One and only

Posted by Stacy Chandler on June 13, 2013 

Sometimes, on a rainy summer weekday in my youth, I'd find myself with no one to play with. The neighbor kids were stuck in their own houses or away on vacation, I didn't have any brothers or sisters to pester and my mom was busy cooking dinner or talking on the phone or maybe hiding in a closet for a few minutes of peace (not that I ever caught her doing that, but now that I'm a mom myself, I'm starting to suspect).

So I'd pull out a board game and start playing. By myself. I'd use two pawns and alternate turns moving them and let fate do its thing.

My husband, who comes from a family of five kids, finds this incredibly sad. He always had a sibling around to play with -- or, more likely, to aggravate, menace, trick or beat up. But I was never sad about my solo games. I wasn't sitting there moping for someone -- anyone! -- to please come play the blue piece in Sorry so I could concentrate only on the red piece. I was simply taking matters into my own hands, providing my own entertainment.

Because that's what only children tend to do.

As Lauren Sandler's recent opinion piece in the New York Times says, only children are often assumed to be "rotten with selfishness and beset by loneliness."

In her upcoming book, “One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One,” Sandler describes the data she encountered in years of research as painting a very different picture indeed.

Only children, she concludes in the NYT piece, are "no more self-involved than anyone else." The solitude they encounter at home gives them "stronger primary relationships with themselves. And nothing provides better armor against loneliness."

I'm an only child myself. The only child, in fact, of two only children (so I have no aunts or uncles and no close cousins, except through marriage). And I'm the mother of an only child. So this exploration really speaks to me.

It's different being an only child, to be sure. I don't really have a concept of what it's like to have a sibling, except from what I observe through my husband, who is close to each of his four siblings. I feel like there's a whole vast area of family dynamics I simply don't get. I understand what it's like to have a parent, and I understand what it's like to have a friend, and I understand what it's like to have an enemy. As best as I can tell, having a sibling is some combination of the three, but I'll never really know for sure.

As a child, I sometimes wanted a sibling, though that was a very theoretical desire. I wanted, of course, someone to admire me and someone I could mold and teach. Or, when I wanted an older sibling, someone who could mold and teach me. But that's not quite all there is to brotherhood or sisterhood, is there? By not having a sibling, I've lived an entire lifetime without being punched in the face. Nor have I ever punched anyone in the face. I've never been wrongly accused by my parents (at least not for someone else's wrongdoing), nor have I ever been able to escape blame for wrongdoing I committed.

So there are pluses and minuses, to be sure. My greatest worry in life is having to deal with my parents' aging all alone, and from what I've heard from older folks who are only children, that's every bit as bad as I suspect and then a thousand times worse. And there's a lot of pressure on occasions like Mother's Day and Father's Day and birthdays -- if I don't get that card mailed in time, by gum, the whole thing is ruined and there's no one I can hide behind.

But my parents, when I was growing up, were able to provide for me in ways both financial and emotional that big families can't always achieve. We took vacations and I had foreign study experience in high school. My parents made it to every orchestra concert and had time to take me out for ice cream afterward, too.

So here, perhaps, is where I'm supposed to make some argument about why only children are better off. But Sandler doesn't quite go there in her NYT piece, and neither will I. Families vary too much to compare against one another. One only child thrives, while another is a wreck. One five-child family is full of losers, while another is filled with success stories and still another is a mix.

The point, I think, is to shake this assumption that an only child is something to be pitied. Happiness and well-adjustedness is well within reach of every only child, and they can be grasped or lost by an only just the same as they can by someone from a larger family.

Some only children might snarl at the idea of sharing, if you buy into that false stereotype, but I won't. Whether your family is large or small, I invite you to share your insights in the comments.

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