Only Child Syndrome: Let’s Put This Stigma to Rest

I didn't need siblings and my son doesn't either.

Apr 25, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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Two only children

A little less a year ago, I brought my baby to daycare for the first time. After a few misty-eyed days of picking him up and dropping him off, one of the teachers asked me, “So, when do you think you’ll have another?” My son was barely four months old.

Fast forward a year, and several friends, co-workers, and especially family members have asked variations of the same question. They wonder when I’m going to have a second child. Not a day goes by when my mother doesn’t stress to me the importance of providing my young son with a sibling.

He’ll have memories to share, she says. He’ll have someone to play with, she says. He’ll be happier, more well-adjusted, less lonely, she says.

My mom wanted three kids. Unfortunately, she could only have one. So my mom doesn’t want my son to “suffer” my same fate. But I honestly don’t understand the problem. My childhood was pretty damn awesome. 

In contemplating whether or not to have a second child, I am forced to reconcile the stigma of being an only. There seems to be this societal pressure to provide a sibling for your child, as if he or she will somehow end up damaged if you don't. Despite plenty of research demonstrating that only children do not suffer from the dreaded syndrome -- growing up spoiled, bossy and maladjusted -- and despite many American families downsizing, the stereotype of only children as socially inept persists.

When I tell people I’m an only child, I get the head tilt and the sad, sympathetic sigh, as if my childhood were deprived and lonely, and I must be filled with longing for a brother or sister. It wasn’t. I'm not.

Growing up in a large extended Italian family, I had a gaggle of close cousins. Every Sunday, we would gather at my Nonna’s house for dinner and be promptly sent outside to play.

We had comedy shows to show off cousin Sammy’s early talent for self-flagellating jokes. We played hide and seek in the vegetable garden. We climbed the walls of Nonna’s brick-and-mortar house. We picked pears off her tree. When we played “animals,” we crawled around on all fours, pretending to pee on that tree. A couple decades later, many of these cousins are getting married and having babies. I feel as close to them as their own brothers and sisters. Their kids call me “Auntie.”

For the time that I didn’t spend with my Italian cousins, I had neighborhood friends with whom I rode bikes and formed secret clubs and built forts and climbed trees. And when I was home by myself, there was imagination. I could get lost in a world of My Little Ponies for hours. I read choose-your-own-adventure books. I dug holes in my backyard looking for dinosaur bones. I made special concoctions out of shampoo, baby oil, shaving cream and bath salts, pretending to be a mad scientist developing the perfect potion. In short, my childhood, like the childhood of many with brothers and sisters, was magical.

That’s not to say that being an only child didn’t come with its own set of problems. When I was a little girl, Nonna used to dole out money to each of her grandchildren on Christmas Eve. Each child got $10. Each child, that is, except for me. Nonna decided I deserved $20 because I was “the only one.” This worked out great, until one of the other cousins caught on and cornered me, demanding that I share my booty.

Being an only child is full of those moments of “overcompensation” (heavy on the sarcastic air quotes). Maybe some parents buy their children extra toys to fill the void of companionship. Maybe some grandparents make it extra difficult to fit in with your cousins by rolling that last meatball onto your plate. This can sometimes create uncomfortable and awkward situations, especially if other kids with brothers and sisters witness the special treatment. Pangs of guilt inevitably follow. 

Fitting in with those who did have siblings was sometimes a challenge. One time during a trip to South Carolina for dance camp, my college dance team friends broke down into fits of laughter exchanging stories of family vacation games played with their brothers and sisters. As we sat on our cheap, scratchy hotel bedspreads, the girls reenacted games of Superman and other partner-required activities. I decided to share, too.

“Or, how about when you used to bounce on the bed like this?” I cried as I laid on my back and used my butt to bounce myself as high in the air as possible. 

Crickets. 

Followed by “That must have been an only child game.” Followed by months and months of teasing.

One of the biggest paradoxical advantages an only child has is all of Mom and Dad’s attention all the time. This is all a child ever wants, until it inevitably backfires. (Who ate all the luncheon meat? Wendy. Who didn’t put away the TV tray? Wendy. Who left a chocolate stain on the couch? That would be Wendy again, since there’s literally no one else to blame.)

As you get a bit older, the attention turns to pressure. Feel like slacking off and forgetting your homework for a night? Not a chance, Mom will be right up your ass. Want to sneak into the house with cigarette smell still on your hands? Sorry, kiddo, you’re grounded before you take two steps in the door.

But don’t feel sorry for me (as if). I had a wonderfully fulfilling childhood that I wouldn’t trade for a brother or a sister. And I was afforded opportunities that my parents might not have been able to undertake, had they been able to bring another offspring into the world.

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Lucas has no problem being an only child for the moment.

So what happens when only children grow up? Do we have trouble when we realize that we are not, in fact, as special as our parents made us out to be? There’s a learning curve, to be sure.

But there are lifelong lessons that help an only child make this realization without the assistance of a brother or sister. School will teach you you’re not the greatest, as will participation in extracurricular activities. (There will always be a better singer, dancer, soccer player, painter, or Magic the Gathering participant than you somewhere.)

The college application process is also specialness-squishing. And if you didn’t experience enough adversity in those teenage milestones, real life will kick the shit out of you.

An only child’s perspective on childhood is unique, but no more or less unique than a first-born, a middle child, or a youngest. Childhood can be beautiful, painful, isolating, comforting, joyful, and confusing. It can be all these things regardless of whether you are an only or from a family of five. Your child could very well become a spoiled malcontent. But if that is going to happen, it’s likely going to happen with or without siblings.

One thing I’ve learned in my short time as a mother is that we do the best we can to raise our children, but there’s so much that is completely out of our control. Our children are who they are. Their upbringing helps to form their identity, but it is not the sole determining factor.

All this is not to say that people shouldn’t have more than one child. I’m sure there are wonderful, indescribable things about being and having a sibling. But there are wonderful things about being an only child, too. It’s not a syndrome. It’s not a disease. It’s not something to feel bad about. It’s just another way to experience childhood.

I’m still not sure whether or not I want a second child. All I know is that, if my husband and I do decide to have another baby, it won’t be because we are afraid of screwing up our son. I’m sure we’ll do that just fine on our own.