Notes on The Only Child

When I was a boy growing up alone, I talked to myself. Out loud. If you were in the next room, you would have heard me having conversations with myself. I talked to myself about anything that was on my mind. The subject didn’t matter.

I would talk about John Brodie, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback. Gene Washington, the 49ers wide receiver. Bart Starr, the Green Bay Packers quarterback. Nate Thurmond, the San Francisco Warriors center. Whether or not I would be killed by a napalm production plant in my fair town. Anything.

I guess that I just needed to hear the sound of a voice to pierce the silence that embraced me.

Until I was 13 years old.

Walking to school, the thought crossed my mind that the pretty older girl who lived in my neighborhood and who walked to another school, might cross my path, hear me talking to myself, and think me an oddball.

Overnight, I stopped talking to myself.

Several years ago, the mother of a young son asked me about the experiences of being an only child. She was considering whether or not to have another child; she was concerned that being an “only” would present challenges to her son that could be alleviated by having a sibling.

My memories of being an only child – and a latchkey child growing up on a street without other children – do not seem strange. They are just my memories:

  • Shooting baskets in the driveway;
  • Hitting tennis balls against the garage door;
  • Reading. A lot of reading;
  • Walking to school;
  • Riding my bike;
  • Listening to music in my room; and
  • Super-awkward interactions with girls.

To me at the time, it all seemed normal. Even the lack of second dates with girls.

It should come as no surprise that both of my wives identified personality issues having their roots in me being an only child. My current wife often wonders out loud about how different things would have been for me throughout my life had I grown up with an older sister or at least a brother.

And so, to this mother who chose not to have another child, here are some notes on how to raise your only child to be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy:

  • Your Child is Selfish. What this means is that your child’s world revolves around him or her. Her first instinct is to consider how anything – anything – will affect her before it affects others. He is self-sufficient, self-contained, and does not necessarily think about himself as part of a group.
    • Considerations: Makes sure your son or daughter has playmates, whether they be cousins, children in the neighborhood, or classmates. While your child might want to have “me time” alone, be intentional as a parent to ensure they have plenty of time to exist in groups of other children.
  • Your Child Does Not Have a Co-Conspirator. You cannot be your child’s friend. Sometimes you have to drop the hammer as a disciplinarian. Other times, you need to be critical of your child’s actions or words. Sometimes you have to make decisions to create order with which your child will disagree. Your child is defenseless against you. Your child needs someone who can deflect the full brunt of your attention. Your child has no one who is in on the joke about mom’s fussiness or dad’s cooking. Your child has no one to listen to her complaints about…you.
    • Considerations: Make sure your son or daughter has someone who can be the pressure valve in the steam cooker of your family. Perhaps a cousin, an aunt or uncle both you and your child trust, or some third-party not beholden to you can share dinner at least once a week.
  • Your Child is the Only Focus of Your Attention (and Expectations). Sure, there are upsides to this: you can afford to give your child more of everything. Their own room! More gifts on birthdays! Bigger inheritance! But…your child will also feel a weight. Sometimes your child will want to be left alone (“why can’t they pick on my sister?”). And you…you put all of your hopes, dreams, and expectations into one crucible – your child. That can be too much for your child to bear. Your child may end up following my path – leaving home at age 18 to move across the country to get away from it all.
    • Considerations: Your child is not your mini-me, so don’t treat her as if she is going to grow up to be exactly like you. Encourage him to think for himself and provide him with options that you might not choose for yourself.
  • Your Child Has No Idea How to Treat Boys or Girls Like Human Beings. Having a sibling of the opposites sex has built-in advantages. As they grow up, your son and daughter will naturally come to understand some fundamental differences between men and women. Speaking from experience, your only child may come to objectify members of the opposite sex who, at crucial points in your child’s development, become the focus of the biological imperative to reproduce.
    • Considerations: No single-gender schools. Give your child the opportunity to collaborate, play, cheer, and compete with members of the opposite sex.
  • Your Child Lives Between the Ears. Left to their own devices, your only child will have to find diversions involving no other people. Screen time alone. Banging tennis balls against the wall. Listening to music in his room. Reading. Daydreaming. Developing certain hobbies that you will not understand because there are no siblings to pull her back from the edge.
    • Considerations: You might have to let this one go, unless you can competently participate or provide judgement-free partnership.

Please let me know if you have questions.

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