Parenting can feel rife with confusion — wondering if you’re making the right decisions, from day-to-day matters to larger choices with long-lasting impact. Despite how I’ve stressed time and time again that only children are no different than those with siblings on most fronts, many families still find some aspects of raising an only child puzzling or challenging. And, for as long as I’ve been writing about parenting, new questions always seem to crop up.
Consider this Q & A section and the Only Child Resource Hub your go-to source for information, reassurance and confidence in raising your one and only.
In my decades of researching only children, I’ve spoken to hundreds of parents who worry about how they can help their child thrive. This is a collection of some of the frequent queries I’ve received with in-depth answers you might find helpful. They range from wondering if your child needs a sibling, to how to deal with pressure from others to have another, from how to uphold a strong sense of tradition in a three-person family, to whether or how an only child should be socialized. In my feedback, I have also sorted out what is an only child concern vs. one children with siblings are just as likely to have. You’ll find specific subjects and my thoughts listed below.
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Click on an issue to jump to the answer.
Q: I have a 12-year-old boy; it was my choice to have only one. I knew I was done when he was still a toddler. I don’t know how to explain this but an inner voice inside me kept saying ‘one is perfect for you’ and it was like an insight and I listened to it … My son loves the fact that he is an only child, his social skills are good and he is very sporty. We are very close and I love him to death.
However, during the past couple of years, I have been feeling extremely guilty and I think it’s all because of society’s pressure. What if I have done a disservice to him? What if instead of listening to that voice, I should have looked for the root of the problem and fixed it?
I would be a very depressed person if I had a second one. I would not be able to give him/her the same quality time that I gave my son.
I have been involved in a discussion in social media about only children … most people attacked and said you will definitely regret it as only children would feel the lack of having siblings when they get older, sometimes in their 30s and 40s.
A: As you know, I ardently defend only children and their parents. If you read this article, “Only Child Benefits, According to Those Who Lived It,” you will realize that much of your worry is unfounded. Plenty of only children realize the value of their solo-child upbringing and have no regrets about being raised without siblings. You are allowing others to tell you how to think and feel.
You say that he is well adjusted, happy — what more can a parent want? You have to accept two facts of life: Siblings don’t always get along as children or adults. And, every parent, no matter how many kids they have, at some point questions decisions they have made, many about family size. What’s right for someone else may not be right for you.
I close with: Much of what you hear and the pressure you feel is linked to outdated thinking and people who still believe the stereotypes tagged to only children. The stereotypes don’t stand up to close scrutiny.
Q: I am a mother of an only child (my spouse doesn’t want any more kids) and my daughter hates it. She just turned eight years old and gets really sad and angry about being an only. What can I do to help her?
A: Typically, around age eight, only children realize how good they have it. If that doesn’t appear to be happening in your house, it might help your daughter if you were empathetic to her unhappiness about not having a sibling and explain to her that you are a family just as you are and that families come in all sizes, that you and her father are happy with the family the way it is and are concerned that she doesn’t feel the same.
It often helps to explain why you didn’t have more children especially if reasons are age or medically and health related. You might also underscore the privileges and benefits she has and that you understand that she doesn’t see it that way right now. Further explanations might include that fact that she would have to share you and her father forever. That’s a start … hoping your daughter begins to understand soon.
Q: My husband and I are the parents of a lovely and spirited three-and-a-half-year-old girl. I was an “only” and one of my biggest fears is that she will be “different” or “weird” like I was. I was a loner, with no “best” girlfriend. I wonder, is there any literature or book you could recommend for parents of an “only”? She has never attended a day care and is due to start Pre-K soon.
A: Stop worrying about your child being just like you were. Every child is an individual and it’s unlikely that your daughter will follow in your exact footsteps; she is her own separate person. In fact, it’s particularly unlikely that she won’t have friends and a best friend if you socialize her early and set up lots of play dates once she enters Pre-K. Even if you don’t, being a “spirited” child when she starts Kindergarten she’ll meet new peers and make friends.
Recommendations: Of course, I recommend my book, Parenting an Only Child, The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only or The Case for the Only Child. Each talks a great deal about the pitfalls of parenting an only and what parents can do to avoid them. It also dispels the myths about only children being “weird” and lonely that are simply not true.
Relax. She’ll do just fine.
Q: How do I ensure my only child isn’t socially isolated? He’s only four but having a lonely only child is something that concerns me.
A: Many parents of only children worry about their child feeling lonely. This concern is rooted in the still-believed stereotype that originated in 1896 based on a study by psychologist G. Stanley Hall. That was an era in which children were isolated on farms, often separated from other families by great distances. Children had little chance to play with children in other families.
Given the massive changes in society and the availability of daycare and activities for young and older children to be together, being lonely is no longer a pressing problem for only children. Opportunities to be with other children early in their lives and then in school and after school activities abound, hence only children are less likely to feel isolated and alone. Bear in mind that young children, and that includes four-year-olds, often lack the maturity to play well with others.
As children get older, technology in its many forms keeps them connected to other children when they are not physically together. That said, at age four, do not buy into the antiquated “lonely only stereotype” feeling pressured to have your son play with other children on a consistent or constant basis — he will be surrounded by children and form friendships when he enters school. There will be plenty of time for him to fine tune social skills and join activities with other children.
Perhaps this article will further ease your concern: Note to Parents of Singletons: Your Child Won’t Be Lonely
Q: My husband and I are the parents of a two-and-a-half-year-old single child and would like help working through my ambivalence about raising a child without siblings. We have recently chosen not to have another due to financial constraints. In addition, I will be 38 next month and am concerned about the risks associated with advanced maternal age.
A: The ambivalence you feel likely comes from popular views about family size. You have valid reasons for not adding to your family. Worrying about money issues puts a strain on the family and can add to worry and frustrations that may impact your happiness as a parent. Kids do best with parents who can give them love and attention and not be distracted by financial constraints.
Your child will reap the advantages of being an only child. In a society that offers ample opportunities for an only child to be connected and engaged to other children, to create “sibling substitutes” and benefit from his or her parental attention and resources, there is little reason to be concerned. These two articles address and delve deeper into aspects related to your ambivalence: On the Fence About Having an Only Child? and Only Child Stereotypes: Fact vs. Fiction
Q: I’m concerned about the amount of time my seven-year-old spends by herself. When she was younger, I filled in as playmate when she didn’t have a friend to keep her company. I’m working again and have less time to get everything done and do things with her. Refusing her makes me feel guilty. What do you suggest I do?
A: Here’s the good news: Alone time is extremely beneficial for children. Recent studies underscore that alone time enhances creativity and studies also indicate that only children are more creative than children who have siblings as fulltime, live-in companions. Being alone offers the opportunity to recharge and think creatively. Additionally, alone time teaches children how to amuse themselves, be self-sufficient, content and happy in their own company — a skill they will need when they are older.
Q: From the beginning my husband and I knew one was the perfect number for our family. I bought your book, Parenting An Only Child. It has been a wonderful source of knowledge, and has brought me a lot of peace in my decision to stop at one.
However, I have had something nagging at me lately. I am Jewish/South-African, and come from a very strong heritage-based family. My husband is Lutheran (non-practicing). We have agreed to raise our son Jewish, and are extremely blessed to have strong support and acceptance from both sides of the family. How do you instill a strong sense of heritage in a small family?
I see the Jewish holidays, as well as all holidays, as a time for family. Growing up the holidays consisted of a big house full of aunts, uncles and cousins. My brother and sister-in-law have made it loud and clear they are not having kids. My son has two cousins from my husband’s side who live in another city. We celebrate the Christian holidays with them.
I am concerned about my Jewish heritage ending with me. What if my son never marries? Or, marries a non-Jew? Will he celebrate the Jewish holidays when I am no longer here? I don’t want him to ever be “guilted” into anything, but am concerned that my traditions may die when I do.
A: Because we are such a mobile society, other people find themselves with few relatives nearby with whom to celebrate whatever the holiday. One solution that works — and I know this because we have done it ourselves — is to join with other local families. You might want to invite or ask the parents in your son’s preschool what they are doing for Passover, for example. They, too, may be short on relatives, or would be happy to include you. Alternately, you could invite them to your home for a holiday celebration.
Sharing the holidays with friends can be the perfect substitute for family. Traditions and celebrations with friends can be just as meaningful and create fond memories of growing up as those experienced with family. Your son is quite young and you and he will form lasting friendships as he gets older — perhaps with people you join for holidays.
There are also plenty of less weighty, small ways to bring a sense of tradition into everyday life, from cherished daily or weekly rituals to annual family practices.
Worrying about the “what ifs” — for example, whom he marries or what religion he practices later is life — is unproductive and out of your control. However you approach your son’s Jewish education and indoctrination into his roots, I’m betting much of it will stick for his lifetime.
Q: I am a young mom of a 16-year-old. That said, I met my husband when my daughter was four-years-old and he has been in our lives ever since. I have never been married before and it has been the three of us for a very long time. My husband and I are now in our thirties and thinking of having adding one more child to our family, but my daughter is taking this very hard. She gets angry at the idea of a baby and doesn’t want to talk about it. Of course, I will have her see our family therapist soon, but in the meantime, I want to find out more about how teens are handling these situations and better yet, how are the parents handling it all?
A: Characteristically, teens find their parents humiliating on a host of issues, and can especially bristle in the face of unwanted or unexpected changes that are out of their control. A new baby would certainly fall into that category. You have to consider your marriage and future independent of hers. Her “push back” is to be expected and not unusual for adolescents. There’s a good chance she will adore a baby brother or sister especially if your and your husband’s relationship with her is strong as you note. But, like all change, it takes adjustment and time. Reassuring her that you have ample love to give to her and a sibling could be instrumental in winning her over.
Q: I am the mother of an only child. Our son is currently 14, very sensitive and often moody. He desires a good friendship, but cannot find it. When he was young, he had a severe skin condition, which isolated him from his peers and caused him to dislike people in general. He is growing out of that phase, and has mostly outgrown his skin condition, but we are still worried. Our family (me, my husband, and him) came from another country before our son was born, and thus do not have the support of relatives or other family with us. He had a best friend while growing up, but he moved to a different state.
He grew up sheltered, and with a lack of after-school activities. He is an excellent student, however, and always ambitious. We are about to move, and are concerned about him. Any advice?
A: Moving ranks high on the stressor scale in general for both adults and children. When you relocate encourage your son to participate in group activities — to join clubs that interest him in school such as debate or the school newspaper or a science club … wherever his academic interests seem strongest. You might also talk to his teachers, guidance counselor or the school principal so that they can watch for opportunities to support your son as well when grouping children for projects and assignments.
On your part, go to school parent-teacher meetings to find parents with whom you can form relationships. Both of you, if you work, might also seek out friendships with others at your place of employment. If you make an effort to be outgoing and be with people (invite them over if they children close in age to your son), you will be modeling behavior that he will copy as time goes on.
Realize that 14 is an awkward age for all children, many of whom feel insecure. It’s normal. It will take time for him to feel comfortable with new people and to begin to follow your lead. Reassure him he’s doing great and listen carefully if or when he comes to you to talk about what’s going on so you can be supportive and step in as suggested above.
Q: Recently my five-year-old son’s behavior has turned for the worse. When he is playing with other children or can’t get his way he becomes very aggressive and I know that this is not his normal personality. For the most part he is a very loving and sweet child (and I am not saying this because he is my child). I have been told by other parents that he is very sweet and well behaved with the exception of his outbursts when he is not getting his way. He did not act in this manner when he was two, three or four, and I don’t know what to do. I have spoken to his pediatrician and have gotten very little advice. Please help!!!!
A: Because only children for the most part are relatively easy and need little disciplining, it is alarming when an only starts acting out in ways so “foreign” to parents. I’m guessing your son’s aggressive behavior is more apparent when you are around than when he’s visiting a friend.
Several things you might want to try:
- Repeat to him that his behavior is unacceptable to you. He may not do it again. You can also tell him that his friends may not want to play with him if he continues to act aggressively.
- Ask him how he would feel if someone treated him the way he is treating a playmate.
- Let him know in words that his behavior makes you very unhappy.
- Depending on how he’s acting out, remind him that he could hurt someone.
- At home, make sure he isn’t always getting his way or his preferences. I point this out in Parenting an Only Child as one way to insure only children don’t get used to “running the show.” For instance, don’t let him always go first or win at games you play or have the last piece of pie or choose what TV program you will watch when the adults want to watch the news. Have him share with you and help out even in small ways. All of these things point to respecting others and help him understand that he can’t always have his way.
- Start using consequences when he becomes aggressive with other children. Let him know what they are before a play date, for example. Do not back off.
- Ask his teacher if he is acting out in school and ask her to send home a note if and when he does so. If school is a problem area for his behavior, again, let him know he that such behavior is unacceptable.
- Be sure both parents are on the same page in all of the above. These approaches will work if you remain consistent and steadfast.
Q: I’m parenting an only child and I want to receive some tips about how to motivate my daughter to enjoy working in school. Sometimes she does not want to do what her teacher says, and she prefers to do other things.
A: This is not necessarily an only child problem; it could be peer pressure, her age or a stage she’s going through, or any number of other issues. Broadly speaking, not knowing your daughter’s age or circumstances, I suggest you explain to her that school is her job — you have your job (and a boss to please or a home to run) and she needs to pay more attention to her job and her boss — her teacher.
- You might want to explain that her learning is like building a tower or a house, part of it is fun, part of it is boring, but if the tower is to stand (and she is to succeed when she’s older) she has to do what is asked of her by her teachers. Be open with her about subjects and assignments you didn’t like, but did anyway … and let her know that she will eventually have choices to study things she loves.
- You could also tell her to get the things she doesn’t like over with first so she can spend more time (and enjoy) the assignments she likes.
- You may need to change some “house rules” to make sure she understands … but before doing so, you might want to warn her of upcoming restrictions, loss of privileges, or whatever you deem appropriate.
I’ve given you a number of generalized suggestions; different ones work with different children of different ages so you will have to pick what you feel will capture your daughter’s attention.
Q: My son, now in third grade, has such a difficult time focusing. Every teacher since kindergarten has told me that he has this issue. The current teacher called me today. They all say that he’s smart and capable and that doing the work is not the problem, but he has a hard time staying focused.
Last year, the school psychologist sat in his classroom and observed him for a little while. The doctor didn’t think it was an issue and figured Trevor would grow out of it.
I always hear the same thing. He’s such a sweet, bright boy but has difficulty focusing. I have no idea how to help my child. I think it has something to do with what I’m doing or not doing at home. I cater to him but have been aware of it for a while and try to stop myself. I am just wondering if you have ever come across this situation.
A: The inability to focus is not necessarily because he is an only child. That said, here are a few suggestions that may help a child concentrate on completing assigned requests, all in the realm of giving more responsibility at home that will hopefully carry over to school:
- Have him ready his backpack, homework, whatever he needs for the next school day without your help. If he leaves something behind, he is responsible, not you, and he “suffers” the consequences (although I think a parent suffers worse).
- Same for sporting equipment for a practice or needing a clean team shirt for a game. You can ask him if he will be wanting or needing anything for the next time the team meets.
- He can be made responsible for getting his dirty clothes to the laundry bin or to the washer … and for putting his clean clothes away.
- You might also try being insistent that he not move on to the next “thing” until he has completed whatever he’s supposed to be doing. Young children often race to see or do what’s next.
It is so easy with one child to do everything and that reduces opportunities for an only to realize that he has to stay focused to get a job, whatever it is, done. The school psychologist could be correct and as your son matures, he is able to focus. If his focusing issues continue, consider having your son evaluated in case there is a problem that should be addressed to remedy this problem.
Q: We have a three-year-old and are perfectly content to call it quits on having babies, but my in-laws make it quite clear that we should have another child. We have a long list of reasons why we don’t want more children. That doesn’t stop them from telling us we are being unfair to our daughter. How do I get them to stop pressuring me?
A: Be prepared with ready answers when in-laws or parents imply or ask directly about a sibling for your daughter. A broad response such as “We’re thinking about it, if you are” or “I don’t want to discuss that today,” acknowledges their concern at the same time, frees you from what you feel is invasive questioning.
A most useful tactic is to change the subject and ask about a recipe or their garden or one of their other grandchildren or for their opinion about something going on in the news. Redirecting the conversation sets your boundaries without being aggressive and tells parents or in-laws that your reproductive life is off limits.
For the insistent in-law, ask your partner to step in and talk to his or her parents. They are more likely to accept his message without being offended than if it comes from you. For more on setting boundaries and saying no to relatives, see The Book of No: 365 Ways to Say it and Mean it―and Stop People-Pleasing Forever.
Q: We have an eight-year-old who dictates most things in our family. If he doesn’t want to go to the park or a restaurant, we bow to his wishes. This was okay with us when he was younger, but now he decides what we have for dinner or when my husband and I can go out with friends, even which one of us will feed the dog. As much as we want to please him, it feels wrong.
A: You are the parents; he is the child. Giving into his wishes now and then is fine. Most parents do that, but allowing him to essentially “run the show” gives a child a sense of entitlement and power that will not translate well in situations outside the home. He will come to believe that he can always have his way and will be in for a rude awakening with his peers as he gets older.
Be prepared for resistance, but stand your ground. Standing up as a parent is something you will need to do more and more as your child moves into his preteen and teen years. Your job as parents is not to please your child 24/7 — that does him a huge disservice as he grows.
For more on how to say no to your child in specific situations — and the reasons behind why it’s valuable for children to hear the word no — I recommend reading 29 Only Child Requests: Parents, the Correct Response is No.
Q: My daughter would like a dog. She is a very responsible, all around great eight-year-old who is doing wonderfully in school, socially and academically. We agreed to get her a dog if she understands that she will need to walk and feed the dog, that having a dog is a big commitment. We haven’t told her exactly when — this year, next year. What is the best age? And do you think a pet is a good idea for an only child?
A: A dog (or cat) is a great addition to any household in that it requires children to learn responsibility for something beyond themselves. For only children, a pet changes the family dynamic, can help take the complete focus off your child and provide good company for a child and parents alike. However, you will probably need to remind her that it is her pet and be prepared to sound like a “broken record” about her caretaking chores.
It seems that parents who “give” their child a pet at most any age must be willing to fill in the gaps … in the least, to be willing to feed or walk the dog when the child is at practice for example, or last thing at night when you would prefer she be in bed. Making kids 100 percent responsible for pets is a universal problem, not just in single-child households. And, when your only child (or all your children) grows up and leaves home, you will be fully responsible for the pet.
Do you have questions about raising or being an only child? Reach out to me here.
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