I think ‘only’ children have had a bit of a bad rap. Being an ‘only’ myself, I cannot tell you how many times I have had to defend myself against the dreaded “Only Child Syndrome” – being accused of being selfish, unfriendly, self obsessed, bossy and the opposite of people who like to share (whatever that is). The American psychologist G Stanley Hall, wrote that being an only child was “a disease in itself.” Slightly harsh I feel.
Talking to a friend the other day, I realised just how uncommon it is to be an only child and even more so, when there are no cousins or young people in the extended family. That was my experience of growing up though, and hearing that, people often remark how sad that is. Which is odd. I would not have changed a thing, though I don’t deny that there were some things that I probably missed out on.
I grew up in Somerset, Stafford and Devon and can honestly say that I have never wanted for anything in terms of basic care, and nor did I did miss the companionship and company of a sibling during my formative years.
I certainly do remember being alone a lot as a child and have wondered if this has coloured my view of the world as an adult. I have been called selfish, (surely not, you cry) and it is assumed that because I was an ‘only’, I was spoilt.
I think I was alone a lot, but not lonely, and as far as being selfish, I believe I probably learned to share earlier than anyone, as I was always very aware of people assuming that I would not. I was certainly quite confident from an early age and focused, later even described as “driven.”
There was no competition with other children in the family, which may have resulted in my non competitive nature, but there is something about having to be self-reliant which makes an ‘only’ very independent very early. I think it has made me stronger as there was no one to hide behind and I learnt very quickly to stand up for myself, simply because there was no one to stand up for me.
My bond with my parents was different to those with bigger families, as there were just the three of us and I think I became more self aware, having no one to compete with or to compare to. I don’t think the lack of comparison was necessarily a negative, as there was plenty of competition and children to compare myself with outside of the family.
I certainly developed a strong imagination! Spending so much time on my own, I had all sorts of imaginary friends and made up all sorts of stories. I didn’t learn to rely on anyone else and didn’t have to deal with any sibling rivalry or fights.
Sibling rivalry can be a real problem in families. Later, when I became a mum myself, some of my friends had children who literally seemed to hate each other, and any parent who has dealt with warring children will know that it is a horrible way to live. I have heard horror stories such as not being able to watch a television programme without children fighting and days out and holidays can become nightmarish. Of course there is another side of the coin; those siblings who have close bond and respect and support each other, particularly in times of difficulty. That, I feel I did miss out on. And I remember being very envious of girlfriends at school who had older brothers to look out for them.
But I didn’t rely on others for happiness and I learnt to depend entirely on myself. No one stole any of my things, I was also never known as someone’s sister and I think I became good quite early on conversing with adults. And surely it’s not about the number of children that are in the family, but the quality of those relationships?
I read recently that in various studies and research, ‘only’ children score very well (compared with those that have brothers and or sisters) in being flexible, imaginative and creative, which fits with being on your own and amusing yourself. However only children were also thought to be less able to mix with others, develop relationships and interestingly, understand and convey empathy. “Only’s” also however, are thought to be better behaved at school.
I believe that if I had had siblings, I would have been alone a lot less and therefore would not be as happy as I am when I find myself in that state. I know plenty of people who are horrified at the thought of even a single day alone, but I love it! I’m happily married and love having the children around, but also regularly need time on my own.
I am not suggesting children should always be alone, of course, far from it! Children need to practice skills such as compromising and co-operating, sharing and caring for others, and cultivating the ability to being socially aware and interactive. But this is easily achieved at school.
So, although I wouldn’t have changed anything, I think there were times when it would have been lovely to have a brother or sister, or even some cousins who were close in age. But that was not to be.
I don’t think that I’m cold or aloof, I admit to being somewhat insular, but that’s my choice. I don’t think I have ever lacked empathy, indeed I became a counsellor! Selfish? That’s a hard one to quantify. Perhaps ask Andy or the kids what they think about that one! I have always been at ease with myself and whether that’s anything to do with being an “only,”well, who knows? But as I said at the beginning, given the choice, I wouldn’t change a thing.❤️