The Only Child

The Only Child

Picture of Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

Are you demanding too much of your only child?

Four-year-old Julie is walking down the street hand-in-hand with her mom and dad. “One, two, three everyone counts,” when they arrive at a curb—and her parents swing her onto the sidewalk. “Did you see how high I jumped?” Julie asks excitedly. “Oh, Julie! That was wonderful,” her parents respond in unison.

As we can see, being the only child has a major benefit. Julie has her parents’ undivided attention. She never has to compete with brothers and sisters for their love—she is number one for life. Julie’s parents cherish her and are always ready to listen to her, praise her, and shower her with affection.

Parents of an only child have all the time in the world to teach him skills: how to tie his shoe and write his name, so he may be very advanced for his age. Since he constantly communicates with adults, his language skills can be off the charts.

The result of all her parents’ love and attention is that the child can grow up feeling self-confident, and become a high achiever. Only children have become our president and many run corporations.

Along with the positives, however, there are many challenges that an only child faces. Only children can feel very lonely. When the family goes to the beach, the child may spend hours digging alone. Only children often find it harder to socialize with other children, because they may have had very little opportunity to learn social skills, such as sharing and taking turns. Only children can also be very self-centered and expect other kids to be as doting as their parents. They may assume other children will yield to their choice of a game, and even to let them win, when they are upset.

There are other challenges an only child faces. Because the parents are not going to have any more kids, the parents may place high expectations upon her. She is the one who will reflect their parenting abilities. If she returns home with a 98 on a test, her parents might respond, “What happened to the other two points?” Since parents have all the time and attention to focus on the one child, they might also scrutinize her every act, and expect perfection of her. When she’s sitting at the table they may constantly comment, “You’re squirming too much,” or “You’re not sitting tall enough.” As a result of all this pressure, the child can grow up to be a perfectionist, and feel that she will be loved only if she is perfect.

Parents often ask me how to raise their only child to be self-confident and get along with other children. Here are some suggestions.

Make sure to schedule ample play dates for your child, so that he has the opportunity to build positive social skills. Register your child in preschool early on, so he will receive guidance from the teachers as to how to form positive relationships with other children.

Show your child unconditional love. Step back and observe your behavior with her, to make sure that you are not communicating that you expect perfection. Praise her for her accomplishments to give her a positive sense of self.

Set limits. You may want to give him the moon and the stars because he’s your only child, but you want him to learn that he can want things, but he cannot have everything he wants. In family relationships, teach him to wait his turn, share, and be concerned about other family members’ feelings.

Encourage her independence. Try not to constantly jump in to do things for her. This can cause her to become dependent upon you, and she will lack the skills to do things on her own. She will learn best from her own attempts through trial and error. It might be hard to let her go off to nursery school, summer camp, or college, creating an undesired empty nest, but she needs to feel that she can go off and manage on her own.