Only Ain’t Lonely: Debunking The Single-Child Stigma by Jill Valentino

Because it takes a village, not the presence or absence of siblings, to raise a decent, well-adjusted kid.

Until the age of 8, my firstborn daughter Saige was an only child. This was not my original plan. Secondary infertility extended my initial hope of a three year age gap to a reality of eight.

And yes, I started to worry.

Cause if I didn’t, would I even be a mom?

I grew up with a brother who was three-and-a-half years younger than me. Most of the time, he made me crazy, and sadly, we don’t really speak as adults. Yet, for a long time, I felt growing up with a sibling taught me important lessons and skills that would have likely been difficult to have learned by myself. For a while, during Saige’s time as an only child (as well as the only grandchild on both sides!), I had concerns about the possibility of my daughter growing to adulthood alone.

My Only Child Husband: More “Peopley” Than Me

My husband and mother-in-law, circa the late 1980s. Photo by the late Michael L. Valentino.

My husband Mike is an only child. Because of this, he didn’t share my concerns about our daughter’s only childhood possibly hampering her socio-emotional development for the rest of her life. Instead, he reminded me of something quite obvious, that I, until that moment, failed to see. He said:

“I turned out okay, and so did my only-child mother. Right?”

Much as I hate to be wrong, my man had a point. An excellent point. He was right. Especially when comparing my husband, his mother, and me.

Because guess who is the most socially inept of all three?

*Raises hand* That would be me.

You know, the one who actually did grow up with a sibling.

My husband’s wise words ended up allaying most of my fears about Saige’s possible lifelong only child status. Which was a good thing, because though the arrival of baby Sophia did eventually eradicate Saige’s “only child” status…

…with such a big age gap between my daughters, often it’s more like I’m raising two only children than bringing up siblings.

The Outdated, Mythical “Only Child Syndrome”

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

The stereotypical personality of an only child is often peppered with words like “bossy,” and “selfish,” as well as phrases like “can’t share.” These beliefs date back to at least the 19th century. People today still possess these beliefs, too. What many seem to forget all about is when the “only child stereotype” originated, single-child families scarcely existed.

Fear of the unknown, perhaps?

Results of 200 questionnaires about only children published in the 19th century illustrate how far back in history the stigma goes. Researcher E. W. Bohannon asked respondents about peculiarities of only children people knew. In 196 cases, participants described children without siblings as spoiled. Bohannon’s colleagues agreed with the results and the idea took hold.

In the early 20th century, people started to worry that only children would become overly sensitive. This was due to a dense concentration of parental worry and fear for the child, leaving him or her with “weak nerves.”

Then, the Modern Age dawned, and common sense extinguished most of that nonsense. Yet the original stigma still remains today. And is still believed by a significant portion of the current generations of parents.

Including yours truly, at least at one point.

Le sigh.

Today, only-child families are much more prevalent than they were in E. W. Bohannon’s time. Research methods have also much improved (a questionnaire? Really?).

Studies from as far back as the 1980s have indicated differences between only children and those with siblings. One such difference? “Onlies” tend to have stronger bonds with their parents. I have seen this phenomenon myself; spending 8 years doting on Saige alone before Sophia arrived absolutely made us close. It kept us that way too, which has been a relief since her pre-teen years have begun. Being that Saige is much older and independent now, Mike and I have also been able to dote on young Sophia to a similar degree.

Thus the reason I often claim to have “two only children.”

Recent research from China compared brain scans of both only children and those with siblings. They also tested personality, creativity, and intelligence. Again, though there were some differences found, they were not as negative for just those in the only children group than the results of “studies” in the past. The China study showed that only children outperformed those with siblings on creativity. But they also scored lower on ‘agreeability’ traits.

I see that in both my girls too. A lot.

One other interesting snippet from that research? The brain scans showed that the actual parts of the brain associated with creativity and agreeability…

…were structurally different between both groups.

Whoa. Different family environments lead to different-looking brains? That’s insane. I wonder what type of ‘family environment’ my daughters’ brain stems resemble. Onlies? Siblings? Hmmmm. I’d guess Saige’s would resemble an only since she was one for so long, while Sophia’s likely more resembles the child-with-sibling brain since she’s always had one. But I definitely wouldn’t bet money on either one of those guesses!

Socialization: Sibling-Free Strategies

One socialization opportunity I have provided for both my “only children” is enrollment in dance classes right away (both started at the age of 3). Photo rights: Jill Valentino.

It is a pretty much-accepted fact that “nature” and “nurture” type-factors affect all children’s socio-emotional development. The “nurture” part explains why many parents today place importance on socializing only children. Parents seek naturally occurring practice opportunities for behaviours like attention-sharing and conflict resolution.

My mother-in-law, Barbara Valentino, seemed ahead of her time with the socialization she provided my husband as a child. “I sent him to a sitter who had five other children as well as nursery school early. Also, attending a magnet school, Mike interacted with children of different backgrounds,” Valentino explains. “Mike’s father and I stressed courtesy, consideration, and sharing throughout his childhood. He participated in the ski club at school, and also spent time with his cousins.”

Other extra-curricular experiences my husband had as a child included cycling competitions and karate. By participating in those sorts of activities, he learned how to lose and win graciously as well.

School: Not Just For Book Smarts

Photo by pan xiaozhen on Unsplash

Unlike with multiple kids, peer interaction and conflict resolution are not as teachable in one-child homes. Mom-of-one Milena McNally of Beacon, NY, says, “we do try to reinforce sharing and good interpersonal skills like empathy with our son at home.” She then adds, “but ultimately, his being with his peers and learning to sort things out with them is key.”

Mrs McNally has her son enrolled in a Montessori educational program. Montessori philosophy, defined, is:

education philosophy and practice that fosters rigorous, self-motivated growth for children and adolescents in all areas of their development, with a goal of nurturing each child’s natural desire for knowledge, understanding, and respect.”

In 2006, researchers concluded that Montessori students, when compared to traditional-educated peers, were better at adapting to changing, complex problems. This is an indicator of future life success. In addition, Montessori students also reportedly displayed a “greater sense of community at school.

At the early childhood level of Montessori education, (ages 2 ½–6), preschoolers are highly encouraged to explore and discover, collaborate with classmates, and to take ownership of their education. While this environment would help all students, likely it would be of particular benefit to only children.

A preschool program that emphasizes sharing in its curriculum can also be beneficial to an only child. Hannah Black, of Hyde Park, NY, found such a program for her daughter located at her local community college campus. She says, “My daughter’s preschool program teaches young children what sharing actually is, as well as what it is not. Also, the program emphasizes young children identifying their feelings, then communicating them through meaningful conversation and discussion.”

Outside school, Mrs. Black acknowledges any sharing her daughter displays with verbal praise. “It’s important that sharing isn’t forced,” she asserts.

Don’t Forget Free Play, and Older Kids, Too

One of my daughter Saige’s final days as a true “only child.” Photo by Jill Valentino.

Consistently scheduling playdates with peers for only children is very important. Why? Because “onlies” need to learn how to handle social situations where adults aren’t controlling what they do.

Jessica Carola of Fishkill, NY, makes sure to encourage socialization even as her 8-year-old daughter gets older. “My daughter has playdates with her friends all the time,” says Ms. Carola. Providing opportunities for only children to socialize should not end with early childhood. Offering socialization experiences to older “onlies” can benefit them in many ways, too, such as exposure to a variety of peer groups, while combating any possible loneliness or isolation.

Oh, The Places You Can Go! (To Socialize An Only Child)

The local playground is my “second only child’s” favorite place to socialize. Photo by Mike Valentino.

Libraries. Libraries are a great place to socialize only children. I used to take Saige all the time when she was young and nowadays, Sophia and I go too. Many community libraries offer weekly story hours for young children, and some in my area even hold “movie nights” for kids. Libraries also run clubs for older kids tailored to different interests as well.

Parks and playgrounds. These wonderful community spaces are often chock-full of kids, especially in the spring and summer months. Whenever my youngest “only child,” Sophia, goes to the park, she either runs into an old friend or makes a new one! Fenced in playground areas give kids lots of freedom to explore and play, and for us parents, the peace of mind of “enclosure.”

Summer camp. Camp keeps “onlies” social during the summer, but with curricula tailored to their interests. Saige, to date, has attended farm, cheer, and Shakespeare acting camp. She will attend a leadership camp this summer. Sophia attended “Little Explorers” camp last summer. This summer she will attend farm camp and recreational camp. In this way, both my “onlies” will get the socialization they need this summer — in age-appropriate, high-interest, enjoyable ways.

Jill Valentino is a wife, mom of two, elementary educator, and lifelong resident of NY’s Hudson Valley. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Medium @doublesmom77.

Originally published at Reprinted with permission.

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