And One Makes A Family

5th July 2013

Judging by the reaction to a recent Office for National Statistics report on family size, which revealed that the most common number of children for a family to now have is one, having or being an only child appears to be one of the worst things that can happen to you. And – shock! horror! – it represents a growing trend: between 1996 and 2012 the amount of families with just one dependent child increased by five percentage points.

Claire Moulds shares her experience of being only child…

Little emperors… spoilt, selfish, and lonely: the watchwords of the outcry that followed the ONS report. It would appear that the general understanding is that Absolutely No Good can ever come from being an only child, however much evidence to the contrary is presented.

The very worst offenders are almost always those that grew up with siblings, and who feel entitled to demonise the single child family as the antithesis of everything they know. As an only child, I would never comment on the pros and cons of larger families, or their dynamics, as it’s outside my life experience. Sadly, that same courtesy is never extended to me.

Society as a whole seems to accept and perpetuate the myths surrounding only children unquestioningly. Every negative personality trait or misdemeanour is held up as manifest proof or, at the very least, an ensuing factor, of the individual in question being an only child. In contrast, you’ll never hear anyone say ‘it’s because you have siblings’ to someone else when commenting on their behaviour.
The fanatical devotion to the ‘perfect family blueprint’ of two parents and two children is so strong that friends have spoken about the insidious pressure to have a second baby starting before they’ve even left the delivery room with the first. A quick trawl through parenting forums such as Mumsnet reveals women wracked with guilt over not wanting, or not being able to have, another child and their distress at the detrimental impact that fellow mums, family, friends and even complete strangers have told them that this will have on their firstborn.

So, just where does this stereotype of only children come from and on what is it based?

In 1896 American academic G Stanley Hall, frequently regarded as the founder of child psychology, supervised ‘A Study of Peculiar and Exceptional Children’ and concluded that ‘being an only child is a disease in itself’. The study had many flaws, but the sentiment quickly became ingrained in the nation’s consciousness. Despite a mass of subsequent research demonstrating that only children are no different to their peers, the stigma was already widespread and entrenched.

The fact of the matter is that whether you turn out to be a happy, healthy, well-adjusted individual who contributes to society and has meaningful relationships with others is not determined by the number of siblings you have. Nor does having a brother or sister (or both, or multiples of either) dictate whether your childhood is enjoyable not.

In his speech on our wedding day my husband referred to me and my parents as a ‘tight knit family unit’ – and we are. I grew up feeling both loved and secure and certainly not any way ‘damaged’ by not having a sibling.

Was I spoilt? No. In fact, I find this accusation particularly laughable as I watch my peers inundate their children – regardless of family size – with every conceivable toy and game all year round. When I was growing up you got presents on your birthday and at Christmas and, very occasionally, during the year as an exceptionally special treat, but I got no more than my friends who had siblings and certainly nothing on the level of what children get now.

I will always remember one Christmas asking Santa for a computer and it not being under the tree when I woke up. My parents had indeed bought me one but weren’t planning on giving it to me until later in the day, and my mother says she will always treasure the fact that until the computer was produced, I was happy with the few small presents that were out and would have been perfectly content with just them.

There were certainly times when I was growing up when things were very tight financially and from a young age I was always taught to appreciate the value of money and of the things I was given and the importance of taking care of my possessions, something that stays with me to this day.

Did I grow up with ‘helicopter’ parents, unable to leave me alone for fear of what would happen to their only child? Did they feel singularly responsible for my development and the need to constantly interact with me? No. And, again, I’m thankful for that. Having watched my youngest niece, who supposedly benefits from two older sisters but is unable to occupy herself for even a minute without someone engaging with her, makes me thankful that, having often been left to entertain myself for periods when I was younger, I have a vivid imagination and the ability to enjoy my own company.
Was I lonely? No. I can’t, therefore, understand parents who say that they are going to have a second child primarily because their first one needs a playmate. Unless said family lives in the middle of nowhere with no community around them, their sons and daughters will grow up, as I did, playing with neighbourhood children, schoolfriends and pals made through shared activities and hobbies. A sibling is not the only playmate posible. Moreover, judging by the experience of friends who do have brothers and sisters, most siblings go through huge periods of not getting on when they’re growing up, so – from an outsider’s point of view – you’re not so much giving a child a playmate as a sparring partner. People often argue that holidays in particular are a time when an only child is at a disadvantage but I never personally found this, as I would just make friends with the other children in the resort: swimming, playing table tennis and card games were always a quick and easy way to overcome any language barrier there might be.

And are my academic and professional achievements a consequence, as many people will argue, of being the sole repository of my parents’ aspirations and hopes and the resulting pressure to do well? Personally I’d like to think that my pride in my work and desire to succeed come from within me, rather than solely of a desire to please my parents, and that I would have been equally as successful had I been one of several children.

I will however always be grateful for the opportunities and experiences that I might not have enjoyed if I’d had siblings. I was, for example, the first in my family to go to University – cost prevented my father from doing so – but it was a huge financial strain on my parents and they wouldn’t have been able to support two children in higher education. Taking more than one child to the theatre, opera, art gallery or museum might have seemed like an impossible task; having just me to worry about meant that it was viable and I have a real passion for art as a result. Being an only child also meant I was in the company of adults far more than I might otherwise have been growing up and that not only helped me in terms of language development but also in terms of being able to formulate a viewpoint and articulate it, both of which have stood me in good stead as a writer.

One point I can accept as being a downside to being an only child is having responsibility for caring for sick and aged parents in the future and, on their passing, not having someone to share the memories of growing up with. But, if I weigh that up against the happiness and pleasure that unit of three has brought me over the years, I wouldn’t change it for the world.

So, while some may fear for the psyche of the only child, and bemoan the rise of the one child family, blaming everything from the economic crisis to more women choosing to have children later in life, the truth is that for many couples, one is – and always was – the perfect number. For me and mine, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

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