The Only Child
Review and Reflection on The Only Child – How to Survive Being One by Jill Pitkeathley & David Emerson
Historically only children were a relatively rare phenomenon, but recently statistics show they are increasing, eg most notably in China which has operated a one-child policy since the late 1970′s but in the United States, Europe, Britain and Japan the number of one child families has also increased considerably since the 1940s.
Pitkeathley and Emerson’s book, first published in 1993, is based on an extensive series of interviews with only children and those close to them.
The overwhelming conclusion is that being an only child is not the ideal from of upbringing, and The Only Child illustrates a number of reasons why this is so. That said, it is certainly not a sentence of doom and, particularly by understanding the issues around being an only one, there is no reason why onlies shouldn’t lead happy, successful and fulfilled lives.
Personality is formed (largely) by an amalgam of innate characteristics and the experiences of early life (ie upbringing). While it would be a gross oversimplification to suggest that all only children share similar influences and personalities, this book does identify a number of core issues to which a significant number of only children can identify.
In particular The Only Child identifies 5 key traits:
- Being everything – only children are the sole focus of undiluted parental attention (and also of course the sole recipient of available child-allocated resources). Parents that have one child haven’t “hedged their bets”, this child carries 100% of their hopes – quite a burden for the innocent child.
- Rough & tumble – although the inevitable give and take and minor arguments that occur between siblings may appear irritating at the time in fact they provide enormously valuable life skills and in absence leave onlies very socially naive, eg unable to distinguish humor from serious comment.
- Self-image – onlies lack the advantage of comparing themselves with natural peers (siblings) and tend to develop an unrealistic self-image, or none at all. This can lead to a rude awakening when they are finally exposed to the external world.
- Social maturity (emotional immaturity) – onlies can be something of a paradox, because they frequently inhabit an adult-oriented world they can often appear to be very mature for their age and confident in dealing with people. But this apparent maturity is often developed at the expense of relationships with peers. This is particularly noticeable by partners attracted by an only’s confident persona only to find a marked emotional immaturity behind closed doors.
- Always alone – perhaps the most common and significant only’s trait. Having a sibling means there is another soul in this world that shares the experience of your background. For an only this is inevitably lacking. On the positive side this can create greater independence, but it can also lead to being the eternal outsider. On a more practical note it means the considerable responsibility of decisions over aging parents fall entirely upon the only’s shoulders.
Two other common traits remarked on throughout are, unsurprisingly, the only’s need for private space and time, and their inability to instinctively share.
The Only Child concludes with a section giving some useful advice for partners, and parents of onlies. The overwhelming advice of the interviewees to intending only parents is Don’t! As an only child I have to say I’m glad this book wasn’t around in the era prior to my birth because despite the challenges life has thrown up I continue to enjoy the experience!
Reading The Only Child won’t miraculously eradicate the issues relating to being an only child. But it will demonstrate that, although onlies are inevitably one-offs, there are other onlies who have more in common with and share a greater understanding of their situation than they may previously have realized. And it will help onlies to better understand themselves, and specifically the effects that their particular upbringing has on their personality, and in so doing help then to live a more satisfying life.
Being an only child isn’t a sin, or even a choice. While onlies lack the ready-made network of those with siblings, and may lack certain social skills, it isn’t their fault. There is certainly no burden or guilt to carry for the status into which they were born.
- Only Child Experience and Research was set up by Bernice Sorensen in 2000 to share her research into the “Only Child Experience”.
- Only Child devoted to the world of only children of all ages.
- BeingAnOnly resources for only children of all ages. International conference, workshops, therapy, message board, information and links for adult onlies and parents of onlies.
- Only Child Adult free online community for adult only children.