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Drawing on ...
Drawing on her years of practice as a child psychologist, Nachman offers proven parenting strategies for dealing with a range of issues unique to only child-households, while helping parents build a strong, supportive relationship with their child. Filled with insight and authoritative advice, You and Your Only Child reassures parents that there is nothing unnatural about being or having an only child.
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Introduction and Overview
You have a baby, a dearly wanted child, to general rejoicing all around. Then three years or five years go by, with no more babies. Grandparents ask when they can expect another grandchild. Your five-year-old, perhaps, starts pleading for a little brother or sister.
A neighbor tosses off a casual remark about your youngster: "Well, of course he's used to getting his own way—he's an only child." Friends start having second children.
And you think: Is it okay to have just one? Can we be a "real family" with just one? Is there bound to be something unpleasant or perhaps even damaging about growing up as an only child?
These are very common and very understandable concerns, even in this day and age, in which the only-child family is more and more prevalent—and almost surely, for a variety of reasons that we'll talk about, will become even more prevalent in the future. Understandable because, for one thing, larger families have been the real and psychological norm in our country's history. Statistically, you, the parent now of one child, are likely to have grown up with a brother or sister or two. So, most likely, did your own parents. It can feel odd or "wrong" to you—even if it doesn't to your child—to be raising your own very different, smaller family.
In addition, people may pop out of the woodwork now and then to suggest to you that they think it's a bit unnatural to have or be an only child. Again, even in our enlightened time, stereotypes about only children linger on—they're lonely,they're antisocial, they're spoiled. When later in this book you read some of the observations psychologists and lay people alike have made about only children, I think you will be surprised at how vehemently negative they can be.
A woman who is both an only child herself and the mother of an only child, a son now in his twenties, says "onliness" has been a subject close to her heart and often in her mind over the years:
"I don't know about now, but when Ryan was growing up, I sensed there was still a stigma attached to being an only child. I remember on a couple of occasions hearing incredibly insensitive, usually older adults ask Ryan if he had any brothers or sisters, and then, when he answered no, say to him something like: 'I bet you're spoiled, aren't you?' I had heard the same comments when I was a child and remember being hurt and confused by them. The irony is that I wasn't spoiled at all, and neither was Ryan. He's always gotten along well with other kids and never had any of those problems like not knowing how to share or being selfish.
"I still, to this day, feel a slight twinge of guilt or embarrassment when some casual acquaintance asks me if I have any sisters or brothers and I have to answer no. I wonder to myself: Can they tell?"
That mythology, it seems, is still part of our collective child-raising consciousness. That mythology is what we are going to defuse in this book.
A mass of professional research on thousands of children from families of all sizes over many years attests to this fact: Only children do just fine! Over and over again, they belie the stereotypical portraits and in fact usually emerge from the pack with outstanding strengths and sterling qualities. Research studies and my own experience in working with hundreds of families convince me that there is nothing inherent in the "only" status to put a child at any disadvantage. As with all children, how happily and healthily an only develops over the years has much to do with the quality of the attention he receives and little to do with the size of the family in which that development is going on.
If the first purpose of this book is to reassure you that there's nothing unnatural about being or having an only child, the second purpose is to talk about the quality of parental care.
About thirty years ago, a prominent psychiatrist wrote an article for the New York Times about the "only child syndrome." The only child, he said, "has his parents' complete attention. . . . His praises are sung, his whims indulged. In short, he rules the roost." If his parents are unable to have a second child, the psychiatrist wrote, he would urge them to consider adopting one, in order that the family have "more emotional balance."
Today, very few professionals who work with families, I believe, would insist that the presence of a sibling or two is a surefire guarantee of emotional balance. But there is much that you, the parent of an only child, can do to achieve that balance and to ensure that instead of ruling the roost, your youngster finds his secure and appropriate place within the family and in the larger world into which he is growing.
Partly, that involves monitoring just how fulsomely you do sing his praises or indulge his whims, and tempering those inevitable tendencies when and where a little tempering may be in order. Partly, it calls for keeping in mind what your child, like all children, needs as he moves through the stages that bring him from baby to young adult. And finally, it requires regular self-scrutiny of your own needs and wishes, and what they have to do with being a parent.
Step back, in other words, and take as objective a look as possible at what's going on with you and your child. I hope I can help you do that in this book, which offers both insight into the psychological underpinnings of the parent/only-child family and practical suggestions on how to achieve the best outcome for your youngster.
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First, we'll explore together your own thoughts about becoming a parent, and see if and how some of those internal forces affect your feelings about raising an only child. Without question, a parent's attitude about her family's size influences how her child feels about having no siblings.
Many parents these days, for a variety of reasons, consciously elect to have just one child and are content with a decision that was theirs to make. For parents who have a single child not by choice, the lack of a larger family may be lingeringly painful.
A little girl approaching her seventh birthday was asked what presents she hoped for. "I just want three things," she said. "A sister, a sister, a sister." Her father reported that his daughter had "always" expressed the desire for a sibling and sometimes came home "depressed" after playing with other children and their brothers or sisters. Talking further, it became apparent that this father himself had very much wanted a larger family and that both he and his wife were unhappy that despite various fertility treatments they had been unable to produce a second child.
Although periodically, throughout childhood, an only child may express the wish for a sibling, I think it is not surprising that that little girl seemed to long intensely for a sister. In perhaps subtle ways, her parents may have projected onto her their own desires and their own feelings that one child was not enough. It's also possible that she was nowhere near as "depressed" about it as her father thought. Many only children, as we will see, go in and out of fantasies about having a brother or sister, and the nonfulfillment of those fantasies is not necessarily painful or traumatic.
In these and other ways we will explore how your own thoughts and feelings may intrude on the way you view your child and how, in turn, she views herself. Be aware of the pressures from your own history or emotions and from the outside world, and you will be able to take charge of them in healthy ways.
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I shall refer later to the "glorious sibling." The slightly derisive sound of that term is not meant to suggest that siblings are inevitably anything but glorious and wonderful; having a loving brother or sister or two to grow up with is a joy and a pleasure. Siblings often are great friends and allies, and a comforting presence in one another's lives over a lifetime.
Sometimes, however, they are not friends or allies or even especially loving. Sometimes they influence one another in hurtful or damaging ways that linger on into adulthood.
What's important for the parent of an only to know is that a child does not need a brother or sister to learn about sharing or getting on with his peers or standing up for himself when the going gets rough. The notion that sibling rivalry is the only cauldron in which a youngster masters those lessons is popular but erroneous. With your help, your child will get all the "real life" experience he needs. And also with your help, he will learn how to begin to forge the kind of loving connections and fast friendships that develop in the happiest sibling relationships.
We will in these pages debunk the myths about the only child—that he feels lonely, he is bound to be spoiled, he is selfish, he is an isolate. Much research confirms that these are indeed stereotypes and that onlies by and large are self-confident, well-adjusted, high-achieving, and well-liked individuals.