Only children, Lonely children?
“Had I been writing this a year ago, I probably would’ve unintentionally biased the article in favour of only children. Many parents of only children find ways of justifying their decision, or circumstance, to the outside world. Now, with only four months to go before my second child is to be born, I find myself more keenly exploring both pros and cons of only children. In fact, with an age gap of almost eight years between our two, it will probably be more like raising two only children.
Sarah Chana Radcliffe, a Psychological Associate in private practise in Thornhill, author and mother to six children, believes that there is a “certain amount of loneliness that comes with being an only child,” but that this can be counteracted with guidance and awareness on the part of his or her parents. Diane da Camara, a 39 Thornhill mother to Bryce, aged 5, agrees. Diane and her husband, Tony had always thought they would have several children. However, a move from South Africa prompted them to bring their own parents over to Canada and to provide them with additional support. So, they ultimately decided to stay with one child. With this, she believes, came the added responsibility of increased availability to their son and increased sensitivity to meeting his needs. If parents choose to have an only child,” she says, “they need to be prepared to be more involved.An only child is a lonely child when the community lines aren’t there,” says da Camara. “If you are isolated, there can be loneliness.” She says that Bryce views her, his father and grandmother, who lives with them, as his playmates and that they are happy to play cops and robbers with him. “If we always said that he should go and amuse himself or stuck him in front of the T.V or computer screen, then there would be a greater risk of his becoming lonely or socially isolated.”
Radcliffe agrees that it is important that only children be encouraged to socialize with other children – not necessarily only within their own age group, but with children of all ages. For an only child, involvement in activities that foster group involvement, she says, is at least as important as developing individual interests. “Don’t take the easier way out,” she says,” by buying your child lots of things to keep him self-involved, such as Game boy or video games, but remember that socialization is key.”
Tiina Savolainen, a 33 year old Thornhill mother to six children, believes that a child is “a gift from God” and that if she could have had more, she would have. She believes that, if possible, all parents should have more than one child. She’s seen the rewards of a large family and believes her children have too. “There’s never a dull moment in our house, “she says “and “the children always have someone to play with.” She agrees with da Camara that if there are no siblings around, that parents should be more involved as playmates. Radcliffe cautions that parents should not include their child in every adult activity, potentially making that child “their third marital partner.” She says that couples need to make marriage a separate focus. “Get a babysitter and go out regularly,” she advises. Radcliffe’s other word of caution in involving a child too much in an adult world is that he may become a little adult prematurely.
Radcliffe offers suggestions for avoiding the common pitfall of inadvertently fostering self centredness. “Excessive parental attention to one child’s behaviour may cause the child to consider his own actions to be more significant than they are and in addition, may give him the uncomfortable feeling of being under a microscope. A parent needs to have interests outside of her child and a child needs to have a life outside of the family circle,” says Radcliffe. da Camara tries not to over indulge or ‘spoil,’ but also recognizes that Bryce has flourished and grown as the apple of her eye. She knows first hand what growing up for seven years as an only child was like. “Before my brother was born,” she says, “I blossomed. I knew how much I was loved and I felt so special. I’d go over to friend’s houses, played piano for them and loved the attention.” Today, da Camara still enjoys being in the spotlight as an international opera singer.
While it’s true that parents of only children can devote more attention to their only child, Savolainen says that siblings often help out in that role. She says that her children really look out for one another – at home and at school. She and Radcliffe agree that siblings, with the right direction from their parents, increase their negotiation skills, always have someone with whom to share and create deep, long lasting relationships with each other.
But do siblings always live in a rosy, caring, sharing world? “There’s sibling rivalry in our household, just like any other” says Savolainen, “but when there’s a problem I don’t get involved unless I have to.” She says that asking the children to go upstairs to try to work it out for themselves has taught them to communicate better and to solve their own dilemmas. Although only children may not have as many opportunities to resolve conflict as their peers who have siblings, there are many situations in which an only child can learn to share and resolve conflict such as at school, with neighbourhood children and possibly cousins. da Camara specifically sought out a pre school environment that is very people friendly. The whole family is pulled into lots of functions and the child is very involved, not just during school hours, but on a social level too.
In speaking of the pros and cons of having an only child, da Camara says that she believes that only children, given the right tools, can develop an increased level of imaginative play. “Growing up, my family always commented on my imagination. I had the most amazing stories I would weave around my dolls and would share them with anyone who would care to listen. Teachers always comment on Bryce’s imagination too,” she says. One of the greater cons of being an only child, da Camara believes, is for the child in later life when his parents grow older. “There’s no one to share the responsibility of elderly parents with, ” she says, thinking of Bryce and then of herself “and what happens to us if Bryce wants to become an explorer and flies off to Mars. Even if all siblings are not equally as involved, there’s always the illusion of them helping if absolutely needed. When there are no siblings, there’s only stark reality.” Despite this negative aspect of being an only child, da Camara and her husband, like many others, have opted to have one child. Some don’t even have an option.
The bottom line is that only children don’t have to be lonely children. Although there is an increased risk of isolation and self centredness, there are plenty of opportunities for only children to share, care and to be team players ”
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