9 Parenting Tips for Raising an Only Child

Medically reviewed by Karen Richardson Gill, MD on October 22, 2015Written by Leah Campbell on October 22, 2015
only child

I always wanted five kids, a loud and chaotic household, forever full of love and excitement. Never did it occur to me that I might one day have an only.

But now, here I am. An infertile single mother to a toddler, open to the idea of having more, but also realistic about the fact that the opportunity may never present itself. My daughter may just be an only after all.

So, I’ve done my research. Like most parents, I’ve heard all the negative stereotypes surrounding only children, and I’ve wanted to do everything in my power to help my daughter avoid that fate. Which has led me to these nine tips I plan on basing my own only child parenting philosophies on.

1. There can never be enough play dates.

A 2004 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that only children tend to have “poorer social skills” than their peers with siblings.

But that doesn’t have to mean your only is destined to flounder. Exposing your child to a variety of social settings, and providing them with chances to interact with their peers from an early age, can help to counteract some of that deficit.

2. Allow for freedom.

With multiple children, parents tend to be spread a little more thin. Which means that kids with siblings don’t have mom or dad hovering over them every minute.

That can actually be a good thing for the development of independence and personal passions. Both attributes only children may not have as many opportunities to develop. I know with my daughter and I, our dynamic is so often us against the world that I sometimes forget to step back and let her fly on her own.

Forcing myself to give her that space is the only way she will ever develop her own wings.

3. Encourage individualism.

According to Susan Newman, author of “The Case for the Only Child,” onlies are more likely than children with siblings to seek out social validation and opportunities to fit in. That might make them more susceptible to peer pressure down the line.

In order to discourage that, praise individualism in your child from an early age. Help them to value being unique, rather than part of the crowd.

4. Ignite passions.

Want to kill a few birds with one stone? Get your kids involved in activities outside the house.

Not only will this give them a chance to socialize with their peers, it will also help them to discover which of those activities they might be passionate about. This could spark a bit of the individuality and sense of self that can only serve to benefit all kids, but perhaps especially onlies.

5. Mirror healthy relationships.

According to a 2013 Ohio State University study, onlies tend to have a higher probability of divorce.

Researchers theorized that this goes back to those diminished social skills. Onlies simply don’t have to learn how to compromise in the same way children with siblings do. The study results found that with each additional child up to seven, protection against future divorce went up. But just because there is a relationship there doesn’t mean you should feel pressured to have more kids.

After all, there are plenty of other factors that go into future divorce. One way to help might be to mirror a healthy marital relationship for your only. Or seek out other couples in your extended family and friendship circle who can serve as those models.

6. Refuse to swoop.

All parents struggle with the urge to protect their children. But onlies, especially, need to learn how to navigate conflict without parental interference. That means staying back when you notice your tot pouting because their turn on the swing was skipped at the playground. And when your school-aged child comes to you for advice about a fight with friends, it means offering that advice, but not getting involved further.

Whenever possible, let them work those conflicts out for themselves, because you won’t be there to swoop when they’re adults.

7. Promote empathy.

Sure, children with siblings are probably forced to think about the needs of others more often than onlies.

But there are other ways to shape your child into an empathetic person, and you can create opportunities for that awareness of others to build. Volunteer somewhere as a family, for instance, or help friends with a big move. Talk about compromise, point out examples of empathy when you see it, and mirror those behaviors you want your child to learn from.

8. Be the voice of reason.

Onlies tend to be perfectionists, always striving for approval.

In most cases, they will likely be their own worst critics. It’s something to remain aware of when you are upset about a bad grade or a poor performance on the field. That doesn’t mean you can’t express your own disappointment, because of course you should. But it does mean listening to your child, and cutting short any bouts of negative self-talk.

There may be times when they need you to build them back up, rather than piling on the disappointment they are already feeling.

9. Don’t buy into the hype.

There are so many misconceptions about the struggles of only children, and so many stereotypes that no parent of an only wants to believe.

But there is just as much positive research to consider as well. It turns out they’re not as lonely as everyone thinks, for instance, and they tend to do better in school than kids with siblings.

So try not to get too caught up in what everyone else has to say about who your only will become. Children are unique and varied, no matter how many siblings they may or may not have. And no study can definitively tell you anything about who yours will one day be.

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