The (Only) Kids Are All Right (I Knew That)

Once, he was an only child...

Only children: selfish, self-centered, babied, spoiled. Doted upon and adored, attention-hogs, blessed and cursed with a deep conviction that they are, and must always be, the center of the universe.

Or so goes the old standard wisdom on the subject, and, apparently, the secret inner fears of at least a few parents of “onlies.” The WSJ is weighing in on the topic with a whole article on how parents are creating artificial sibling experiences in order to avoid some sort of only-child syndrome, in which the treasured and doted upon only is forced to endure such horrific measures as having to “take turns riding a coveted scooter” at a weekly gathering with other one-kid families.

As an only child, I’m convinced that such an experience would have changed my entire outlook on life. Really.

Because I would have loved that. My parents setting aside every Friday night to take me to hang out with four or five friends? I’d have traded in more than the occasional scooter ride for that one. But I’m afraid it wouldn’t have made much of a dent in my belief that the world revolved around me. I suspect that the Friday nights they spent drinking Chablis and eating fondue at adult-only parties (it was the 70’s) while dumping me off on the bored babysitter did slightly more in the way of convincing me that I didn’t rule the roost than any weekly squabbles with kids who were bound to disappear at bedtime. If you really want to convince a kid that it’s not all about them, centering your weekend plans around their needs might not be the best place to start. But really, as with most of these things, it turns out not to matter:

“In a meta-analysis covering 115 studies of only children conducted from the 1920s to the 1980s, Toni Falbo, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and her co-author, found that only children were generally as well-adjusted, intelligent, accomplished and sociable as those with siblings.”

Of course, that might be because their parents, like the ones in the Journal article, went to great lengths to simulate siblings, or avoid letting the kids be showered with gifts from doting grandparents. Or it might be because being raised as an only child, like any childhood, has plusses and minuses. Plenty of adult attention? Check. Other kids to play with on vacation? No. Every gift under the tree on Christmas morning may be for you, but by noon, you’re sitting on one side of the new Monopoly board moving the pieces around by yourself.

There’s nothing wrong with, as a parent, trying to arrange your child’s life to reduce any disadvantages you might see in her childhood situation—spending more time with a middle child, as I try to do, or adding more cousins and close friends into the life of an only. But the most important takeaway from any piece about birth order, or any of the circumstances that influence our lives, has to be this: “Relax, the kids are going to turn out just fine.”

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