectations.
  • Joining a playgroup or baby class: Find some local classes or free local meet-ups for parents. It’s not only nice to meet other parents who share kids of the same age, but it also gives your child a chance to socialize.

Teach Them To Share and Compromise

If you are worried about your only child learning to share and compromise, don’t worry; they don’t need a sibling to learn this skill. Some strategies to support them in learning the art of give and take, as well as negotiation, can include:

  • Organize playdates: Encouraging and planning playdates and opportunities to socialize will be helpful, but you are the most significant influence on your child, so remember that sharing and compromise start at home.
  • Practice: Show your child how to share and compromise. For example, you might have conversations like, “I’ll share a bite of my biscuit if you share a bite of yours with me,” or “You want a turn of this toy after I have finished playing, so let’s put on a timer for one minute, and we can swap toys then.”
  • Modeling: Let them see you sharing and compromising with others when you interact with extended family, friends, or people in your local community.

Foster Their Independence

If all your attention is on one kid, you might do things for them more often. When there are multiple children, parents can’t attend to them 100% of the time as they sometimes have to share or prioritize care. So, it’s important to encourage independence by practicing some of these strategies:

  • Don’t rush to fix things for them: It’s tempting to rush in and help our little ones when things go wrong, but when we do this, we accidentally deprive them of the opportunity to learn how to do things for themselves.
  • Give them choices: Every family will differ in what choices they feel comfortable allowing their child to make, and this will also change as children grow older. But consider things like allowing them to pick their outfits, help with grocery shopping or meal planning, pick the film for family movie night, etc.
  • Let them have some responsibility: Whether getting a pet or allocating chores, giving your little person something to be responsible for is essential. This is because they aren’t relying on you to do everything for them, and they need to learn about give and take as well as consider the needs of others.

Setting Expectations for an Only Child

There may be a lot of expectations placed on only children, in part because they may spend more time around adults and can end up a bit precocious (or advanced). Another reason is that if a parent has ideas about what they want their child to be like or how they have imagined family life or parenting, they can pin all their hopes (and pressures) onto one child. Some strategies to help keep expectations appropriate and realistic are:

  • Ensure that you don’t expect perfection: For example, even if they have a great vocabulary, it doesn’t mean their emotions or ability to manage their feelings is at the same level as an adult. So be patient, and ensure they know it’s okay to make mistakes or have big feelings.
  • Take some pressure off: With only one child, you might accidentally put too much pressure on them. For example, say you love a certain sport and want your child to follow in your footsteps. If you have a few kids, chances are, at least one of them could like the same sport. But with only a single child, it may be hard to pull back on expectations or pressure them to “be” a certain way or live up to what you expected or hoped for in a child. Be sure to check your own “stuff” or expectations.

How To Not Spoil an Only Child

It’s very easy to spoil an only child because they don’t have to share with a sibling, and you don’t need to split finances among more than one child. So, here are some strategies to ensure your child is aware of other people around them.

Expand Their Circle of Concern

Read stories about different cultures or ways of living to get your child thinking outside their ideas and understand that there are other perspectives. You could also learn about holidays or ceremonies from other cultures or eat foods from different countries to help them learn about other ways of life.

Donate or Share

Not everyone is in the position to do this, but consider donating to community fundraisers and charities or even donating your old things when doing a clean-out or spring clean. You can incorporate your child into these activities and couple them with conversations about giving and helping others less fortunate. It will get them thinking about others and help increase their empathy.

Don’t Overdo It With Gifts

Instead of material things, perhaps you could focus on gifting experiences (like an annual pass to the local zoo or a special outing to a theme park together). Doing things together creates lasting memories and ensures your kid doesn’t have too many “things” due to being an only child.

There are a lot of misconceptions about the challenge of being an only child. But try not to buy into the hype. There is research that says there are some challenges and wonderful benefits of being an only kid. But isn’t that equally true for children with many siblings? When you avoid getting caught up in what everyone else says about having (or being) an only child, you can turn your attention to your child. As with all children — those with no siblings or five siblings — the aim is to love them, see them as individuals, support them, and enjoy time with them as they develop into wonderful little human beings.

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