How Much Does a Family Affect a Child's Personality?Brian Gresko
The other day I wrote about Lauren Sandler’s piece in The New York Times over the weekend, the one where she discusses how some of the stereotypes about only children just aren’t true. One of those myths is that only children are spoiled by their parents, or that they have somewhat inappropriate relationships with them, relationships in which they are more friend, or equal, than child.
On this topic, Sandler writes:
My research suggests that only children experience more intensely emotional family lives. The parental gaze is more focused; the love more concentrated. This intensity can be enriching, and also suffocating. Many adult only children told me that they wanted their first child to have a sibling precisely because this kind of intensity was too much for them.
This passage resonated strongly with me, but not because I think my son is suffocating from too much love and attention — quite the opposite! I feel like I’m smothered by his near-constant demand to play with him, look at what he’s doing, or even sit close to him. If he had his way, he would eat the majority of his meals in my wife’s lap, or watch television cuddled up with one of us. Even with other adults, he demands attention. And we’re not talking about a toddler here — the kid’s four years old.
Recently, for example, I helped a friend carry an air conditioner up from the basement of his apartment building. While we went down to retrieve it, he left his four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son in his apartment. We were only gone for about five minutes, and when we returned we found them sitting in the living room, playing quietly together.
In contrast, a few days ago I ran next door to borrow three eggs from my neighbor. The trip took less than a minute, but despite clearly telling Felix not to come but to watch me from the window, he followed me out — shoeless into pouring rain — for no reason I could determine other than that he didn’t want to be left alone in the house. As I’ve written again and again, this is a kid who even needs me to sleep with him, otherwise he rises terrified in the night and runs into our room screaming, waking us all up, and requiring a great deal of comforting to lull back to sleep.
Is Felix’s intense clinginess a result of him being an only child? That’s what I thought at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered. Even as a newborn, he wailed when he wasn’t being held and had difficulty sleeping. He has always demanded a lot of attention. Having known him from the start of his life, I believe that’s his personality.
Now, it could be that because he is an only child, my wife and I have been more able to meet these needs, which one hopes will be good in the long run for him, though it might be challenging for us now. In his case I wonder if having another child around the house would be detrimental, as he’d be frustrated at not having our attention, and this is a child who sometimes lashes out violently when frustrated.
Or who knows, maybe a baby brother or sister would help Felix develop independence faster. These are the questions all parents face — how are my decisions affecting my child? What if I had a different job, or lived somewhere else, or only ate vegetarian, or wasn’t allergic and so had a cat? It can drive you nuts, thinking about all the different ways you can live your life, and wondering which way would be best for your child. Ultimately, you can only give them what you give them. As Milan Kundera said, we don’t get drafts in life. We only do it once.
Whatever the case, Felix’s dependence on my wife and I is changing as I write this. He’s socializing more with other kids, and excited to have play dates and go to parties where he scampers out from under our feet and interacts in wonderful ways with his peers. Whether or not a sibling would’ve made this happen quicker or not are moot in the face of his development. It’s happening, things are changing, and that’s that.