Will my son be dis­ad­van­taged as an only child?

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Family - John Sharry Send your queries to health@ir­ish­times.com Dr John Sharry is a so­cial worker and psy­chother­a­pist and co-de­vel­oper of the Par­ents Plus Pro­grammes. His new book Bring­ing up happy con­fi­dent chil­dren is now avail­able. See so­lu­tiontalk.ie

Af­ter years of try­ing and bouts of in­fer­til­ity treat­ment, my hus­band and I were thrilled to have a won­der­ful baby boy who has grown into a de­light­ful four year old (his birth­day was last week) who we love to bits. While we would have liked more chil­dren (my hus­band and I are from big fam­i­lies), and we al­ways dreamed of hav­ing at least three chil­dren, my hus­band and I have ac­cepted the fact that he is go­ing to be an only child. My ques­tion is about whether he go­ing to be at a dis­ad­van­tage be­ing an only child. My fam­ily and friends all have big­ger fam­i­lies and I see all the chil­dren play­ing with one an­other. Also, given how long it took for him to come along, my hus­band and I are older par­ents and I worry and some­times feel guilty that we might not be able to give all that he needs. Do you think there are any is­sues for only chil­dren in our sit­u­a­tion and if so what can we do to best bring up our son?

Like your­self many par­ents of only chil­dren worry about whether they will be dis­ad­van­taged with­out broth­ers and sis­ters. How­ever, the re­search stud­ies don’t seem to bear this out. Most stud­ies show that only chil­dren grow up just as well-ad­justed and happy as chil­dren with sib­lings. In­deed, some stud­ies show that due to the ex­tra adult at­ten­tion they may re­ceive, some only chil­dren can dis­play par­tic­u­lar lead­er­ship and aca­demic abil­i­ties as adults. In ad­di­tion, there is no ev­i­dence to sug­gest that older par­ents like your­self are in any way less able than younger par­ents. In fact there are many po­ten­tial ad­van­tages. Older par­ents may be more sure of them­selves and con­sid­ered in their par­ent­ing as well as be­ing more con­sci­en­tious and car­ing. This can be es­pe­cially the case for par­ents such as your­self who have gone through a long jour­ney to be­come par­ents in the first place. The “guilt” you might feel about your son be­ing an only child is only a sign of your con­sci­en­tious­ness as a par­ent.

The truth is that rais­ing an only child is not bet­ter or worse than par­ent­ing a larger fam­ily. Rather it is simply dif­fer­ent and brings its own par­tic­u­lar dy­nam­ics and is­sues. Par­ents of only chil­dren can face unique chal­lenges that are not present in larger fam­i­lies.For ex­am­ple, with only one child, your son is go­ing to re­ceive lots of one-to-one at­ten­tion from you and par­ent­ing can eas­ily be­come a more in­tense af­fair for both of you.

Whereas in other fam­i­lies chil­dren play with and learn a lot from their broth­ers and sis­ters, with an only child the par­ent can eas­ily be­come the child’s pri­mary play mate and teacher.

Whereas this one-to-one adult at­ten­tion has lots of ad­van­tages for chil­dren (in terms of learn­ing and achieve­ment), it can also be drain­ing on the par­ent (who has to con­stantly re­spond to pleas of “play with me”), and your child can miss out on learn­ing to play with other chil­dren (where they learn the “cut and thrust” of so­cial skills).

Fur­ther, if all your hopes and dreams are in­vested in one child, this can be ex­pe­ri­enced as a bur­den on the child to be­have a cer­tain way or to match their par­ents’ ex­pec­ta­tions of them. In ad­di­tion, it is easy for par­ents of only chil­dren to be­come over-pro­tec­tive or over-in­dul­gent, by do­ing too much for them or pre­vent­ing them from tak­ing nor­mal risks and do­ing their own thing as they grow older. Of course there are lots of sim­ple so­lu­tions to the chal­lenges of par­ent­ing an only child such as those listed be­low

Or­gan­ise op­por­tu­ni­ties for your son to be with other chil­dren

En­cour­age your son to de­velop friend­ships with chil­dren his own age via play-dates, pur­su­ing sports, hob­bies and shared ac­tiv­i­ties as well as invit­ing friends on fam­ily trips and hol­i­days. Also, make sure he spends time with older and younger chil­dren so he learns about shar­ing and get­ting on with chil­dren of all ages. You can do this via de­vel­op­ing close links with cousins or friend’s fam­i­lies or do­ing babysit­ting “ex­changes” whereby you mind chil­dren in your house with your son present and in re­turn your son gets minded in an­other fam­ily. Nur­tur­ing ex­tended fam­ily bonds is very im­por­tant in the long term for your son so he will have fam­ily he can de­pend on as an adult (when oth­ers de­pend on sib­lings).

En­cour­age your son to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for him­self.

Aim to es­tab­lish bal­anced daily rou­tines that al­low for one-to-one time with your son but also pe­ri­ods where he is en­cour­aged to play cre­atively by him­self as well as hav­ing time with other chil­dren. While with an only child the temp­ta­tion might be to in­dulge his ev­ery whim or to do ev­ery­thing for him such as wash­ing, cook­ing, clean­ing, etc it is a good idea to step back and to em­power him to learn to do things for him­self and to earn his treats and priv­i­leges just like other chil­dren. Re­mem­ber this will not only teach him in­de­pen­dence, it is also likely to boost his self-es­teem and con­fi­dence.

Be self-aware of your own needs as a par­ent

While all new par­ents can start out with high ex­pec­ta­tions to get ev­ery­thing right, this can be par­tic­u­larly acute for par­ents who have ex­pe­ri­enced a long road of fer­til­ity treat­ment be­fore fi­nally greet­ing their pre­cious child. This can make them feel par­tic­u­larly guilty when they worry and strug­gle as ev­ery par­ent does. Re­mem­ber you are just like all the other par­ents who strug­gle with high ex­pec­ta­tions – try to cut your­self a break and re­lax and en­joy your par­ent­ing!

Be self aware and tuned into to your own needs as a par­ent and make sure to achieve a balance be­tween car­ing for him and seek­ing your own goals as a per­son. You might find it helpful to make con­tact with other par­ents who have only chil­dren and dis­cuss with them the par­tic­u­lar wor­ries and chal­lenges as well as the joys and ad­van­tages.

Some stud­ies show that due to the ex­tra adult at­ten­tion they may re­ceive, some only chil­dren can dis­play par­tic­u­lar lead­er­ship and aca­demic abil­i­ties as adults

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