You know there’s a difference between being alone and being lonely. You can be lonely in a crowded city, a crowded room or a crowded home if the people there with you don’t relate to you, talk to you or even like you.
Conversely you can be alone and relishing it. Solitude isn’t in any way the same as loneliness. Time alone is treasured by creative people, they need it, and busy overworked or stressed people crave the peace and quiet of solitude. It’s time to unwind, be yourself, or really relax. It's good for mental health, for creativity and for the old cliché “getting in touch with yourself.”
It's important psychologically to be able to spend time alone happily, productively and without getting depressed. It's going to happen, so you need to be able to deal with it, enjoy it, need it.
So why when we talk about only children do we pull out the lonely word and write them all off as sad little people with no friends and no resources? And that’s the point. Only children might spend more time alone than those with siblings (even that’s debatable) but if you make sure they have a rich and accessible social life then their alone time, like yours, will be happy, creative solitude not loneliness.
Here are my tips for making sure your only child, or any child, isn’t lonely.
My son Tom is 14. He’s an only child and he’s been lonely once that I know of. I think he’d tell me if he’d been lonely on other occasions since he’s told me more intimate things than that so I can’t see why he’d conceal something so fixable.
We were on holidays he was five years old and my husband and I had really grown tired of playing imaginary games. We just couldn’t do it anymore. He was an imaginative person and the games needed another child. So my son started asking for his friend Harry. We managed to distract him until the holiday was over and of course Harry wasn’t all that interested when they finally hooked up. So goes life when you’re five. In any case it was a lesson learned. Let’s call it our first lesson in being a Gen Only parent.
Invite friends on holidays with you.
When we started inviting other families on holidays it was like a revelation. It was really fun. We’d rent houses together and invite friends or our favourite relatives and it was a lot more fun than being alone. We’d spend Easter together or Christmas and Summer breaks. It was like having a big family without the stresses and weirdness. There was rarely any tension, just a lot of fun. My son became very close and I’m sure lifelong friends with the children we went away with and the adults are like defacto Aunts and Uncles. Lucky kids.
Our next lesson was more accidental.
2. Make friends with your neighbours.
We were lucky enough to live in a blocked off street and our house was right in front of the little park that formed the block. Every Friday night and sometimes Sunday or Saturday afternoon, the neighbours would get together and the children would form a mass and run around in the darkness of the street playing games then roam from house to house watching movies and eating anything they could get their mitts on. Most nights there were around a dozen kids ranging in ages, girls and boys and they had a ball. Our kids called if “Jolly Nights” and that’s what they were. At Easter we’d all get together and hide eggs for the kids to find, at Halloween we’d start the night and finish with a party, on Christmas day we’d play cricket in the street, and on New Years Eve we’d lay out long tables and climb the hill in our nearby park to watch the fireworks Being so close the other children would drop by and he’d visit them.
His closest friend was a girl his age whose front door was right across the road. They spent a lot of time hanging out on weekends and holidays. For years we took her with us on weekend outings to give her parents a break who were weighed down with their second child.
One of our neighbours had a pool and the children were all invited in to swim on hot days. The parents would sit and chat while the kids played Marco Polo. Some of our closest friends live in that street, and my son was the luckiest kid alive to grow up surrounded by such an inclusive and loving community.
3 Be a part of a community.
When Tom started school it was the local public school that we sent him to. It was a great school and the parents were all really involved. From day one we all hooked up and became good friends. We’d invite children to each other’s homes in the afternoons and share pick up duties to save on after school care or baby sitters. Tom was rarely alone after school.
Before Tom was born we hung out at a local café that was just getting started. Before long there was a small group of us who hung out every morning chatting and drinking our coffee. When Tom born it was a great moment for everyone and Tom took his first steps in that café. The patrons and owners were there at his first birthday party and many of them dove into parenthood because they loved watching our son grow up so much. It was a precious time and once again Tom and we were surrounded by loving lovely people and their children. One of the children we met at the café is Harry, Tom’s best friend to this day.
The café too introduced us to Tom’s first baby sitter. She had a child, Max, who was about the same age. It was great for her, she earned money for looking after an extra child which made her life easier and Tom and Max played all day long. Later, Tom went into childcare like most children these days, where he met another one of his best friends Jack. Tom and Jack grew up like brothers who just happened to live apart.
4 Get a pet or two.
When Tom brought a worm into the house tucked up in his toy stroller we knew he needed a pet so we went out and got him a guinea pig. I couldn’t wait to bring animals into our home and the guinea pig came first. Brownie was the gentlest little girl and Tom would spend a lot of time sitting in the sunshine in the back yard stroking her long brown hair. His friends loved her too and spent hours playing with her, feeding her and building her homes out of shoe boxes and tea towels.
When the guinea pig passed away we got our precious dogs Jasper and Ned. Our dogs are Tom’s little brothers, he cuddles them, walks them, plays with them. When we got them Tom started coming home after school instead of going to friends houses to spend time with his dogs. At the same time his friend Jack and his family bought themselves two beautiful kittens. Who would have believed how two little creatures could change a home, filling in the gaps and bringing so much warmth, fun and love.
Of course it wasn’t just the pets fleshing out the boys lives. Tom and Jack were online. At around age 10 they discovered the glorious combination of Minecraft and Skype. Tom’s a creative soul and building houses, castles and cities while talking with his friends on Skype was heaven. They played imaginary games, built worlds, social structures even enterprises. There’d be a dozen or more children playing together in the most imaginative and creative ways.
5. Get On line.
Observing my son, his friends and their siblings, it’s clear that this generation of children is using the web to play and communicate with their friends in really creative ways. Rather than isolating them, it’s connecting them, giving them unlimited access to each other so they can play in imaginative ways. Minecraft, Club Penguin and any number of other environments, even Grand Theft Auto, gives teens a great opportunity to play on line, create imaginary worlds, role play as characters they invent, and hang out together.
Some recent research into teens and their use of social media has turned up some surprising results.
according to research in this months journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. researchers from Griffith University and the University of Queensland in Australia which compared teens feelings of loneliness from 1979 through to 2009, feelings of loneliness actually appear to be decreasing, Today's high school students feel less isolated than their predecessors, and while teenagers might have fewer friends these days, they feel more secure in their friendships and experience less desire to form new ones.
Lead researcher David Clark suggested that modernization has changed the way people interact with each other, possibly leading us to become more satisfied with smaller social networks. "People become less dependent on their families and need more specialized skills, which could lead to less interest in social support and more self-sufficiency," Clark said in a statement. "Over time, people are more individualistic, more extroverted, and have higher self-esteem."
Last year we moved overseas to the United States leaving behind all those wonderful friends that had been our world. But we soon started applying the rules we learned. We brought out dogs which helped us to normalise very quickly. Tom started a new school and quickly got on line with his new friends, cementing his relationship very quickly. We made contact with people in our building thorugh our dogs and chatting in lifts and started having them over and joining communities, socialising with the parents of his new friends. We spent our holidays with friends visiting from Australia, and we all spend time on line with our old friends and family in Australia.
At 14 Tom craves time alone to hang out in his room watching movies, reading, listening to music, talking to his friends online or drawing, and we’re there to hang out if he needs a chat, or a cuddle with a small dog. His new friends are starting to make an appearance so I’m not worried.
Tom’s childhood couldn’t be in starker contrast to my own. I was one of three children and when I grew up in the 1970s much of my family life was spent alone and lonely. We were migrants to Australia from the UK and so our relatives back home were so far away they might as well have been on the moon. We phoned my grandmother once a year.
Like most people back then, we holidayed with our nuclear family, spent Christmas and other special occasions with that same family, so that was just the five of us for a lot of the time. My parents didn’t socialise much, didn’t have people over for BBQs or parties, didn’t talk to the neighbours or the parents of my friends. We were really isolated.
I remember playing with my brother and sister when we were younger but there was a lot of conflict so we pretty quickly learned to keep out of each others way. And what has a 14 year old boy got in common with a ten year old girl anyway? When my brother hit his teen years he broke away from the family completely and refused to come on holidays or even really be around us, he left home as soon as he could. My sister and I really didn’t get along, and when my parents divorced my sister pretty much left home so that was that, I was 15 and alone. My mother worked long hours and rarely came home and my father was estranged so I spent a lot of my teen years alone with my dogs. So much for the big happy family.