Being Careful with the Phrase “Only Child”
Picture this. You are talking with a friend about paint colors. She mentions that her home’s kitchen is painted X color, but her summer home is painted Y color.
“So what color are your kitchens?” she then asks.
“My kitchen is white” you reply.
“Oh…so…you only have one house?” she answers.
How do you feel about this last question? It subtly implies that you should have more than one house. Or at least, that having more houses would be preferable. You feel you have been labelled lesser. You feel a bit offended. Not ashamed, because having more than one house isn’t a need or obligation that everyone should strive for in life. But because the implication is that you have somehow failed by having one house. Why? Because of the word “only.”
Now, people with more than one home do not usually assume that everyone has more than one home, thus this scenario is not realistic.
However, we do often speak this way when we ask how many children someone has, perhaps without meaning to. “Oh, you only have one?” That word, “only.” It is a small and ordinary word, but it implies something. Only, as in, not enough.
When we protest “But I only got one cookie!” we are implying that two, three, or four cookies would have been preferable, and we got the short end of the stick. (And in the case of cookies, it’s true, more is definitively better.)
But why do we, perhaps out of habit, use this word when we refer to number of children? As if more is ideal, and “only” having one earns you a “C” on your report card?
Do We Mean to Imply that Families Should Have More Than One Child?
I venture to guess that we don’t usually intend to sound this way. But I can tell you that I have been asked that question a good number of times since I had my daughter. “Do you have other children or only one?” (or something like it) and when I say I only have her, it feels like I am admitting I am not quite “there yet.”
It may have to do with outdated expectations that a family should naturally contain three or four children. Even millennials may carry this image of a family around with them, despite actual reality. For many reasons, this is simply not the average family size anymore. (In 2019 the average family had 1.9 children.)
Or, perhaps it has to do with the inclination to believe that there are downsides to having a single child.
Are There Actually Downsides to Having an “Only” Child?
The main one that I have heard is “But they won’t have a sibling…” As if this is heartbreaking to think about. Painting a picture of loneliness. A child peering wistfully into a lake at their own reflection. Perhaps a tear rolling down their cheek. Haha!
While certainly sibling relationships can be special, I venture to say that those who grew up as only children do just fine and don’t feel lonely. Now, in my case, I have siblings, but they were much older than me, (12 and 18 years older.) I didn’t play with them as one typically pictures siblings playing together. They were out of the house by the time I remember much of life. I spent a lot of time doing my own thing as a child.
But contrary to the lonely image, I loved to play alone! I think it made me into a person who enjoys freedom, and having space to think. It also made me into a person who isn’t easily bored and can use my imagination. I am perfectly content by myself doing nothing particularly exciting. And I do not feel lonely when I’m alone. This is probably because I grew up as an “only” child (in the sense described.) And I like these traits about me.
However, while comfortable being alone, I’m not a “loner.” I am highly sociable, the first to greet newcomers, unafraid to talk to strangers, and able to fit in with many different people. Not having a sibling close to my age doesn’t seem to have left any sort of void in my life.
Another I have heard is “but they will be spoiled.” Well this one is simply false. Children are “spoiled” based on how they are parented, not based on if they have siblings. Research has proven this. Check out this study called “The End of a Stereotype: Only Children Are Not More Narcissistic Than People With Siblings.” We don’t grow up working on our generational family farms anymore with miles in between us and the nearest humans, and no cars to take us anywhere and no chance for social interaction. “Only children” aren’t isolated, weird, or socially inept because they are only children. Enough said.
A “One and Only” Child
Having said all this, my husband and I may have a second child. It’s in the air at the moment as I recover from the C-section of my daughter. We may, or we may not. That’s not the point.
Nor is the point to put down larger families! I know many large families and I love them. I also know that they love their life.
And if you come from a larger family, and have a single child for whatever reason, perhaps you don’t exactly know how to handle that! You may be used to a very different household feel. I found a great post about ways to help children learn to be happy playing alone at Millenniologyblog.com.
But it occurs to me that “only” can also be used in a positive sense. If someone is your “one and only,” that’s a good thing. It’s special.
So the point is this. Perhaps we should reflect on the reasons we often assume that having more than one child is the ideal and that having one is somehow, unspokenly, “lesser.” We should at the very least be more cognizant and stop implying it to parents of a single child.
They don’t “only” have one. They have one!
And often, they may indeed be trying for another, struggling for a variety of reasons, and would prefer others not to point out that they have not succeeded yet.
So yes, my daughter may grow up an “only child.” She may not have a sibling.
But she will have a mama. A daddy. Friends. A kitty.
She will also have her own room. Her own toys. Her own choices in her recreation time.
Lots of one-on-one time availability with her parents. More of our financial resources.
More opportunity for quiet time. More space to think and reflect. More chances to learn how to be at peace with herself.
A calm household.
Sounds pretty good to me.
Are you a brand new mama? Check out my post 10 Baby Care Basics for First Time Moms.
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