How to Stop Suffering from the “Only Child Syndrome”


By Estelle Sobel Erasmus (updated)

With the winter from hell, many families have spent the time since cocooning with their child or children.

I’ve heard that some of the kids have played together well, while other moms have told me that “they are constantly fighting over toys, treats, hugs, and the best legos.”

And recently a friend told me that she is losing sleep at night because she only has one child; and “I feel guilty that he doesn’t have a sibling when so many of his friends do.” She says, “I’m just waiting for him to ask me why he doesn’t have a brother or sister, and don’t know what I’m going to say.”

I have one child too. A girl, 5 1/2; and we don’t plan to have any more. Without over sharing I had a very difficult pregnancy and felt that I couldn’t handle another child without sacrificing my marital and personal happiness. Also, I don’t feel any guilt about the decision; it’s the right one for our family.

As a journalist,I wanted to see what the research says about having and being an only child and discover the long-term effects of being raised as a singleton (full disclosure: both my husband and I have siblings).

I read the informative book, The Case for the Only Child, written by social psychologist Susan Newman, Ph.D.  and found some eye-opening statistics

*According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the single-child family is the fastest growing family unit and has been for more than two decades

*Statistics from the National Institutes of Health show more women are having their babies later in life (41% of newborns are born to women over the age of 35)

Yes, Most of the moms I know had their child/children when they were 35-43. I know several pregnant women, and they are in their early forties.

*Mothers of one child are the happiest (older parents are happier too)

The moms I know who are happiest are the older ones, maybe because they have already had varied life experiences, so don’t feel they are missing out on much by being parents.

*Adding more children to a family has no effect on fathers’ happiness but a negative effect on mothers’ contentment

*Siblings are not essential for “normal” development and the stereotypes we’ve heard about the only child (bossy, pushy, selfish, lonely) are not correct

In fact, according to Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the Marriage Project at Rutgers University, one child fulfills the maternal and parenting urges of more and more people these days and allows parents to keep a somewhat “adult-centered” life.

So what to do about those questions from family, strangers or as my friend was wondering your own child?

“When someone asks an inappropriate question or offers up a ‘he needs a sibling’ statement, you are within your rights to not respond,” says Newman. “You may even want to toss a question back at them: ‘Are you asking me about my personal life? You’ll forgive me if I don’t answer.’ Good chance you will get an apology.”

I kind of think that response is a little harsh. In my case,  a few months ago at a kids party, one of the moms repeatedly told my daughter, “you should tell your mommy you need a brother or sister.”  I think she was well-meaning, but after the third time she said it, I smiled and gently but pointedly told her, “we don’t talk about that with her.”

I nervously I waited for my daughter to bring it up, and was ready with reasons (we love you so much; this way all mommy’s and daddy’s love goes to you); but she didn’t much to my relief. Frankly, she knows that her other friends have siblings, but she doesn’t seem to miss the experience. Perhaps she also thinks that our cat is her sibling. Because she does seem to act territorial around him.

And what about family? Mine is very understanding (on both sides) so we don’t have an issue there. “If your family just won’t let the issue go, Newman suggests saying, “This is our family, we’re happy and it’s the way it’s going to be.”

Don’t be afraid to get angry to stop the badgering, says Newman. Another firm response: “We talked about having more children and one child is our choice—it works for us.”

When well-meaning people ask me “are you going to have another baby,” my pat response was to say, “I’m not sure,” or “we’ll see.” Now I’m more likely to say something like “We’re one and done.”
Is your child a singleton and how to do you respond to questions from people and/or your child about siblings?

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8 thoughts on “How to Stop Suffering from the “Only Child Syndrome””

  1. “Do you only have one?” “Are you having another one?” (and they often ask this while you’re holding your 2 month old, bleary-eyed and sleep deprived)…WHAT????

    Yes, I only have one….the best one, a good one, God blessed me BIG all at once. Why would I want another?…the one I have is perfect.

    Sure, there are days I wish I had been blessed with more children. But, there are more days that I believe 100% that being a single mother (not my plan) of an only child who has type 1 diabetes and requires a lot of extra care……is all this mom can handle.
    I know AMAZING mothers who raise 1, 2, 3 ….children on their own and I am in awe.
    It’s a tough road.
    We are blessed, my son is healthy and happy and pure JOY in my life.
    I only have one and can’t imagine my life any other way!
    By choice, by fate, by circumstances…….the gift of one child is just as great as the gift of many.

    In the future…I will be more aware….as, I have to adnit, I have asked this question of others.
    Thanks for the reminder and great input!

    1. Nori,
      Thanks so much for commenting and sharing your story. I’m so glad you have a healthy, happy son who gives you joy, and I couldn’t agree with you more that the gift of one child is just as great as the gift of many.

  2. I have ALWAYS been amazed at the cluelessness and audacity of people to comment, kibbutz, tease and/or judge another person’s child-bearing situations.  One never, EVER knows why someone else has no children, one child or 8 children, nor does one have the right to.  I hope the well-meaning folks take note of this article!  (Though, I doubt the clueless ones will…)

  3. I have been truly blessed to have a daughter.  With finding the love of my life later in life the all familiar biological clock and personal struggles… I am truly blessed.   “Do you plan on another so your daughter can have a sibling” I find it flattering at this point.  With age comes experience so to each his own its better than being asked before I had a child “Are you planning on having a child?” I like the one and we’re done.  For the pushy ones I just respond God willing that usually stops the conversation in its tracks. My child is loved and surrounded by other children.  There is no guarantee a sibling will bring any more joy than a neighboring play date. Every child is an individual.

    1. Michele, I know people who are super close with their siblings, as well as people who despise their siblings and have nothing in common with them. I agree with your sentiments and agree that the pushy ones just need to be stopped in their tracks:)
      Estelle aka mommymusings011

  4. I have two kids, but my daughter has several friends who are only children. I never asked why they didn’t have a sibling, because it is none of my business, so I think that is, no matter how well meaning, a rude question. I like your response Estelle, because having another child is not really something that should be discussed with your other child(ren)!
    The moms of Camille’s singleton friends loved sending their kids to play at our house. My son, the consumate “little brother” became like a surrogate sibling for them, and he enjoyed the patience of the older kids, who didn’t have to worry about him taking their toys, using their makeup or wrecking their rooms. And they enjoyed having a sibling that they could leave at my house after a playdate!
    I know many families with one child, and they are all very happy with their choice. I do notice that it is a growing trend to have one child, and I think that as mothers age and are more liable to have careers that they want to return to afterwards, the trend will only continue.

    1. Thanks Paula for your thoughtful response and for validating mine:)

       I find that lately people who have asked the question don’t seem to be originally from the United States, so I’m wondering if its actually acceptable to ask the question in some cultures? 
      Estelle aka mommymusings011

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