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Only, Not Lonely: Raising A Child Without Siblings

Posted: October 8, 2014

Raising a child without siblings may seem like an incomplete experience. Does an only child miss out on learning crucial life lessons? Do single children grow up to be lonely adults? This post investigates.

Growing up as an only child, I never felt any different from my peers with siblings. I remember a childhood filled with books, space, and silence. I’m now a parent of seven years, and know that my daughter will never have a sibling – a decision that sort of made itself while other things were happening. In her instance though, unlike I rarely did for myself, I have had to examine the ‘only’ status very carefully.

We moved away from our hometown and extended family a couple of years ago – and my daughter began to ask, in quick succession, for a sibling, a pet maybe, or if her grandparents could visit more often. None of these demands could be met– and we set about solving the problem in the usual manner – play dates and activities. All the while, I was dealing with two issues within myself:

  1. Why did she feel a lack I never did?
  2. What long-term implications would the ‘only’ status have, if any?

Number 1 was easy enough to figure out – my daughter spent her initial years surrounded by grandparents, felt their absence when we moved away – and looked around for ways to fill the lacuna. I grew up in a nuclear family – and never missed what I had never known.

Finding the answer to question 2 was far more challenging. Of course, I had a few opinions:

It is not how many children you have, but how well you raise them that makes them the adults they become; plus, I have numerous friends with siblings – and they seem to need me as much as I need them – which means, they are not very different from me.

Besides, aren’t there examples all around of single children who have grown up to build stable families and professional lives? But how right was I? – A single child, yet to see her own single child through Grade 1, let alone adulthood.

Growing up with siblings

I decided to look around. I first spoke to those in my immediate circle who had seen the issue from both sides: i.e. a single child now parenting two and someone with a sibling, currently parent to a single child.

Drishya*, 40, a working mom raising two girls, 12 and 8, is a single child. She told me it was conscious decision to have two children – “I believe the cons of being a single child come up when you step into adult life and have to grow out of the shadow of your parents. You realise that somewhere, it bred in you a sense of vanity and also a sense of dependence on the people around you. It was a big learning curve for me on little things that most people had gotten a grasp of earlier on – taking risks, handling criticism, being independent, learning to coexist in a broader sense. ”

I believe the cons of being a single child come up when you step into adult life and have to grow out of the shadow of your parents.

“I now see my kids interact with each other and see that every day they learn some of the character traits I am still struggling with – sharing, healthy competition, learning to coexist. They are so different in nature as well – one is quiet and shy and the other has an opinion on everything They are learning to experiment, stepping out of their character comfort zones right here at home, thanks to each other. I hope they’ll be there for each other, long after we (parents) are gone”.

Avani*, 40, has a brother, and is now mom to an interesting eleven-year old, besides pursuing a career and numerous hobbies. Here is what she had to say: “I have only one kid, though I would have loved and wanted to have at least three. I just didn’t get around to doing that because I’m almost a single parent with very little support from my spouse. So, I didn’t dare to have a second and third as I wanted to. I would definitely vote for having a sibling. You have richer experiences and memories – good and bad from the past. Holidays are much more fun and such distinct memories stand out, whereas as single kids, they invariably become loners. Sharing doesn’t come easily.”

“They have never had to share 24/7 like you have to when you have a sibling. Also, I have many cousins who are single children and are adults now, and they say they feel quite lonely as they grow up and lose one or both parents. So I worry about that for my son. My brother and I fought like cats and dogs as kids. We are nothing like each other, and have completely different points of view of life, but I really appreciate having had him as a child and also as an adult. Being bullied by an older brother made me stronger and helped me stand up for myself”.

Avani and Drishya had made the same observations, quite in line with popular wisdom: ‘Have at least two kids, so they learn to share, compete, and stand by each other after you are gone.’

Raising an only child

So, are we single children self-centred, non-assertive introverts doomed to a lifetime of loneliness? Apparently not.

Says child and adolescent psychiatrist, Dr. Pervin Dadachanji, M. D. (Psychological Medicine), “Don’t get pressurised by external influences to have more than one kid, if that’s not what you want! Make sure your single child interacts with his cousins and friends whenever possible, so he learns the art of negotiation and sharing. An only child can always be taught values, shown how to share, and be able to interact with peers as well as a child with siblings.”

What about loneliness later on? Gouri Dange, family counsellor and author of More ABCs Of Parenting , says “No doubt they (siblings) can be (a support system after parents are gone), but there are also plenty of examples of poor sibling relationships. And many people believe and experience this – that friends are the new family. However, I am not endorsing having one kid or having more”.

Right. The experts have spoken. It’s for you to decide how many kids you want to have. If it is a single child, he/she can be taught to share, care, and compete. And when it comes to later in life, most regular adults, with siblings or without, form happy and supportive relationships outside of immediate family, that sustain them for a long time.

Now that the matter is settled, I can move on to planning the next play date or group activity for a very argumentative seven-year-old.

*Names changed for privacy.

Pic credit: artchild (Used under a CC license)

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