Raising an Only Child

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An interview with Susan Newman, PhD

This is part 2 of a series on Raising Only Children

“Being an only child is a disease in itself.” — G. Stanley Hall, Psychologist, 1896

Granville Stanley Hall was a pioneer in the field of childhood development. As the first president of the American Psychological Association, his conclusion about only children had a powerful influence on the perception of children without siblings both in his day, and ours. Today, many parents say they have more than one child so their first born won’t be alone. But, is that logic sound? Is it so awful to raise one child, or grow up as an only child? Susan Newman, PhD says absolutely not. As the author of The Case for the Only Child, she might have a few words for Dr. Hall.  — Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor, TMC

Approximately how many only children are there in the US?  Is that number more or less than previous years?

The single child family is the fastest growing family unit in most developed countries. In the US, the number of families with one child is closing in on families with two children. Recent percents from around the world reflect the single child’s popularity:

USA: Between 20-25%

New York City: 30%

Spain: 30%

Portugal: 30%

France: 30%

India: 30%

Italy: 30%

Germany: 30%

Canada: 44%

UK: 46%

In Sweden, unlike other countries, the birthrate is not dropping, in large part due to its excellent family leave policies, something the US does not have.

Why are more parents having one child?

The biggest factors are the economy and women marrying and starting their families later. Those who wait until they are older often face infertility or secondary infertility. Age limits for parents can be a significant impediment to adopting a second child, too. And, adoption costs and infertility treatments are steep, beyond the reach of many. When choice is part of the equation, many parents feel raising more than one child is too expensive. Most women with children work because they want to or have to, to help support their families. Even when career advancement is not a concern, many parents stick with one child because they feel they can’t handle the stress and juggling act of two or more children.

Are there any common parenting pitfalls that parents of only children frequently fall into?

Some of the more common traps and issues parents of one face are:

  • Listening to other people’s opinions—and the pressure they create—about why they should have another child.
  • Feeling guilty about not giving their child a sibling, or as some say, not providing a playmate.
  • Having expectations that are too high because they feel as if have “all their eggs in one basket,” so to speak.
  • Doing too much for their child. For example, it’s easy to pick up after one child or help him get dressed.

Is there any truth to the stereotypes that only children are more bossy, self-centered, and spoiled? 

Not a bit. The stereotypes started in the late 1890s and have been refuted by hundreds of studies over the last 100 plus years. There are other common myths to bust such as only children are lonely, selfish, aggressive, maladjusted, and more inclined to have imaginary friends.

Take the imaginary friend stigma. The fact is that 65% of all young children have an imaginary friend at some point – whether or not they have a sibling. As for lonely, turns out only children have as many friends as their peers who have brothers and sisters. On the spoiled, only child stereotype, I say, we live in a culture of yes-parenting. You can find spoiled, selfish children in all size families.

The reality is: a child’s character is influenced by parenting style, not by how many siblings a child has or doesn’t have.

Are there any advantages to being an only child?  

Yes. There are others, but the primary ones include:

  • Parents of one can give all of their resources, time, and attention to their child.
  • Only children test slightly higher in intelligence and achievement motivation. That makes sense given their parents’ time, attention, and resources are not divided among several children.
  • Onlies turn out to be quite independent. They don’t have a sibling to hide behind, no shield to protect or be their spokesperson.

What does research say about the commonalities between only children as they age?

It’s important to understand that socially and developmentally only children are not significantly different from their peers with siblings. However, one difference tends to show up, and it’s that adult only children are closer to their parents. For example, they visit more often. A lot of only children I interviewed said they didn’t mind taking care of their parents and enlisted partners and friends to help if necessary. Those with siblings quite frequently said they wished they didn’t have any siblings because it makes caring for mom and dad harder when they can’t agree on what is best for a parent or which sibling should be doing what and when.

Do you have any advice for parents of only children?

When my son was very young, he refused to share a toy with a friend. I didn’t scold him very harshly. Frustrated, he said, “Why don’t you yell at me and punish me like other children?” The lesson is, he wanted to be treated like other kids he saw in families with more than one child. Only children want the same rules and regulations as multiple kid families. That said, some suggestions to smooth the path for only children:

  • Put boundaries in place, same as if you had more than one child. For example, bedtime rituals should be respected. When a parent is on the phone, there is to be no interrupting.
  • Socialize your child beginning at an early age.
  • Put effort into creating strong social circles because friends become sibling substitutes.
  • Don’t overprotect.
  • Lower expectations for their achievement. Only children feel the pressure to succeed inherently; they feel the pressure without parents emphasizing it. They know they’re the only one bringing home a report card.
  • If a child has special talent, like an instrument, of course support it, but keep in mind it’s a singular activity. It might sound obvious, but group activities for only children are extremely important not only because it’s a great way to add friends, but also because the child isn’t the center of attention.
  • Think big – as if you have a family with several children. Ask yourself, “Would I be picking up his socks if I had other kids with more pressing needs?” Every time you want to do something for him/her ask yourself that question.
  • Let things slip by. If you had more than one child, it’s quite likely your child could “get away” with something when you aren’t looking. Let that happen every once in a while. Maybe she takes an extra cookie without you noticing, or he says he put his toys away even though you know he didn’t. This is so the child doesn’t feel like he’s being watched constantly.
  • Don’t focus on your child’s oneness, especially if you wanted another, but couldn’t have one for whatever reason. Never send a message to your child that he or she is not enough.
  • Parents should have interests outside of their child. Again, so their child doesn’t feel center stage and in the spotlight all the time.

Susan Newman, PhD blogs for Psychology Today magazine about parenting and family relationships. She has written 15 books including the recently released The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential GuideUnder One Roof Again: All Grown Up and (Re)learning to Live Together Happily and The Book of NO: 250 Ways to Say It–and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever. Learn more at; sign up for her periodic Family Life Alert Newsletter.

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