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Raising an Only Child and What to Say When People Have an Opinion

only childDespite the growing proportion of families opting for one child, and all the research dispelling old myths about social skills, loneliness, and over-parenting, the “only child” stigma is still strong in the family-size caste system. My daughter is an only child, and that sometimes has me on the defensive; I’ve armed myself with quippy retorts just in case insensitive questions are lobbed my way. So, when people comment on your only child, here are just a few ways you might respond:

  • “But what if something happens to her?!”

That would be terrible and tragic and the most unimaginable awfulness. Not because she’s an only child, but because she is a child, my child. What if “something happened” to one of your kids?!

  • “What if something happens to the both of you? She’ll be all alone if you die.”

Yet again, that would be terrible and tragic and unimaginable awfulness. And it’s not “if,” but “when.” There are infinite permutations and combinations of traumatic what-ifs, and I don’t think that an increase in procreation protects us from all that is bad and sad in the world. Nor do I particularly want to spend a lot of time thinking about it.

  • “Won’t she feel lonely? “

There will definitely be occasions when my daughter feels lonely, as we all experience, but there is a significant difference between being alone, and being lonely. Neither is dictated by the presence or absence of siblings. These will make for great opportunities to distinguish solitude from loneliness, and to teach her strategies to meet her own needs or fulfill her desires: nurturing others, creating and maintaining social supports, trying new activities, devoting herself to hobbies, and talking through her feelings.

  • “Only children are selfish, spoiled, and don’t know how to share.”

My daughter loves to share, and seems to come by it naturally. I on the other hand, hate to share. I would rather give you my pen than let you borrow it, and I grew up with an older brother. The number of children in a family is not directly related to selfishness, spoilage or sharing. It has to do with available resources, family values, and myriad other reasons.

  • “I’m so jealous, I wish I had just one kid. It’s sooooo much easier.”

Not true. In parenting my only child I am still not living a life of total leisure. She still requires attention, and wants me to play with her. I don’t lay around binge-watching Netflix or eating ice cream out of the carton during the day. It’s not like having a pet rock because there’s just one kid.

  • “I don’t know why anyone would want an only child. Don’t you want your daughter to have a sibling?”

Will you feel like a jerk when I tell you we’re struggling with secondary infertility? I thought you might. We would love to add another, and she desperately wants a baby brother or sister, too. But I have also struggled with indecision about growing our family. Sometimes I feel like we should just quit while we’re ahead, focus on what we already have, and enjoy our lives as a family of three. There are many wonderful things about raising an only child, but there are also plenty of people with only one child who have little choice in the matter. Infertility, divorce or partner death, maternal age, mental health or medical issues, financial limitations, etc.
  • “Only children are so weird.”

Yeah, there are some seriously socially awkward only children out there. But guess what? There are some seriously socially awkward kids with siblings out there, too.

  • “That’s a lot of pressure to put on your daughter having to care for elderly parents all by herself.”

We did not embark on the adventure of parenting as some kind of insurance plan. We intend to arm ourselves with actual long-term insurance and clearly documented wishes for aging and dying. Who is to say that our daughter or her hypothetical siblings would even want to be involved in our caregiving?

  • “Wasn’t Charles Manson/Norman Bates/Darth Vader/Bloody Mary an only child?”

I don’t know, maybe? I’m not up on my sociopath trivia. But I do know that Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty White, and Ghandi were only children.

  • “My brother/sister is my best friend. Life wouldn’t be the same without him.”

I’m close with my brother, too, and I can’t imagine my life without him. In part because I just don’t know otherwise. I feel lucky that we get along so well, but there are no guarantees. There are plenty of siblings who can barely stand to be in the same room as one another.

Only children, or multiple children all play important roles in our diverse family compositions. So whether you are a mama wolf from a pack of 3 or 33, your family is just the “right” size.

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4 Responses to Raising an Only Child and What to Say When People Have an Opinion

  1. Kendra
    Kendra May 2, 2016 at 3:36 pm #

    Great ideas! As the mom of a (currently) only child, I’ve heard all of these from well-meaning friends and strangers. I’ll have to remember your clever answers the next time one of these comment is lobbed my way

  2. Amanda Marcott
    Amanda Marcott May 3, 2016 at 4:03 pm #

    “Betty White is an only child,” which means: “Your argument is invalid!”

    I LOVE this. We’re 99.999% sure our son will be our one and only, not because we can’t but because we really don’t want to (two?)…so these are getting put in my response arsonal. 🙂

    By the way…not everyone who has siblings are close to them. I have two and we’re so spread apart they may as well be distant cousins, my best friend has a TWIN that she doesn’t talk to. So THAT reason for multiples is a really shaky one for me.

  3. Shannon May 12, 2016 at 11:23 am #

    From an only child who constantly heard people ask my mom why I was the only one, I applaud your article! People are so insensitive and did not know my mom and dad struggled for years with infertility and miscarriages. She used to say she wanted a perfect child and got it with the first one. That usually quieted people (bc I am not perfect but am sure proud of being my parent’s only child).

  4. Michele May 12, 2016 at 12:09 pm #

    I raised an only child who is 23 and doing just fine. Then we had a surprise 2nd only child a year ago (we also struggled with secondary infertility and finally decided to be happy with our family of 3.) We are loving being parents again! But truly, I have never fielded questions such as these with either of my boys. Are we just very fortunate?