Tips for Parenting the Only Child

By: Erin Brown Conroy, M.A. & Kerrie Berends, M.A.

"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:

What to Do?

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:

What to Do?

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:

What to Do?

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:

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

Article Comments: Leave Comment

Other Articles In: Character Development