Tips for Parenting the Only Child
"You're so lucky – you don't have to deal with sibling rivalry!" Parents with one child are used to hearing comments like this one. Wistfully (or in exasperation), the comment is tossed out with an underlying current of, "Oh, you have it so much easier than I do, because you only have one!" Parents of "one" know this to be true: Raising an only child has its own set of dynamics that are uniquely challenging.
Dynamics – They're those things that make your experience just a little bit different than another's. Dynamics include the fact that you have boys or girls, children with compliant or strong-willed temperaments, or one child versus ten. There's no "one-size-fits-all" set of dynamics that ALL families face, because each family is unique. Yes, all parents face issues with behavior, discipline, and teaching values to our children; but the dynamics within our families cause us to "tweak" our parenting approach just a bit, depending on our family's unique make-up.
Parents with one child face common dynamics. Being aware of these dynamics helps us to approach parenting prepared, able to "head off" the negatives that might lead to full-blown issues in parenting our only child. Let's look at three dynamics common to parenting one child.
Dynamic #1: "Play with Me!"
Face it – we're our child's primary playmates. How many times do we hear, "Play with me!" every day, every hour?! We love playing with our child; but how to I keep my child occupied without having to interact with him or her all the time? As a parent, I do want to interact with my child – I am going to get down on the floor and play with the Hot Wheels cars….But how many times a day can I follow my 5-year-old's directions of, "You're the blue airplane and I'm the red airplane"? We can get tired of being a 5-year-old again; we don't always want to play pretend, kick a ball, and watch Blues Clues.
Here are some negatives that might develop because we're our child's primary playmate:
- Buying. If I'm tired of interacting, tired of hearing that he or she "has nothing to do," I may go out and buy him a swing set, a Nintendo game, or some other expensive toy to keep him busy. Buying might become a habit, a way of pacifying my child's needs with things. And when we get into the habit of supplying our child with fancy things, he or she begins to expect those things to satisfy his or her needs.
- Preference for adult play over play with other children. "I just want to be with you and daddy. I'd rather play with you." Because my child plays with me, she's not used to adjusting her play with others. Adults don't usually say, "No I don't want to play Barbies…let's play dress up instead." We get into the habit of always playing what our child wants to play. So she has a harder time adjusting when she's with other children and they don't want to play the way she does. She struggles with being able to adjust and compromise….You don't have to compromise a whole lot when you're an only child. My child might withdraw and become "shy" around others in play, or just the opposite – she may lash out in frustration because the other child's not playing the way she wants them to.
What to Do?
- Have specific times of play and specific "alone times" for your child. Create specific activities for specific times where your child will learn to creatively use his mind and body. For example, with a toddler, create a box of objects such as measuring spoons, spools, swatches of cloth, and odd-shaped items with various textures, and save the box for only the "alone play" time. Place your child in a safe, quiet area near you, and turn the box on its side, spilling out the contents in a cornucopia of curiosity. Let your child's mind and hands become intrigued for those moments without your interaction. For a preschooler to young elementary-aged child, fill a plastic tub with rice, measuring cups, funnels, and containers to sift and pour with. Put the child in a safe place, within eye and earshot, and tell them that this is their alone time to play. Set the timer, so there's an end to the activity. If your child turns back to you for interaction, acknowledge them and gently redirect their attention to the box or tub; then move back again to give your child "space" in their play. Teaching your child to have productive alone time like this will allow your child do develop healthy self-direction.
- Set up play dates with children who are similar and who play in the same way, as well as those who play differently. Create play situations on a regular basis; you'll probably need to meet more than once a week. We need to be purposeful about creating times of interaction. Stay nearby at first, to redirect your child who is actually learning how to interact with others. Sharing will be a whole new skill, and we need to keep in mind that only involvement in situations that bring out a need for sharing will create the ability to share. Gently showing "how" to share through modeling and "let's try it this way," or "maybe if we do this, then we can…" will help your child to think through and learn how to interact in a healthy way with others who think and act differently than themselves.
Dynamic #2: "Pay Attention to Me – Now!"
With only a few people in the house, it's easy to slip into accommodating. Sometimes we don't really need a schedule. We respond to our child's wants as they come along. The child says, "I'm hungry," so we eat dinner at 4 instead of 5:30. The child says, "I want to watch a video now," so we put a video in. We give in to a lot of our child's desires and whims. Our days become child-centered. We can be flexible, so why not be flexible? If we're not careful, child-centered accommodation can turn our child to the habit of self-centered demands.
Here are some negatives that might develop because we're accommodating to our child:
- Inability to be flexible. Wait a minute – Didn't we just say that we were being flexible? Actually, when we let our child decide what to do whenever they want to do it, we're teaching her that she's in charge; she gets to choose what goes on when. Our child becomes used to "being the boss," and when she doesn't get her way, she throws a tantrum, either physically or in attitude. When a parent's on the phone, most children don't want to wait. The child who has been accommodated to will scream or in some other way disrupt the call, because she wants you to accommodate to her desires right then and there. "My way is the only way" becomes our child's motto. And if it's not my way, then I just won't do it. Flexibility actually turns into inflexibility.
- Inability to follow a schedule. If we're often accommodating to our child's schedule, then our child expects the world to revolve around her sense of time, activity, and preferences. Why keep a schedule? Things can be easygoing with one child. If my child wants a PBJ at 10:45 AM, I give it to her. Then at lunch time, she's not hungry, so I change lunch time to 1:30. Changing a schedule like this to accommodate my child's desires is alright once in a while, but if accommodating becomes a lifestyle, then I've taught my child that he or she holds a power to choose and direct schedules way beyond what a child should hold in a healthy parent-child relationship. What happens when I'm with my child at another person's home? My child will believe that he doesn't have to wait until noon to eat lunch with everyone else – he wants it NOW! My child's expectations of others outside the home become off-kilter.
What to Do?
- Create and maintain structure. Daily routines are wonderful tools for life. Schedules help us to learn discipline in completing tasks. Routine helps us to learn to follow directions. Structure helps us to wait for some things and work for others. Have your child get up – and go to bed – at the same time each day. Maintain times for eating, reading, playing, and going to the store or to a friend's home. Having an orderly way of going about your day will teach your child organizational skills, planning, and patience.
- Give your child responsibility. Don't do too many things for your child. It's easier to just pick up the toys, lay out her clothes, or put the toothpaste on the toothbrush by yourself. When your son's demanding that you help him pour his breakfast cereal, and you know that he can do it himself, gently tell him that it's his job to take care of his breakfast and give him the bowl, spoon, and cereal. If he's hungry, he'll eventually pour it on his own. As your child grows, give household chores that increase with his age, and plan times each day to accomplish those chores.
- Even though you can afford purchasing something for your child, hold off. Have your child earn it. Help him earn items and privileges, and follow his progress on a chart or through filling a jar with tokens or pennies. Don't accommodate to his desires, but help him to earn his desires.
- Keep a healthy order to the relationships in your family – God, spouse, and then your child. Let your child know that there's an order to relationships, that she's important, but that others can come first and that's OK. Whether with a spouse or as a single parent, we need to seek to be spiritually balanced, maintaining and growing a relationship with God first. Only then we can be internally healthy. Internally healthy single parents can then interact in a healthy way with our children. If married, maintaining internal health as individuals allows us to maintain a healthy relationship with our spouse. Healthy spouses bring balance and internal health to our children. Accommodating to our child by ignoring the healthy order of family relationships creates children who think the world revolves around them. Spouses, let your child know that dates together are important; by loving each other and spending time together, we can better love our child. Single parents, let your child know that your alone time to grow in spiritual health is important; it allows you to maintain healthy attitudes and perspectives in parenting. Healthy relational order lets us give our best to our child.
Dynamic #3: "Why Don't I Have a Brother or Sister?"
The only child soon realizes that other families have brothers and sisters. Sometimes we've chosen to have only one child; other times, because of health issues, we've been unable to have another child. If your case is the latter, then your child's comments can feel a knife piercing your heart. If you haven't chosen to have one child, your son or daughter's questions or musings about a sibling can stir up painful memories or thoughts. Siblings can fulfill many roles in a family.
Here are some negatives that might develop because our child doesn't have the opportunity to interact with siblings:
- Questions and comments regarding your "only child" status. If you've chosen to have one, you may deal with insensitive comments from others. Comments such as, "Don't you feel selfish?" or "Aren't you worried about your child being lonely?" come from friends and strangers alike. If you've been unable to have a child, fielding comments spoken without thought may feel even worse. Other children may ask your son, "Why don't you have a brother or sister?" You may have an exchange such as, "Which children are yours?" "That's my son." "Oh. You have just one? Don't you want any more?" How do you explain, "My doctor says I'm unable to have more"? You'll field questions and comments that range from not thoughtful to downright offensive.
- Difficult time sharing. Siblings have to learn how to share. Every day, siblings step over lines and cross into another child's territory. Our only child doesn't have the daily opportunities for boundaries to be crossed and toes to be stepped on.
- The parent indulges the only child. Struggling with guilt feelings, the parent tries to make up for the child's "suffering." Because the parent believes that it's his or her "fault" that the child has no siblings, he or she showers the child with indulgences to fill the painful emotional void that hasn't been completely dealt with.
- The only child struggles to interact with children of various ages. Siblings who are older and younger grow a child's awareness of varying abilities as related to age; my older brother can help me make my bed, and my baby sister needs help eating with a spoon. I am "below" my older brother and "above" my baby sister in what I can do. We all work together as a team, filling in the gaps with each other, based on our abilities. The only child can lack an awareness of such dynamics in relationships. When a younger child comes up to your only child and takes a toy away, your son may not understand "He's just a baby." He's never experienced how a baby acts. He doesn't know to act gently or carefully around a baby. A baby can lean on your only child and take a toy away, and he won't understand that that's just what babies do sometimes.
- The only child is afraid of or feels uncomfortable with groups of children. An only child who's used to being alone can become unsettled or nervous in a group of children; the change feels uncomfortable from what he or she is used to.
What to Do?
- For insensitive comments from others, have your response ready. Keep in mind the fact that most questions arise because others are curious. Field the comments with grace. Think through and prepare a few answers ahead of time that you can pick and choose according to the circumstance. Have your "pat response" or your "coined phrase" ready. Respond with dignity and grace; it's a good reflection on you.
- Set up interaction time with children of various ages. Spending time with younger and older children together creates a new dynamic of relationship for our child. Purposefully set up opportunities for your child to learn to adjust and compromise with children of differing ages. Set up situations where you can teach your child how to relate to an infant or toddler, helping your child to understand what infants and toddlers are like. Get together with families for picnics and putt-putt golf. Create play groups with various ages. Attend workshops at the local museum, classes at art schools, and family activities at church. Invite a friend and his or her children to your home for morning coffee or after-dinner dessert.
- Set up situations where your child needs to share. Again, sharing is learned. From an early age, have some toys and items that are considered "sharing" items. Keep the "sharing" box in a closet, and when friends come to visit, take out the box and "practice sharing" together. Make it a purposeful activity that your child's aware of and anticipating.
- Baby-sit for a friend with older or younger children. Swap sitting times, with your friend's child coming to your house and your child spending time there. If you alternate child care on a regular basis, your child can develop a love-hate relationship similar to that of having a sibling – which can be good! Developing close, on-going relationships can allow for great memories that last a lifetime.
- Resist the temptation to indulge your child. Even if you can afford to shower your child with physical comforts (since you don't have to share your resources among children), don't. Want isn't a bad thing. Discern your child's needs versus his wants. Give him what he needs; help him to earn what he wants.
Connecting with Other Parents
Parenting one is unique. It's helpful to talk with others parenting one child, sharing the similar joys and challenges of our unique situations. Have a phone buddy, build relationship with a special family that you can get together with often, or connect in a network of parents. Communities build empathy and understanding, as well as fostering ideas and sparking new thoughts. Build support into your parenting.
Positive Aspects of Parenting One Child
Though we've been centering on challenges, remember to keep in mind the positives that come with parenting one child! Here are just a few:
- Increased interaction time with our child. More time with our child one-on-one can create a wonderfully close relationship between us. Enjoy that closeness.
- Flexibility. When our child reaches milestones of independence, our schedule's flexibility frees us with more time to pursue personal and professional endeavors while still giving our son or daughter what he or she needs.
- Lower stress. The lower stress level of keeping track of just one when we're in public allows us to relax more. It's easier to navigate certain public places and play venues. Take advantage of the lower stress level to enjoy making a memory together or to help another family who may be struggling in public with more than one child.
Our family is a God-given unit designed for love and growing. No matter what our family's size, we can be aware of our particular family's dynamics and help our children to be healthy in mind, body, and spirit. Parenting the only child isn't easier or harder – it's just different. Be aware of the differences and purposefully craft your family's experiences. In doing so, you'll avert some difficult issues and experience more healthy dynamics together.
Erin Brown Conroy, M.A., author of Twenty Secrets to Success with Your Child resides in Michigan with her husband and 12 children. Kerrie Berends, M.A., child specialist in adaptive physical education, is completing her Ph.D. in the Dallas, Texas area, where she resides with her husband and son. Visit Erin at www.parentingwithsuccess.com.