The Pros and Cons of Being an Only Child

olive chan —  August 29, 2012 — 11 Comments

When people find out I’m an only child, they often ask me how it was growing up. Well, I don’t know any other life, and I had a very happy childhood.  So I’d say it was great!

Pros and Cons of Being an Only Child

However, as I consider my own family and how many children I’d want, I have to consider more carefully.  From a parent’s standpoint, I can understand why people would choose to have only one child. Raising just one child already requires a lot of time, energy and money. And for some people, they are only able to have one. But if I were given the opportunity to have more than one child, I would. To me, it’s short term pain for long term gain. Why?  Here are some of the pros and cons to being an only child from my experience:

Pros:

- Attention from my parents.  This one’s pretty obvious.  Because it was just me, I had both my parents’ full attention.  I never had to compete for it.  Perhaps if I was a more rebellious kid, this may have counted as a disadvantage.  But I did enjoy having all their attention.

- Relating well to adults.  Since I grew up without siblings or cousins my age, I spent a lot of time around adults.  I remember sitting with my parents and their friends after dinner just listening to their conversations.  This taught me how to interact with people much older than myself. When I got married, Tim noticed that I had lots of older women friends and that I would strike up conversations with people older than us with much more ease than he would.

- Independence.  Not having siblings meant that I had to make decisions on my own. It also meant that I had to entertain myself and find ways to occupy myself.  I ended up doing a lot of reading and drawing. I also had to problem solve on my own.

- Suited an introvert. Being an only child was great for me as an introvert. I had plenty of time to think and be by myself. I’d still have play dates with friends, but a lot of the time, I just hung out on my own, which I totally didn’t mind.

- Maturity. One of the effects of spending a lot of time with adults was that I learned early on how to think like them. In my growing up years, I would often hear the comment, “You are so mature for your age!”  But maybe it was just that I learned how to sit still and not run around that made me appear more mature.

 Cons:

- No one to share responsibility with. As I grew older, I realized that one of the downsides to having no siblings was that I had all the responsibility for my parents as they grew older.  For their 25th wedding anniversary, I threw them a big party and I remember wishing I had siblings to help me with organizing it.  And as I look into the future, I will be the only one to care for them in their golden years.

- Not knowing how to fight. Believe it or not, learning to fight and have disagreements is a useful life skill. Having no one to fight with while I was growing up meant that I had a lot of catching up to do when I hit my adult years. My first roommate bore the brunt of this learning curve for me.  Thankfully, she was very patient and gracious with me. To this day, I still recoil at the thought of debating someone, which is too bad for my husband because he loves to debate!

- Unaware of other’s opinions. A related effect of not having to disagree with anyone was ignorance of perspectives outside of my own. Again, I learned about this from my first roommate. When I first moved out of my parents’ house, I thought my approach to problems was the only one and I expected others to see it the same way. Over time, I learned that there is usually more than one solution or one viewpoint and that others’ opinions are just as valid.

- Loneliness. This is usually the first disadvantage that comes to mind when people think of only children. Well, it’s true. There were many times where I felt like I was an “only lonely.” And I grew up often wishing I had an older sibling (older, because a lot of my friends had younger siblings and they didn’t seem to enjoy having them very much).

- Discomfort relating to children. Since I spent so much time with adults, I never was very comfortable in relating to other children. I didn’t really know how to let loose and play like the other kids. It was not until I had my own child that I could finally feel less awkward playing with kids.

- Not knowing how to ask for help. The flip side of being independent was that I tried to do everything by myself. It was an eye opener for me when I started dating Tim to see his family ask each other for opinions before making decisions. I have had to learn to ask for help and input over the years.

Overall, growing up as an only child was a positive experience for me. But there were definitely areas (especially socially) where having siblings would have prepared me better for engaging with the world. So even though as a parent, it would be easier to only have one child, in the long haul, I think it benefits the whole family to have more than one child. Who I am today is very much influenced by the fact that I grew up as an only child. But I’m also thankful that through marriage, I have siblings for the adult part of my life!

  • Steve

    Very good column. I am also an only child and I completely relate to everything you wrote, except that I didn’t mind the idea of the hoped-for sibling being younger, because I liked the idea of teaching them things. I haven’t had children yet and am very worried it may never happen. I feel that two would be the ideal number for me to have. I would never want more than two under any circumstances.

  • Tiff

    Now you have lots of siblings! =) I hope we’ve changed your mind about younger siblings :/ because you’re kinda stuck… good thing you’re mature enough to handle us!

  • anon

    I am an only child with a disengaged and depressed mother and played alone most of the time after school and on holidays. My mother made little attempt to ensure that I socialised with other children. I had the same issues as the writer. However I believe this is actually a parenting issue, and only children can be completely well adjusted and extremely well socialised as long as parenting style is adjusted according to the needs of the child.
    My child is now 7 and is extremely comfortable with a range of other children, shares well and cooperates with others. This did not happen by accident as I have always made sure she had a range of other children to play with, whether that be at playgroups, playdates, classes or school.

    Only children need to be exposed to lots of social situations with other chldren, whereas children with lots of siblings need more opportunities for one on one time with their parents. The parents of only children need to be prepared to play and as well and not leave their child to play alone most of the time. The latter is a recipe for disaster.
    Its just a different dynamic from siblings and parenting style needs to be adjusted accordingly. So dont blame the child, look to the parents.

    • olivechan

      Thank you for your perspective, Anon! I had never heard this point before and I think it is a good one. This is something I will be more aware of as I parent.

      The only thing I wonder about is whether there is still a gap between being an only child who is exposed to a lot of social situations and other children vs growing up with other children in the same home. I think there is an element of learning to live with someone under the same roof that, even though you may learn the skills, just isn’t quite the same when you don’t live with them.

  • Pingback: 4 Simple Ways to Be Kind to Yourself | Tim and Olive

  • val.

    I am an only child and I have to agree on most of the points you’ve brought up on both the pros and cons of being an only child.
    I do have to disagree on not being able to fight and being unaware of others’ opinions though. From my side, I was brought up by parents who were extremely convicted in their beliefs. This was a bit of a double-edged sword because on one one hand, I had to learn to argue rationally for what I wanted and on the other, my general annoyance at some of their beliefs pushed me to find what I felt more comfortable with ( I still love them, we just don’t agree on certain trivial things). The concept of directly opposing opinions was presented to me quite early on so I don’t think I ever had to learn that the hard way.
    I think what I’m trying to get at is that the experience of being an only child is deeply influenced by the parenting style as well as the people you interact with. The same thing applies to kids with siblings, it’s just that most people focus more on onlies because they aren’t seen as a traditional family unit (although, it’s far more common nowadays).

  • Catherine Birch

    I was an only child, & it wouldn`t have been so bad if my father hadn`t been in the navy, so we were constantly on the move until I was 8, then we settled in a tiny shoebox of a house on a low rent council estate because my father couldn`t find a decently paid job. These stories of spoilt only children didn`t apply to me because we were quite poor, no holidays,except for a week in butlins holiday camp(thrills!), no phone, & no car. I would have chosen other parents if I`d had the chance, & as for taking care of them in their old age, forget it! I was out of there as soon as I wasold enough to leave home!

  • Chris

    I’m convinced every only-child is different depending on parenting style and life experience. Many responded with surprise when they found out I am an only child, some said I am more like the oldest child. It is because my complicated childhood. I came from in fact selfish parents, both of them, it’s true. My dad didn’t want any kid at first, I don’t know who’s more self-centered, mom or dad. But clearly they are much into themselves, their own satisfaction, still are. But I was blessed to have lived with happy, normal families with many children, during the years after my parents got divorced and my dad settling in a new place before getting me there. And later on blessed with a loving church family. That’s where I learn about “love”. I have two children, and I am boldly open about why parents should not have just one child if they have the choice. I know a good number of parents having only one child, their reason is the same as my parents: Selfishness. It’s too hard, it’s too much trouble, it’s too expensive…. But it’s not about us, or for us. It’s for the children. I didn’t want my son, my first born to be alone and lonely, I know what lonely is; I wanted him to have someone to share things with, anything. I had wished to have an elder sibling for my own selfish reason when I was younger, so I can be spoiled. Then I wished if I could just have a sibling, anything, so I can have someone, anyone, to share anything I need to, who’s from my family. Who I can still talk to even if we just got so mad at each other. I also know some only-child who grew up happy, so it’s case by case. I do see obvious difference between only-child and those who are not. I did have problem with little kids growing up, they annoyed me. I thought I would not have any children before I got married. But husband loves children, he’s the youngest of 5. And I know I would not have just one. My ideal number was 3, in the order of son-daughter-son, I had a silly reason. I have a son and then a daughter, I lost the courage to have more. Too hard. And she’s a little mommy around the house and runs her brother’s life. Clearly he needs her. The world would be a more lonelier place for him without her. Only-child are more comfortable with adults, and they prefer to talk with them over kids their age. When my children’s friends come over, their only-child friend usually occupies me and prefer to have conversation with me more. Sometimes I worry for them.
    I had to learn not to be selfish as only-child. My natural response is always thinking for myself first, I am grateful that my life experience and faith taught me to love others, this teaching did not come from my parents, in fact, I am trying to share with them what I learn, I said, trying.
    Anyway, I may have a more of dark view about only-child, but it’s just me. Oh, I have convinced at least 2 moms to have their second…. I am Asian living in US, these are Asian moms as well. My point is, will your child have his/her own sibling/relative later on living in this country? Of course parents need to teach children to love each other, it’s our job.

    • yoloswag420

      shut the fuck up

  • Inquisit0r

    i am an only child and i grew with ADHD never tought i have it till i got 20 and read about it on the web.still tho had alot of friends and i felt ok only when around friends so i use to be with friends 80% of my time even when my moms calls me to go home from playing outside i call friend with me to come eat at my place so i would nerver be alone kinda sad tho :(

  • Pingback: Best Books to Prepare a Toddler for a New Sibling | Tim and Olive