I just saw a former student from a few years back.
“How are you?” I inquired, looking at the almost-adult in front of me.
“Great,” she replied, “I just got my license today!”
“Awesome! That’s got to be a little freaky to have your first day driving on such a stormy day.”
“That’s why I brought my [younger] brother with me. That way, if I got into a wreck, I wouldn’t be alone.”
I am an only child. It’s a status that never gave me much thought as a child and when it was worthy of consideration, my attitude was generally one of gratitude as I encountered my friends’ obnoxious younger siblings. I was also a deliberate only child, raised by parents who were well-versed in the stereotypes and generalizations of solo offspring.
So it came as somewhat of a surprise to me the other day when I realized an undeniable adverse impact that being an only child had on me. But before I get to the downsides of being siblingless, let me begin with the positives. Because there is a LOT to be grateful for.
Are comfortable with adults. In larger families, there is a divide between the children and the adults. They occupy two separate spheres. As the only child, my world intersected the adult arena more often and, as a result, I grew comfortable talking to and interacting with adults. As a teacher, this is often the first clue I have about the size of my student’s families.
Learn to be assertive. I didn’t have a sibling to look out for me on the schoolyard or to help me navigate uncomfortable situations. I had to learn to do it myself (I didn’t find it an easy lesson). I had to reach out to have friends accompany me since I had no built-in peer group. Only children have to learn to speak for themselves.
Have a flexible view of family. Without siblings, children have a tendency to find and build familial relationships with others. Family is defined by the relationships formed between the people rather than the mandates of the DNA. This is a lesson that has served me well in adulthood as my tribe has morphed over time and location.
Independence. Without an older one to pave the way or a younger one to assume the blame, only children have to learn to stand on their own and take responsibility for their actions. I learned how to take care of myself, entertain myself and go out by myself. All good skills to have as an adult.
Of course, there were downsides too. As Brock and I watched two brothers tussle on screen in a series we’re watching, he mentioned how he and his siblings used to do similar all the time. And it suddenly clicked.
Don’t learn how to fight. And not just physically, as in the case on the show, but verbally as well. Most siblings are constantly battling for attention and resources. They antagonize each other and engage in frequent arguments and altercations. And unlike with a friend that you can discard, you have to return home to your sibling so navigating the discord is essential. Sibling squabbles teach kids that disagreements are natural and that you can love one another even when you’re fighting.
Have nobody to verify their experience. Only children do not have somebody else to talk to about their experiences with their parents. I was lucky, I only had the normal childhood parental gripes. But for those with parents who are toxic, abusive or narcissistic, the lack of a sounding board can be devastating and extremely isolating.
Limited lessons in learning to compromise and share. Yeah, kindergarten did a good job here, but it was still limited. After all, my room and my things at home were still my domain with nobody to challenge that status. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I became a teacher – it’s MY room! 🙂
Don’t have as much struggle for individuation. It’s always interesting to me how siblings assume family labels from a young age – “the athletic one,” “the smart one,” “the smart aleck one.” The kids have to find and fight for their individual identity from the beginning. And if they attend the same schools, it’s a struggle that follows them their entire childhood. As an only child, I never had to try to set myself apart from anyone.
I’m grateful for the recent ah-ha moment in my difficulty with interpersonal conflict and disagreement. It’s one of those areas where simply having an awareness pays dividends.
And as for Tiger, my current only canine child, we’re planning on getting him a sibling this fall in the hopes that he can pass on some of his awesomeness to the next doggy generation.