When you talk to adult only children they often talk negatively about growing up without siblings and I can imagine it must have been tough. Whether they grew up in the 60s, 70s, 80s or even the 90s they were statistically an 'oddity' and as such subject to the suspicious scrutiny of ‘normal’ children and the prejudice of teachers and adults. Most remember being repeatedly asked, ‘Aren’t you lonely?’ ‘Aren’t you spoiled with all that stuff you get?’ ‘What’s it like to be a freak?”
The ‘Only Child Syndrome” myths ran rampant in the pre-internet information vacuum. TV preferred to snuggle up with the mythic big cuddly family, the more the merrier, and funnier. Only children were seen as kind of sad, they were outsiders, loners, weirdos and even spoiled brats. And back then there was no chat rooms or forums to dissipate the counter arguments based on research, expert opinion and the real life experiences of other ‘onlies’ or people with siblings. Like ‘the only gay in the village’ onlies suffered alone and in silence crushed by negative myths and stereotypes and a sense of missing out on the wonders of the mythical 'big strong brother' or 'cute little sister'. No wonder they wanted one.
In the multi-sibling norm of the 20th century it stands to reason that many parents who found themselves with one child must have done so by accident since almost no one aspired to a one child family. Infertility, the death of a sibling or divorce left them unexpectedly stranded with their planned ideal family forever incomplete.
Back then onlies would have lived through all the losses and disappointments as their parent’s repeatedly failed to bring another child into the world, holding their breath and hoping for a sibling to come along to make things happy, complete and normal.
I can see why the ‘tragic’ parents of onlies would surely have tried to overcompensate for the lack of siblings by lavishing their sad only child with extra attention, toys, holidays, whatever they could afford to assuage the guilt and make up for the lack of a playmate to play board games with on a rainy weekend or share secrets under the covers when they were meant to be asleep.
I can imagine too how all that extra ‘stuff’ lavished on onlies only served to reinforce the notion that they were spoiled and abnormal; no hand-me-downs, a pencil set with five different shades of green, a ride on a plane, Barbie with all the accessories. It’s enough to make someone with siblings really envious, and what do kids do when they’re jealous? They take you down. "Oh you're an only child, that explains it." "Oh you must have been so lonely."
As they watched them on TV each night, the sibling must have seemed like a wonderful thing, the source of endless fun. Sure there were tough times (Marcia, Marcia, Marcia) but it was all good character building stuff and ultimately Jan Brady was lucky to have her beautiful big sister Marcia, and she knew it. Or so we were told.
But the world has changed, a lot. The new 'only’ lives in a very different world to the old one. In fact their lives couldn't be more different. As one of three and the mother of one, I've lived through every decade since the 60s and experienced the changes one by one. And as someone with a profound interest in this topic I've read the sad stories about growing up only and been able to contrast them with the experience of my 'only' growing up today. And while not all onlies grew up sadly back then, many did, I'm certain that
Here are the top 5 ways a new 'only' is different from the old one.
1. The new 'only' is the new choice.
The new 'only’s' parents are more likely to have chosen to have one child. For a start they have more control over their fertility and greater options to overcome their infertility. But also, they did the sums, looked at their busy schedules, the cost of living and their life priorities and decided one child gave them the best of both worlds. If you take away the sense of failure, loss and regret from the one child family it creates a different tone. The fact that the new only child is the product of choice not an accident, makes a profound difference in the way they are raised.
2. The new 'only' isn't a 'freak.'
The old 'only' felt like a 'freak', not so the new 'onlies.' Families today come in all shapes and sizes. Single parent families, blended families and single sex parents have replaced the 'traditional' family of mother, father and a couple of kids. And children today are more likely to experience a range of family structures as their parents' changing relationships and lifestyles throw up different combinations of household structures. In America in1960 73% of all children were living in a family with two married parents in their first marriage. Today that number has dropped to less than half (46%). The rise of divorce and freeing up of individual lifestyles has lead to a re-defining of the family 'norm' and to a more diverse and less static family model. New only children are as normal as anyone.
3. Only children are the new norm.
New onlies aren’t oddities, they are the fastest growing family size in much of the developed and developing world. Thanks to their sheer numbers they are growing up feeling normal. Their friends may or may not have siblings, either way their 'only' status doesn't draw much attention. There’s nothing to feel embarrassed about or have to explain because it’s so normal its kind of uninteresting.
4. Death of the 'idealised' sibling.
Old 'onlies' talk about a lifetime spent yearning for a sibling; a beloved playmate, best friend and supporter through childhood and in adulthood someone to share the burden of aging parents and cry with when parents pass away. But while old 'onlies' yearn for an idealised imaginary sibling, people with real siblings are increasingly defying taboos and speaking out about the faught nature of their own sibling relationships and the trauma and hurt they create long into adulthood. This honest discussion is being backed by psychologists and researchers who are delving into this taboo subject and finding sibling rivalry, bullying, abuse and parental favouritism to be not only common enough to be normal but also psychologically damaging both in childhood and into adulthood. As reality smashes away at the distorted cultural stereotype of the 'perfect' sibling, only children are less likely to fantasise about something they haven't got and more likely to look honestly at their siblinged friends and relatives and make a realistic judgement. Siblings like friends, are sometimes good and sometimes bad.
5. Facts beat myths.
Gradually bit by bit, the old stereotypes surrounding only children are being torn down and replaced by facts and real research showing only children to be normal. And with so many only children out there it’s becoming impossible to view them all through the limited outdated stereotype of spoiled and lonely. Clearly one in three children in the class room isn’t a ‘spoiled and lonely brat’ and if someone is then it’s not because they’re an only child it’s because they’re a 'spoiled and lonely brat.' Hammering all only children into a one size fits all round hole isn’t going to happen. Only children like women or gays or cable guys, are a diverse and complex group.
Accross the world more parents than ever are making the rational economic choice to stop at one child and as they do the power of their collective experience will create a new narrative about only children and a force for social change in favour of small, one child families. This new generation of only children won't be like any that went before. They live in an increasingly 'only friendly' world, and with a world population tipped to peak at more than 10 billion by 2100 they might just save it.