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Only, Not Lonely

Now that our daughter is 4, my husband and I are frequently asked if we're going to have another. Another what is not in question: Among parents, "another" is shorthand for "baby."

I sense that some people find it hard to imagine that my husband and I could actually intend to allow year after year to pass without producing more offspring, as if we might be betraying some natural order of the universe, or of the species at least. There seem to be those who find the idea of having just one child as perplexing as having none at all.

Ever since 19th-century psychologist G. Stanley Hall reportedly called being an only child "a disease in itself," myriad stereotypes have sprouted up around these children. They've been labeled selfish, egocentric, spoiled, lonely, maladjusted, bratty, and social laggards.

But research shows that none of these criticisms are true. Some recent studies reveal that only children actually differ from children with siblings in just three ways, all positive: They tend to be slightly higher achievers, more motivated, and, in some ways, better adjusted. Many other factors, such as economics, education, and family dynamics, are also influential.

This is especially good news for today's parents because more are stopping at one. With both partners working, couples waiting longer to conceive, and high divorce rates, small and single-child families are becoming prevalent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, American families had an average of 2.04 children in 1976; by 1998 the average was 1.8 children. And the number of families with only one child has risen by several percentage points.

As with any family constellation, those of us with singletons will probably encounter some negatives. "There are certain vulnerabilities that accompany having an only child, just as there are those that accompany having seven children," says Phyllis Sonnenschein, a developmental psychologist at Wheelock College, in Boston. To turn potential pitfalls into payoffs:

Breed a Social Butterfly

Without a sister or a brother to play and negotiate with, only children have fewer natural opportunities than their peers with siblings to interact with other kids. "There's a whole arena that can be played out with siblings that only children miss out on," says Rebecca Eder, Ph.D., director of psychology at St. Louis Children's Hospital, in Missouri. "They don't get to work out basic conflicts with other kids in the safe way that siblings can. That's the trade-off for not having to deal with sibling rivalry."

At around age 3, children take a developmental step toward investing in a peer rather than just in their parents, points out Patricia Nachman, Ph.D., author of You and Your Only Child. A child with a sibling has someone on-site for this purpose; an only child must depend on his parents to provide opportunities for being around other kids.

So, an only child may be an ideal candidate for preschool, daycare, or another group situation. (But you needn't overschedule: All kids have to learn how to be alone.) Sandy Berger, of Gaithersburg, Maryland, made a point of sending her daughter Maya, now 4, to a Montessori preschool — which had mixed-age classes — so she could experience being the oldest, youngest, and middle child over the course of a few years. "Maya got to lead the younger kids and imitate the older ones," says Berger. "It allowed her to have the best of both worlds."

Other kids thrive on the relationships they form with extended family. Until her recent move to San Francisco, Jeanne Finley Montgomery made cross-country trips from Brooklyn to Oregon so that her 4-year-old daughter, Cecily, could bond with her cousins.

Given the chance, many only children develop unusually close and meaningful friendships — frequently with other only children — that, in some cases, substitute for a brother- or sister-type bond. "Ever since Douglas was little, I've had him send a letter to someone every weekend, whether it was his friend, teacher, or grandfather," says Judy Joffe, of Boca Raton, Florida, about her now 12-year-old. "I wanted him to learn how to reach out to other people."

Let the Kid Be a Kid

Because only children spend more time in the exclusive company of adults, there can be less of a clear boundary between "us" and "them" — the kids and the grown-ups. This can teach kids valuable social skills and expose them to sophisticated language and ideas. But it can also result in a child who seems older and wiser than his years, which may be charming (or unnerving) but isn't necessarily healthy. "A five-year-old has very different emotional needs than an adult," says Nachman. "He should be able to act like, and be treated like, a five-year-old, not a twenty-five-year-old."

It's tempting to include your only child when you're going out to dinner or to the movies with other adults. But parents need to remember that he shouldn't be exposed to conversation or entertainment that's inappropriate for his age. The same is true (and maybe less obvious) at home, where including an only child is often automatic.

Nachman stresses avoidance of the "triangle syndrome," in which the child becomes like a third adult, a pal. "While only children often have wonderful, close relationships with their parents, those bonds can also become too intense and prevent kids from making a natural shift toward peers and independence," she says. A child shouldn't become your confidant or your best friend, and it should be clear that you and your spouse have a special relationship that doesn't involve him.

Point Out the Positives

Parents of one are less likely to feel harassed, emotionally and financially. We don't have to deal with sibling rivalry. In general, life is saner when you have only one set of immunizations to keep up with, one child to wrangle into clothes every morning, and one preschool conference to attend. It's just downright easier to balance work, family, and everything else. And parents who know their limitations are likely to be more patient.

Kristin Biebesheimer, of Roxbury, Connecticut, mother of 4-year-old Zoe, says she stopped at one because she knew she wouldn't have the patience to handle sibling quarrels. "I believe that choosing to have an only child is about respecting your own limits," she says. "My husband and I wanted to enjoy one child, not 'manage' several kids."

Since parents of one don't have to worry about meeting the needs of a younger sibling, they can expose their child to a wide variety of experiences. It's this type of focus and attention that may give her the edge when it comes to personal achievement.

Still, the idealization of the multiple-child family remains. Recently, I overheard a new mother-of-two spout to a friend, "One child is a pet; two is a family." That kind of attitude can make single kids and their parents feel like they're missing out. But if a parent is comfortable and happy with the decision to have one child, and feels the family is complete, then the child is likely to be satisfied too, even if she sometimes yearns for siblings.

Point out to your child that the grass may always seem greener but isn't necessarily. Go over with her the pros and cons of having siblings, says Eder. Tell her that, yes, siblings have an on-site playmate, but they sometimes fight and have to be more patient and share their toys. Show her there are real advantages to singledom that shouldn't be diminished.

Lay Down Limits

While each child in a family of four can be spoiled, having just one kid can make it easier to go overboard. But there are ways to keep things in check.

One enterprising mom devised a hand-me-down routine for her 2-year-old: She has her donate one of her old baby toys to a younger child, such as a cousin or a neighbor, whenever she gets a new one.

Joffe believes that having one child allows her to set limits more effectively than if she'd had more kids. "I see my friends get worn down by two or more children, and I think they give in more readily to their demands. I tend to be stronger and a little more demanding of my son because it's a one-on-one situation. I have always had him pitch in around the house. I'm also a fairly strict disciplinarian; I think if I'd had two, I might have caved in."

Retain Realistic

ExpectationsA first child is boot camp. Having a second has to be easier, simply because you've been through it all — and presumably survived. You know number two will eventually learn to walk, talk, and maybe even sleep past dawn. That she probably won't perish if she doesn't eat dinner three nights in a row. Parents of only children are by definition first-timers forever. With each stage and each crisis in their child's life, it's the first and only time they're going to go through it. Because this kid is it, the crown jewel, the child may seem more precious than if he were one among several.

"It's completely normal for parents to want to overprotect an only child," says Sonnenschein. "And they may need to work a bit harder to overcome their anxiety. It's important that they encourage their child to take the normal risks of growing up."

Similarly, parents of an only child need to be aware of their expectations. Though a parent can invest heavily in one child even if there is a brood, with one, nothing is diluted. It can be harder for you to separate the child that you wish you'd had from the one that you actually have. One of the reasons only children are often high achievers is that their parents not only have been able to give them more but also may have pushed them harder. It's important to remember that, "as with any child, you need to respect and nurture your only child's unique temperament and interests," says Sonnenschein.

So, will my husband and I have another child? We still don't know. But here's what we do know: If our daughter turns out to be our one and only, we will consider ourselves as blessed as if we'd had ten.

Christina Frank's last article for Parenting was "Ready for a Big Bed" (August).