Carmen*, 32, loved growing up sans siblings and would highly recommend it
If I were to ask you for three words to describe the average only child, what would spring to mind? Spoiled? Selfish? Weird? No, I’m not a mind reader, it’s just that over the years I’ve been subjected to a variety of unfounded assumptions about my character, purely because I’m an only child.
Being pigeonholed as some sort of socially awkward oddball has definitely been no picnic, but what really gets my goat is the pity that has been (and still is) levelled at me because I don’t come from a fit-the-box family with a built-in playmate. For example, one of my earliest memories is of a meddlesome aunt subjecting my mother to a barrage of inappropriate questions about when (not if) she and my father planned to have more children.
A withering look from my mother was followed by an oh-so-concerned sigh from my aunt, as it was explained we were a family of three and would stay that way. At the time, my aunt’s reaction confused me. Now it infuriates me – not least because I experience similar opinions on a regular basis from just about anybody who has had the ‘privilege’ of being born with a sibling. I doubt a week goes by when, for one reason or another, the question of family comes up and I reveal it’s just little old me.
I’m either met with (at best) a raise of eyebrows and a sympathetic nod or (at worst) a drolly veiled jibe, such as: ‘well, that explains it…’ Explains what exactly? That I’m some sort of Casper the Friendly Ghost type, destined to wander through life in a haze of isolation? Or that my lonely upbringing has ruined me so much that I am unable to interact with others without morphing into a knee-hugging weirdo rocking in the corner? Just because I’m an only child, it doesn’t mean I’m damaged goods.
Yes, it’s true that I didn’t have an elder brother to teach me how to ride a bike or a younger sister to practise hair braiding on, but I had an army of school pals who taught me the importance of sharing, compromising and the value of friendship. Likewise, I had two loving parents who, in their devotion, raised me to be confident, outgoing and self assured.
To take it one step further, I believe that I was lucky to be born as an only child. I was a high achiever at school and university, and have gone on to carve out a highly successful career. Of course you could argue that it’s in my DNA, that I’d have been a success story whatever my family structure, but I don’t think so. In my opinion, children without siblings are higher achievers because they’re exposed to increased parental scrutiny. When the spotlight is on you, and only you, you pull your socks up that bit higher.
Don’t believe me? Author Bill McKibben in his book Maybe One, reveals that only children also score higher when it comes to making friends, adjusting to new environments, self-control and interpersonal skills. I couldn’t agree more. When I was growing up, I didn’t have a scattering of brothers and sisters to fall back on when times got tough, so I had to learn to work harder when it came to developing lasting friendships. Likewise, because I never experienced sibling rivalry, I’ve never had a tendency to feel jealous of other people’s achievements.
Of course, sometimes I ponder about how I might have turned out if I’d come from a big family with multiple siblings. Would I have been different? There is no way of knowing. But what I am sure of is that being an only child was unequivocally a positive experience.
Amelia*, 46, is one of four siblings, mother of four children and married to an only child
Growing up in a big family, there were times I would quite happily have swapped all my siblings for the chance to have my own bedroom. Other times I would have given them away. But as adults, they are my go-to people – a phenomenon researchers at Ohio State University call the “hour glass effect of siblings”, meaning how we grow apart and then grow back together in later years.
My ‘sibs’ and I call each other for relationship advice, parenting support, for a morale boost, to kill time, for cooking tips, to rant about our parents and, most importantly, to say things we couldn’t say to other people. Yes, you can do this with certain special friends too, but would you give birth or do other unmentionable bodily things in front of your friends? I wouldn’t. But I would with my siblings. And it would be OK.
There’s no shame and no pretence with people you’ve shared a childhood/bath/womb with. They’ve seen you at your best and known you at your worst. They love your individuality and make fun of your quirks. And when you are being downright stupid, they’ll tell you straight.
I’m not saying only children are destined to be lonely – I know many, including my husband, who lead happy, healthy, fully socialised lives. But research shows having siblings boosts emotional intelligence. Claire Hughes from the University of Cambridge says, “One of the reasons for this is that a sibling is a natural ally. They are often on the same wavelength and are likely to engage in the sort of play that helps children develop an awareness of mental states.”
A lot of the only children I’ve met have been sensitive (read: spoilt), need their personal space (read: loners) and are old beyond their years (read: precocious). They haven’t had the experience of being ‘dethroned’ by the needs of another sibling so they are used to being king of their castle, according to a theory suggested by psychoanalyst Alfred Adler in the 1920s. They also haven’t experienced the shoving, the sharing, the scuffs and the ridicule that help build emotional resilience.
Granted, by adulthood they’ve usually made up for this, but by then, being an only poses a whole new set of issues such as undiluted pressure from parents. Social psychologist Susan Newman says, “It’s wise to have other interests so there is less time to focus on every inch of your singleton’s progress... be aware that putting all your energy into your child may not be the best thing for her.” In their later years, onlies can suffer from rootlessness when parents pass away, taking with them the only living memories of their childhood.
But my issue is not with the onlies themselves – they will grow up to become the adults they are destined to be. Love, safety, food and positive attention are far more important requirements for a happy childhood than siblings. My issue is with the parents. I don’t understand why, if you have a child, you wouldn’t bother to give him or her a playmate? Why deny your favourite person the chance to experience one of the closest emotional bonds we can have?
OK, limited finances and over population of the planet are good reasons not to breed without restraint, but having an only child is like giving someone a PlayStation without giving them a control pad. It’s kind of like, “OK, so here’s your childhood. Now run along and entertain yourself.” It’s OK. It’s still a kind gift. But it’s lacking something. Something pretty important.
*Names changed to protect identity
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