Will my son be disadvantaged because we are older parents?
My family and friends all have bigger families and I see all the children playing with one another
Some studies show that due to the extra adult attention they may receive, some only children can display particular leadership and academic abilities as adults
After years of trying and bouts of infertility treatment, my husband and I were thrilled to have a wonderful baby boy who has grown into a delightful four year old (his birthday was last week) who we love to bits. While we would have liked more children (my husband and I are from big families), and we always dreamed of having at least three children, my husband and I have accepted the fact that he is going to be an only child. My question is about whether he going to be at a disadvantage being an only child. My family and friends all have bigger families and I see all the children playing with one another. Also, given how long it took for him to come along, my husband and I are older parents and I worry and sometimes feel guilty that we might not be able to give all that he needs. Do you think there are any issues for only children in our situation and if so what can we do to best bring up our son?
Like yourself many parents of only children worry about whether they will be disadvantaged without brothers and sisters. However, the research studies don’t seem to bear this out. Most studies show that only children grow up just as well-adjusted and happy as children with siblings. Indeed, some studies show that due to the extra adult attention they may receive, some only children can display particular leadership and academic abilities as adults. In addition, there is no evidence to suggest that older parents like yourself are in any way less able than younger parents. In fact there are many potential advantages. Older parents may be more sure of themselves and considered in their parenting as well as being more conscientious and caring. This can be especially the case for parents such as yourself who have gone through a long journey to become parents in the first place. The “guilt” you might feel about your son being an only child is only a sign of your conscientiousness as a parent.
Specific challenges parenting an only child
The truth is that raising an only child is not better or worse than parenting a larger family. Rather it is simply different and brings its own particular dynamics and issues. Parents of only children can face unique challenges that are not present in larger families.For example, with only one child, your son is going to receive lots of one-to-one attention from you and parenting can easily become a more intense affair for both of you. Whereas in other families children play with and learn a lot from their brothers and sisters, with an only child the parent can easily become the child’s primary play mate and teacher. Whereas this one-to-one adult attention has lots of advantages for children (in terms of learning and achievement), it can also be draining on the parent (who has to constantly respond to pleas of “play with me”), and your child can miss out on learning to play with other children (where they learn the “cut and thrust” of social skills). Further, if all your hopes and dreams are invested in one child, this can be experienced as a burden on the child to behave a certain way or to match their parents’ expectations of them. In addition, it is easy for parents of only children to become over-protective or over-indulgent, by doing too much for them or preventing them from taking normal risks and doing their own thing as they grow older. Of course there are lots of simple solutions to the challenges of parenting an only child such as those listed below
Organise opportunities for your son to be with other children
Encourage your son to develop friendships with children his own age via play-dates, pursuing sports, hobbies and shared activities as well as inviting friends on family trips and holidays. Also, make sure he spends time with older and younger children so he learns about sharing and getting on with children of all ages. You can do this via developing close links with cousins or friend’s families or doing babysitting “exchanges” whereby you mind children in your house with your son present and in return your son gets minded in another family. Nurturing extended family bonds is very important in the long term for your son so he will have family he can depend on as an adult (when others depend on siblings).
Encourage your son to take responsibility for himself.
Aim to establish balanced daily routines that allow for one-to-one time with your son but also periods where he is encouraged to play creatively by himself as well as having time with other children. While with an only child the temptation might be to indulge his every whim or to do everything for him such as washing, cooking, cleaning, etc it is a good idea to step back and to empower him to learn to do things for himself and to earn his treats and privileges just like other children. Remember this will not only teach him independence, it is also likely to boost his self-esteem and confidence.
Be self-aware of your own needs as a parent
While all new parents can start out with high expectations to get everything right, this can be particularly acute for parents who have experienced a long road of fertility treatment before finally greeting their precious child. This can make them feel particularly guilty when they worry and struggle as every parent does. Remember you are just like all the other parents who struggle with high expectations – try to cut yourself a break and relax and enjoy your parenting!
Be self aware and tuned into to your own needs as a parent and make sure to achieve a balance between caring for him and seeking your own goals as a person. You might find it helpful to make contact with other parents who have only children and discuss with them the particular worries and challenges as well as the joys and advantages.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. His new book ‘Bringing up happy confident children’ is now available. See solutiontalk.ie