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The data on family size is in, but which is best? One child or more?

We’ve been noticing over the last few years that more of our clients at The Parent Team have one child rather than multiple children.

And now the facts confirm it. Single-child families are on the rise in the UK. “Of all families with dependent children, families with one child made up 44% (3.6 million) in 2022. Families with two children made up 41% (3.4 million), and families with three or more children made up 15% (1.2 million).” Source

My daughter started life as a 28-week preemie, and my husband and I decided, despite being from big families ourselves, that we didn’t want to chance another 10-week hospital stay. We agreed we were very happy to be one and done.

But the stories I read back then about being an only child were rather negative and I found this really upsetting. They used words like coddled, over-indulged, spoilt, narcissistic, selfish, secluded, lonely … not words you want to describe your much-loved child. And it simply didn’t match my experience in our happy family of 3.

Then, in 2010, an article appeared in The Sunday Times with the attention-grabbing headline “Life is Sweetest for the Only Child” and told of new studies revealing that only children are more contented than children with siblings. I remember reading the article and thinking “yes, finally someone is saying something positive about our experience”.

This is not a blog about which is better — rather it’s about parenting tips for an only child — and truthfully, they’re not that different to what we’d suggest to parents with more than one child. So, whether you’re like me, with one child, Juliet and Victoria with 2 each, or Jenny with 4 children, you’ll all be able to benefit from these suggestions.

Recognise the upsides

This bit is about the benefits of being ‘one and done’, quite simply because that’s my experience! And parents of more than one will have their perspective of the joys of multiple kids.

For us, family life has, for the most part, felt uncomplicated and mostly calm. Travelling, for starters, was always quite easy — three airline tickets, one hotel room, one small rental car, easier to see more of a museum or city walk with only one child to keep an eye on. 

A quick breeze through Reddit and you see that others share similar thoughts that daily life is more manageable, financial resources aren’t divided, and it’s easier to plan one-on-one time. A lot of the comments were about the desire to live a less-stressed life – which of course is possible with more than one child.

Research shows that it’s financial positions that place more stress on a family rather than number of children they have. That said, with one child, the entire school process is also a one and done. There is one set of homework and exams, one set of fees, one set of sports/arts fixtures and lessons. It’s less complex. That doesn’t mean better. It’s less scheduling, less organising all of which means less stress. And it doesn’t mean that those with multiples can’t sort all that stuff out – because they can and do, beautifully.

I have friends who always wanted big families and wouldn’t have it any other way. That was never my vision of life, which made it easier to be happy with the choice to have one child. It really comes down to choice – whether that’s a choice that is made for you or a choice that you make yourself.

Ditch the guilt

All parents feel guilty about something! The parent of the only child may feel guilty about not giving their child a sibling, or guilt that the child spends time a lot of time alone. The parent of more than one child may feel guilt that they don’t spend enough one-on-one time with their children. You can’t win either way … but you can find ways to give your child special one-on-one time where for a short period each week they get you all to themselves, doing what they want to do. We recommend this for all children.

With an only child though, the child spends a lot of time alone with their parents, but usually doing things the parents are doing. That’s why it’s so great to set up time each week (15-20 minutes) to play what your child wants to play. I remember spending time playing dollies with my child when she was little. Was it favourite thing to do? No. Definitely not. But it was something that she adored – which made it fun!

All parents are doing the best they can … and adding a dose of guilt to an already stressful and harried life is unhelpful at best.

Offer autonomy

Because an only child doesn’t have a similarly aged ally, they don’t have anyone to share their grievances with. But they still have their own opinions, thoughts, ideas … and it’s essential to make space for them. It’s also helpful to offer up small, safe choices where appropriate, whether that’s spaghetti or penne, or walking or scooting to school, or carrying or wearing a coat.

Along the lines of autonomy, it often feels easier to do things for our kids, and it’s even easier when you have just one child! It’s essential that we give all our children the chance to learn to do things for themselves – age reliant. If we want our children to be able to wash their clothes, cook a simple meal, take public transportation … teach them the skills and provide opportunities to do these things as they’re growing up.

Allow them to lose

Without siblings to regularly play games with – whether it’s Hide and Seek, football, a board or video game, only children don’t often get the chance to lose, and in doing so, experience disappointment. Losing a game of Monopoly is a painless way of learning what disappointment feels like and how to manage it. In line with avoiding doing everything for our kids, it’s a great practice to play a game honestly. If they win – great – and the win can be celebrated with a congratulatory handshake. And if they don’t win, they can acknowledge the winner with the same handshake and the humility that goes along with it. I remember playing Mancala with my child, and there were many times that she beat me outright, and others when I won. What she learned is that winning feels a whole lot better when we know what losing also feels like.

Start playdates early

The perception that an only child is lonely, coddled and selfish is thankfully outdated, primarily because parents understand that social/emotional development is an important part of child development. It’s helpful to remember that the way children play evolves as they grow.

The first two years they’ll play alone – not so interested in interacting with others. Around two years old, they like to see what others are doing, and potentially join in, but it’s not really until after the age of two that they move into parallel play, where they’re with another child, but not necessarily playing together. That comes later, around the age of 3-4, where “associative play” begins, perhaps with a shared activity — although they’re still not necessarily doing things together. Around the age of 4 though, they begin “cooperative play” where they start to interact with others, share a curious interest in what they’re doing. It’s helpful to have insight into these stages, as often we think that a playdate means they need to be doing everything together. Often, when they’re little, it’s more about just having them in the same space and providing them with things to do independently.

Consider summer camp

As they get older, summer camp is a great way for children to further develop their social skills and spread their wings. Without siblings at home for long school breaks, summer camp also supports the development of a child’s independence, resilience and self-efficacy. Afterall, it’s a place where they can learn to make their own friendships, try new things away from a parent’s concerned eyes; they learn to live with others, share spaces; they learn to contribute to having order by having to make their beds, keep the cabin organised and perhaps even clean the toilet! My child started with 5 nights when she was 8, and by the time she was 15 was off on a two-week canoe trip with ten other girls in the wilderness of Quebec. The benefits of time away at camp are enormous — and the skills and friendships last a lifetime.

Welcome imaginary friends

This is not unique to only children. Many children have imaginary friends, and research conducted by BMC Psychiatry suggests that “the presence of an imaginary companion can not only support children but also promote creativity and distance them from the virtual space and realities of the real world.” So, if you notice your child talking a lot about someone you don’t know from anywhere else in their life, invite this friend into your family life. They won’t be around forever, but they’ll be long remembered with great fondness.

Teach how to share and resolve conflict

For sure, a house where sibling squabbles aren’t a daily occurrence can have a positive effect on parental stress – but no siblings doesn’t mean no conflict. It just means that the parents are on the receiving end of the only child’s frustrations. Conflict is a natural part of family life, and it’s healthy to show children – onlies or more – that disagreements are to be expected, and that there are positive ways to handle them. If you see you child disagreeing with a friend, revisit it after the friend leaves, and have a conversation about what they could have done differently.

As for sharing, when children are very small, they are at an egocentric stage of development, and sharing, at this stage, does not come naturally. Somewhere between 3 and 5, though, when play becomes more interactive, sharing becomes more important, and a child unwilling to share soon discovers that their playdate might not enjoy playing with them so much! Show your children how to share by modelling it. If there is one slice of pizza left, offer to divide it and share. Choosing what movie to watch, say ‘I chose last time. It’s your turn.’ Children are watching and taking in what they see around them. Seeing it in action in front of their own eyes makes it so much easier.

Get a dog (or any pet, really!)

Only children can get tired of being the focus of attention and long to divide the attention. If you don’t already have a pet, and if it’s a reasonable choice, do consider it. It gives the child something else to love and take care of – which teaches them responsibility, empathy and they feel such a relief to not be the centre of attention anymore.

Delay gratification

It’s so easy to say ‘sure’ when your only child asks to do something. If there were a sibling, perhaps that thing would be impossible, and your child would have to either wait or completely forego what they want to do. It’s ok to say ‘no’ to your only child – in fact, it’s rather important that they get used to learning to wait, or feel disappointed. It’s still important to have clear routines, rules and use positive discipline when rules aren’t followed.

So, are there particular downsides for an only child? Sure ….

Children with siblings, when frustrated with parents, or another sibling, have an ally, another to share that unique family experience with. The only child may have cousins and friends, but another with whom they can share in family traditions, or commiserate with, that’s something they don’t grow up enjoying. And as they become adults, there isn’t a sibling with whom to share family problems and halve the burden of caring for aging parents, rather they must make many decisions unilaterally.

That said, after twenty years, my daughter and I have a wonderful relationship. Sure, we can annoy each other, but now that she is away at university, we talk regularly and enjoy the times we get to be together.