Every child grows up with the trappings of his birth order, the stereotypes
frequently used to define him. The oldest child is the go-getter. The middle child is the negotiator. The youngest is the
joker who gets attention by making others laugh.
And the only child -- common wisdom says he can be selfish because he has
no siblings to compete with: He gets all of Mom and Dad's attention.
Stereotypes can be cruel and untrue. But they often contain a grain of
truth. Parents do want to be aware of the pitfalls when they are raising an only child, experts say.
The biggest concern is a self-centeredness created through ''overindulgence,''
says Carolyn White, who runs a Web site for the families of singletons, www.onlychild.com.
Parents can easily devote too many material things and too much attention
to their one child, she says. Larger families ''have so much more going on in their lives, for better or for worse. They do
not have the only child who is the main focus of attention.'' Such intense attention can also be stifling for a child, she
Socialization and siblings
It is harder to teach kids about sharing ''if there is not a built-in mechanism
for teaching it, if there are no siblings at home who demand to share the toy,'' says Jane Annunziata, co-author of Why
Am I an Only Child? ''The peer issue is a big one: Parents must be extra mindful to give these kids from babyhood opportunities
to interact with peers.''
Susan Newman, mother of a singleton and author of Parenting an Only
Child, says savvy parents are careful now to socialize their onlies early, taking them to play dates with peers and bringing
in other adults with children. ''Parents realize it is important to build in a support system,'' she says. ''They bring in
friends who act as family members.''
Singletons tend to be more mature, more intelligent at an early age, and
more ''socially and verbally precocious'' because they spend so much time with adults, says child psychologist Carl Pickhardt,
author of Keys to Parenting the Only Child. But being singletons also can cause children to ''think of themselves in
terms of being equal to their parents'' or other authority figures.
For the same reason, they can expect too much of themselves, Pickhardt
says. ''They believe they should do things as well as their parents.''
Other problems focus on separation. ''Only children tend to be closely
bonded to their parents,'' in part because they spend so much time together, he says.
''How does the child literally separate himself, see himself as different
from his parents,'' at different ages, especially ''separating at adolescence and then again at early adulthood?'' Pickhardt
says. ''Then they feel they are leaving their parents bereft.''
Separating from singles
While some experts emphasize that onlies have trouble separating from their
folks, it is more often the other way around, says Alexis White, 20, a singleton and a junior at the University of California
at Los Angeles. She responds to some of the traffic on her parents' Web site.
''It can be almost impossible for the only child to get out of that triangle,''
she says. ''Parents have a terrible time letting go. They don't want them to go away for college. They want them to commute.''
To avoid such over-involvement, Annunziata says, the parents must actively
preserve their couplehood. ''The family often runs like a pack: mother, father and child,'' she says. ''Parents want to make
sure to preserve Mom and Dad as a unit.''
Parents of onlies often suffer guilt trips for not giving their child a
sibling. Stop it, Alexis White says. ''If parents are so guilt-ridden, that will be manifested in the child's mind and affect
his or her happiness.''
It is normal for an only child to want a brother or sister sometimes, experts
say. Annunziata wrote her book with Marc Nemiroff to answer a common question from young children: ''Don't you like me enough
to want to have another child?'' The book's answer is ''Every family has its own right size.''
Nemiroff is the parent of an only child. He headed off such questions by
dealing with his son's onliness right from the beginning. ''He would tell us about so-and-so who has a baby brother, and we
would ask him what it was like not to have one. We asked him if he had any questions about it. That normalized it very much
The other end of life poses dramatic problems for the threesome, says Charles
White, who runs www.onlychild.com with his wife. There is only one child to deal with aging parents. ''Elder care is just
a very important issue.''
He plans to beef up resources on his Web site but cautions parents to plan
Even with their specialized problems, most onlies are just as happy and
well adjusted as kids from larger families, experts say.
Susan Newman's son, Andrew Levinson, 17, echoes the feelings of many:
''Having an only child is more of an answer for families today. You don't
have to have two or three children to be complete.''
Some help deciding
Still, parents might like to go ahead and have more than one child. Among
the questions Susan Newman suggests in her book that parents ask themselves when weighing the decision:
* How will a second child affect my marriage?
* How will our family life change?
* Am I prepared to give up my love affair with my firstborn?
Can I avoid being partial if I have more than one?
* What are the cost implications of another child?
* Will I need to move to gain more space for a second child?
* Can I juggle the logistics of increased child care?
* Am I getting too old to have a second child? Are there medical
* How will another child affect my personal freedom?
* Am I having a second child for the right reasons, or for
reasons such as saving my marriage or answering my child's request for a baby brother?