Does Only Mean Lonely?

by on September 13, 2008

in Articles

By Christopher Middleton, Daily Telegraph, 13 Sep 2008

Christopher Middleton assesses the solitary life of a child without siblings.

Not so long ago, the question of the moment was whether or not to buy a second home. Since the economic downturn, though, more and more couples in Britain are wondering whether or not to have a second child.
In pure economic terms, of course, stopping at one makes sense. According to the Liverpool Victoria insurance company, the current cost of raising a child from birth to 21 is £186,000, rising to £265,000 for children who will be born in 2012.

Emotionally, though, the calculations aren’t quite so clear-cut. Although the proportion of families with only one child has been steadily rising since 1972 (from 18 to 26 per cent), plenty of people still believe that the lack of siblings comes at a psychological cost to the “enfant unique” (as the French call only children).

By no means everyone agrees, of course. A brief and totally unscientific survey of only children in our neighbourhood reveals that while one of them would quite like a baby brother, the other two are in no hurry to see their family enlarged. “All the brothers and sisters I know seem to argue with each other,” says one 13-year-old boy. “I can do without that.” In years to come, though, will he still feel the same way?

Quite possibly not, says Dorset-based psychotherapist Bernice Sorensen, founder of the website “The reason I set up my site in the first place was because I got all these approaches from adults who, as life went on, had become more and more aware of their only-childness and the feeling that they had somehow missed out,” says Sorensen, herself an only child. “Of course, that’s not to say these feelings are inevitable. If you’re genuinely OK about being an only child when you’re young, the chances are you’ll stay that way. It’s just that quite a lot of only children don’t acknowledge they’re not OK about it until they’re older.” So while some boys and girls are perfectly happy talking to their dolls or staging all-day battles with their toy soldiers, others feel the lack of a sibling.

“I always felt rather ashamed at school, admitting I didn’t have brothers or sisters,” says Jane, a 46-year-old mother-of-four, now living in south-west London. “I think that’s why I’ve had lots of children myself; I didn’t want them to go through the same embarrassment.” Other only children talk about feeling they were a “mistake” and worrying that they were intruding into their parents’ marriage. Others, however, insist they thrived on their only-ness.
“I really quite enjoyed my own company, within reason – a fact that remains true today,” says BBC radio presenter Julian Worricker. “And as I got older, I didn’t go through a significant teenage rebellion.” Yes, unfashionable though it may be, many only children are actually friends with their parents. “I’m proud of how my husband, daughter and I relate to each other,” declares Carolyn White, founder of the website

“We were eating out the other day and the waiter was surprised when he found out we were our daughter’s parents. ‘You’re having such a good time together,’ he said. ‘Usually parents and children don’t have much to say to each other.’” But while that sort of harmonious family tableau might prompt some envious glances, it also attracts accusations of being unnatural.

“If a parent’s job is to equip their child for the outside world, then bringing them up to expect 100 per cent attention from other people is not a very realistic preparation,” says Dr Pat Spungin, founder of a parental advice website, “Having one or two siblings gives you a more accurate picture of how the outside world works, and helps you to develop the social and emotional skills that you need if you are to fit in with other people.”
The other big advantage of having brothers and sisters is that it spreads the load when parents grow old and need to be looked after themselves. Being required to shoulder the entire care burden means that having found it difficult to free themselves emotionally from their parents, many only children then find it hard in later life to disentangle themselves both administratively and domestically.

“There’s no question that being brought up as an only child does leave its mark on you,” says Bernice Sorensen, who offers counselling sessions in the West Country and runs workshops for only grown-ups.
“I’ve been married twice and I don’t think it’s any accident that both my previous and my present husband were only children like me. There’s a particular thing we only children do, which is to want our own space while at the same time demanding a high degree of intensity in our relationships. It takes another only child to be able to understand that contradiction.”

Famous only children
Leonardo da Vinci 
Elvis Presley
EM Forster 
Indira Gandhi
Jean-Paul Sartre
Frank Sinatra 
Lauren Bacall 
Tiger Woods 
Robin Williams 
Alexander Solzhenitsyn 
Elton John
Franklin D Roosevelt

The pros and cons of being an only child
•    Close relationship (even friendship) with parents
•    Sense of security, being special
•    No siblings to argue with
•    Feeling at ease with adults
•    Contentment with own company
•    Unrealistic view of own importance
•    Feeling out of step with other children
•    Outnumbered (and outvoted) by parents
•    Sole responsibility for parents when older
•    Inability to cope with (and resolve) conflict

  • Bernicesorensen

    I read about your web site in the article that appeared in Guardian weekend about only children. I was motivated to take a look. I have written a little bit about my experience of being an only. I have never sat down and in concrete form set out my thoughts and feelings about being an only. When I started writing everything just flowed and ended up being a lot longer than I meant. So apologies for the length, I suppose the point is that I have written it for me.

    It felt liberating to write and hopefully share my experiences of being an only, with other like minded people. So thanks for the motivation.

    The site is interesting and I look forward to exploring it more. I hope my account proves of some interest to your research.

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