The Future of Your Only Child: How to Guide Your Child to a Happy and Successful Life

The Future of Your Only Child: How to Guide Your Child to a Happy and Successful Life

by Carl E. Pickhardt

View All Available Formats & Editions

One-child households have doubled over the last two decades, making it one of the fastest-growing family units in America. Expert Carl Pickhardt aids families in understanding the common traits of many adult "onlies"--like shyness, perfection, and intolerance--so that they can better prepare for potential outcomes. He also celebrates the positive qualities of only


One-child households have doubled over the last two decades, making it one of the fastest-growing family units in America. Expert Carl Pickhardt aids families in understanding the common traits of many adult "onlies"--like shyness, perfection, and intolerance--so that they can better prepare for potential outcomes. He also celebrates the positive qualities of only children and how to encourage characteristics like thoughtfulness, creativity, and ambition. Pickhardt sheds new light on issues that many only-child families encounter, such as:
-attachment problems
-conflicts between only child and parent
-performance anxiety
-unusually high personal expectations
-feelings of entitlement
-problems with risk-taking
With a distinctive focus on long-term effects, this book will help refine and improve daily parenting methods. Parents will welcome these insightful guidelines for the formative influence they wish to provide.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Since the number of families raising only one child has doubled in the past 20 years, many books have been written about the plight of only children-their self-centeredness and critical perfectionism, for example. Here, Pickhardt (The Connected Father: Understanding Your Unique Role and Responsibilities During Your Child's Adolescence) covers much of the same ground. He identifies 15 dynamics-e.g., attention, sensitivity, willfulness, and attachment-that can create issues in raising an only child. For each dynamic, he allots a chapter, describing the pros and cons and furnishing measures to prevent potentially unfavorable outcomes. While the book offers a unique focus on possible long-term effects should these dynamics be left unaddressed, some of Pickhardt's conclusions are questionable in their subjectivity: e.g., he claims sensitivity in an only child can lead to hypersensitivity and excessive seriousness. Consider purchasing for public libraries with extensive parenting and/or psychology collections.
—Krista Bush

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Sold by:
Sales rank:
File size:
305 KB

Read an Excerpt

The Future of Your Only Child

How to Guide Your Child to a Happy and Successful Life

By Carl E. Pickhardt

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2008 Carl Pickhardt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-61091-0



Although, for the purposes of this book, the term "only child" refers to a single biological or adopted child in a two-parent or single-parent nuclear family, there are in fact a variety of lesser "onlychild" roles in which similar dynamics, parenting practices, and adult outcomes are present.

• The eldest child is by birth order an only child until another sibling comes along—the only child at the outset. By being a "trial child," the one who introduces parents to parenting and gets first call on their attention, the oldest child is often not inclined to yield her dominant position to younger arrivals (and rivals) on the family scene who gladly testify to how bossy an older brother or sister can be. ("First come, first served," and the eldest child means to keep it that way.)

The youngest child becomes an only child when older siblings have outgrown the family and departed—the only child left at home. Now able to capture the undivided attention of the parents, the youngest child offers them their last chance at parenting, becoming the one whom they are inclined to indulge and give in to.

• The special needs child is an only child in terms of receiving a disproportionate amount of parental time, energy, concern, and resources—the only child receiving so much extra attention. Special expenses, special regimens, special therapies, special education, special arrangements and accommodations, and special parental vigilance are required to help the child survive and thrive.

• The surviving child becomes an only child after another sibling dies—the only child left alive. Grief-stricken over loss and desperate to ensure the safety and well-being of their last living child, parents can become extremely focused on their remaining son or daughter.

The gender-favored child becomes an only child when the distinction of being the sister with all brothers or the brother with all sisters is highly prized—the only child of that sex. Doted on and given special treatment, the only girl or only boy can be granted favored status in the family.

• The star child becomes an only child when public recognition of personal achievement confers credit on the parents—the only child to glorify the family. Extra parental investment in the child, and the exceptions and arrangements made for his or her advancement, create special treatment and status at home.

The experience of the eldest child shall be more fully discussed in this chapter because by birth order, until other siblings arrive, "firstborns whose closest siblings are six or more years younger are functionally similar to only children."

In addition, it is important to understand that the greater the time span between one sibling and the next, the more likely that only child family dynamics and only-child characteristics will develop. Thus in a family with a ten-year-old and a newborn, each is likely to become accustomed to only-child treatment by the parents.

As for the incidence of parents with a single child, this is becoming an increasingly common family unit in the United States and worldwide.


How common is it to have an only child? A few citations describe the incidence of single-child families in this country today.

• "One in five families today has an only child. Back in 1970, the average family had 2.5 children. Today, the average is 1.8."

• "According to census bureau data from 2003, about 20 percent of U.S. children under 18 had no siblings at home."

• "There are currently 20 million single-child families in the U.S. The percentage of American women having only one child has more than doubled in 20 years to almost one quarter. The single child family is the fastest-growing family in the U.S. and most of Western Europe."

The longer people wait to have children, say until over age thirty, the fewer children they tend to have. The combination of late start and cost considerations contribute to a likely future having more small and single-child families.

• "According to the Census Bureau's 1998 Current Population Survey, a greater percentage of women of all ages are not having children."

Biological, step, adoptive, and foster parenting all require investing time, energy, and resources in supporting and socially preparing the next generation of human life. Parenting is expensive. It is a continuing act of significant self-sacrifice, one that increasing numbers of people in this country are choosing not to make. The adult trend is not simply to having smaller families, to having a single child, but also to having no children at all.

Of course, when one includes the Republic of China, with about 1.3 billion people, a country that in 1979 instituted a "one-child policy" to gain control over its ever-growing population, the relatively recent worldwide surge in only child families becomes enormous. No wonder interest in psychological research into only children has also grown.

The issue addressed in this book is not whether being raised as an only child is healthier or unhealthier, better or worse, than being raised among siblings. My point is that the family dynamics, parenting practices, and child development in only-child nuclear families tend to be identifiably different than in multiple-child families; they yield a predictable mix of personal characteristics (both strengths and limitations) that are frequently carried into young adulthood. Despite much professional disagreement over whether growing up an "only" makes any developmental difference in shaping individual characteristics and conduct, many investigations of eldest children and only children suggest that these differences do exist.

In writing The Future of Your Only Child—in addition to mining over twenty years of consultations with only children and their parents and with adult only children on their own—I have drawn on two other sources for understanding: the psychological literature about birth order and about the only child. This literature has been helpful in my own thinking, and so, throughout this book, I draw on what others have thought and found to support and amplify what I have to say.


Birth order research theorizes that one's ordinal position among siblings can favor the development of certain psychological characteristics and foster the development of certain patterns of behavior. My interest in birth order is founded on what it has to say about the eldest child, who is an only child for a while. Both eldest and only children function as the first and single child. To be an only child at first creates privilege and standing the child naturally wants to protect; he often continues to act as an only child after a second child arrives. Sometimes parents will describe how the first child initially engages in willful denial of this family change, acting as if the newborn sibling simply isn't there and so no accommodation need be made to this rival for their attention and affection. And many second children, as they grow, will describe how the oldest child continued to rule the family roost.

At first glance, birth order would appear to be a very simple factor to understand. On closer inspection, however, it becomes extremely complex. Embedded in this variable is an enormous array of qualifying conditions and confounding circumstances that some psychologists believe dilute any consistent psychological effect. After all, for family birth order to have a generalized psychological effect, all families would have to be more similar than different, or the enormous diversity among families would have to be overridden by the power of ordinal position among siblings.

Does birth order have a formative effect on people's psychological characteristics? In professional psychology, the debate goes on. Some researchers believe that there is no significant psychological effect. Others vigorously disagree, believing that birth order goes a long way in explaining psychological differences among siblings. I am not deeply enough read to resolve this disagreement, but I do have a position to take in this book, and it is this.

If the question is "Can birth order completely explain psychological differences among siblings?" I believe the answer is "No, it cannot." However, if the question is "Can birth order contribute to our understanding of psychological differences among siblings?" I believe the answer is "Yes, it often can."

An only child is both a first child and a last child in one—first, and therefore the only chance at parenting most parents will get; and last, because there are no more to come. As with other birth-order positions, determining any consistent psychological significance connected to a firstborn is very elusive, yet psychologists and writers like myself persist in this endeavor. Why?

In counseling, clients frequently assign some shaping influence to their birth order, using it to explain why they became the way they are.

• "Because I was the oldest, my parents were pretty nervous starting out with me, not knowing what to do or afraid of not doing it right. Maybe that's why it's easy to feel anxious when I'm unsure now."

• "Because I was youngest, I had to defend against being picked on by the older kids. Maybe that's why I stand up for myself now."

• "Because I was in the middle, I was often ignored for the other two. Maybe that's why I like being left to myself now."

• "Because I was the only child, I received all my parents' hopes and dreams. Maybe that's why I try so hard not to disappoint people now."

They believe their birth order mattered. Although it may not be a robust statistical predictor of psychological differences in the population at large, birth order is often a very useful clinical variable to explore with individual clients.

Is there any consistent pattern of influence to a particular birth-order position in general? Consider what a few research sources have to say about the psychological characteristics of an eldest child.


There is a vast birth-order literature, and I have only skimmed the surface to come up with a few characteristics of the eldest child that are repeatedly mentioned.

Because the firstborn child has only parents in the nuclear family to identify with, and because she receives all the attention and care the parents have to give, she becomes closely wed to following along with what they want and fitting in with them. Consequently, some research findings tend to portray her as a conforming, conservative, and conventional believer in the family order. Since the eldest child is more likely to conscientiously achieve up to parental expectations, laterborns become the children more likely to rebel. An entire book has been devoted to reviewing research about this distinction between the more conformist firstborn and the more rebellious laterborns.

In Born to Rebel, science historian Frank Sulloway describes firstborn characteristics that I believe contribute to understanding the only child:

• "Eldest children tend to identify more closely with parents and authority. This well-documented tendency is consistent with the general profile of firstborns as ambitious, conscientious, and achievement orientated. Relative to younger siblings, eldest children are more conforming, conventional, and defensive—attributes that are all negative features of openness to experience."

• "Firstborns are reported to be more self-confident than laterborns ... firstborns should be more amenable than laterborns to their parents' wishes, values, and standards ... The tendency for firstborns to excel in school and in other forms of intellectual achievement is consistent with their strong motivation to satisfy parental expectations. Studies have repeatedly found that firstborns are 'more strongly identified with parents and readier to accept their authority.'"

• "Firstborns are described as being more anxious about their status. They are also more emotionally intense than laterborns and slower to recover from upsets ... Firstborns ... tend to endorse conventional morality."

• Firstborns are "more conforming, traditional, and closely identified with parents ... more responsible, achievement orientated, organized, and planful ... more extraverted, assertive, and likely to exhibit leadership."

It is said that close identification with parents creates a more traditional and less rebellious orientation for the eldest child; I believe this also tends to be true for the only child.

Now consider what a few writers and researchers have to say about the only child.


Let's begin our findings about the only child with a textbook description: "Only children tend to be more like older children in that they enjoy being the center of attention. Because they spend more time in the company of adults, rather than siblings, they tend to mature sooner and to adopt adultlike behaviors earlier in life." This early and unwavering desire to act grown-up plays a significant role in many of the dynamics described in this book, whether in the quality of intimacy in friendship the only child seeks, the level of performance he is ambitious to achieve, the sense of serious responsibility he develops, or in the moral compass that determines the sense of rectitude that directs much of his behavior.

The expert who has conducted and reviewed more research on only children than any other I have found is psychologist Toni Falbo. After reviewing 141 studies of the personality characteristics of only children, she concluded that in most cases only children scored about the same as children with siblings, except in two characteristics where scores were significantly higher—in self-esteem and achievement motivation.

Interviewed in 2004 about the robust nature of this finding, Falbo noted, "These children tend to score slightly higher in verbal ability, go farther in school and have a little bit higher self-esteem."

Another major source of research that includes a focus on only children that I find meaningful is the "family constellation" work of Walter Toman. The profile he describes for the only child in the family constellation fits many characteristics that I further explore in this book.

An only child has no sibling position. Oldest siblings have been single children for a while but were dethroned when their first sibling arrived. The only child, however, retains his privileged position. His main contacts are his parents ... the only child is not or is only indirectly prepared for contacts with peers ... At home they learn to command their parents' entire attention ... Only children frequently know better than other children how to handle adults, or how to involve them for their own purposes ... only children look and act like little adults themselves ... There are no other children to identify with ... They don't have to share their parents with other children ... They want to be in the limelight, under the guidance and protection of older people or people in authority. They strive for recognition for what they want or do not want to do. They can attract "followers" and take on leadership roles for their peers to the degree to which they identify with adults, with authority figures, or with subject matters. Even then, they unconsciously value the understandings of their superiors more than that of those in their charge ... On the average ... only children have been more poorly prepared for contacts with peers than children with any other sibling position; they prefer contacts with older persons or people in high positions.

Finally, based on their extensive interviews, Jill Pitkeathley and David Emerson propose a test for identifying who is likely to be an only child in a group of people. I find it telling. They write:

Ask yourself who is

• The most responsible person in the group?

• The most organized?

• The most serious?

• The one who is rarely late?

• The one who doesn't like arguments?

• The self-possessed one?

The chances are that the one who is all of these things will be the only child. It's not infallible, but it's pretty reliable as a test.

Research on eldest and only children does suggest that being a single child in the family, at the outset or for always, can psychologically shape the growth of that girl or boy in ways that often result in predictable adult characteristics. The purpose of this book is to examine how this influence can occur in the only-child family. Each subsequent chapter explores one of the fifteen family dynamics I have found salient when counseling with only children, parents of only children, and adult only children. It is the cumulative force of these dynamics, not the power of any single one, which sets the onlychild family experience apart from that in families with multiple children.


Excerpted from The Future of Your Only Child by Carl E. Pickhardt. Copyright © 2008 Carl Pickhardt. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Carl E. Pickhardt, Ph.D. is the author of popular parenting titles including Keys to Successful Stepfathering, The Everything® Parent's Child to the Strong-Willed Child, The Everything® Parent's Guide to Positive Discipline, and The Connected Father (Palgrave Macmillan). He lives in Austin, Texas.

Carl E. Pickhardt is the author of The Connected Father and Future of Your Only Child, and he is a contributing editor to Only Child Magazine. He has a private practice in Austin, Texas where he lives with his family.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >