The assumption seems to be that only children are having a tougher time dealing with social restrictions related to the pandemic than kids with siblings. But the reality is COVID-19 created challenges for all families.
Nonetheless, 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. Research reflects how attitudes and what we know about only children have changed. In short, only children aren’t less likely to flourish as kids or adults. In fact, the extra attention they are getting from parents in the pandemic may even provide an advantage.
Only children have spent more time alone and many are 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.
That’s good to keep in mind since the pandemic itself may lead more parents of one to hold off on having additional children. An uncertain economy, job losses and worries about how to work and care for and educate our children will affect birth rates for decades, if not permanently.
So if you’re a parent of an only child and 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 of which are helpful as a child gets older.
The pandemic is a time to be permissive about online connections. If your only child complains about missing his friends, be empathic so he knows you hear him, and keep in mind that the Internet is a boon for most children right now and particularly helpful for only children while social distancing remains in place. Parents who have scheduled limits for reaching out online to friends will want to allow increased online time as a means for their only child to stay in touch with peers and maintain those developmentally important social ties.
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.”
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 close proximity 24/7 with your singleton. 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. Being home more with so many extracurricular activities and sports on hold is an opportunity to redirect that attention into ways your child can be a helpful participant in the family. In short, give your child more responsibility around the house.
Put an older only child in charge of the laundry or making dinner some nights 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 as a reminder to your child that she is part of a family and does not need to be the center of attention at all times.
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. 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 pandemic worries, be mindful of keeping your stress and anxiety in check to avoid overloading your child. It’s also a good time to encourage caring by keeping in close contact with relatives and friends by phone or Zoom or Facebook and be sure your child is involved or aware of how often you connect and keep up with others outside your family of three. Any one of them may become a support system for your child in the future.
For more on parenting your only child, check out:
The Case for Only Child: Your Essential Guide