In my previous post we saw that having well attuned parents in early childhood and opportunities to mix with other children, can ensure the only child will not be at a disadvantage in social and psychological development. This continues to be true once a child begins school as they will be able to continue to develop trust and autonomy from the first life-stage as well as initiative and industry as they grow older.
Whilst children with siblings have learned a good deal of interaction with each other; optimally only children will also have been given similar opportunities. However recent research has estimated that on average siblings spend about 33% of their free time with a sibling (Time Magazine 2006) which the article states is considerable more time than they spend with either parents, friends, and teachers or even alone. As a sibling they have acted as playmate, collaborator, co-conspirator, tormentor, an object of both envy and pride, and as a vehicle to cultivate empathic feelings. Conversely each sibling has been on the other end of that learning, experiencing all of those roles from their sibling. Thus siblings both model different behaviours and facilitate opportunities to learn and copy these behaviours.
In a previous post I described how significant siblings are for learning and practicing social interaction. They teach us how to and not to resolve conflicts, to be angry and make up, to share secrets, and to learn ways of dealing with the opposite sex – even if you do not have an opposite sex sibling, friends of siblings may offer these opportunities. Siblings can also form a buffer against parental difficulties, becoming even closer and often supportive of each other when parents are experiencing difficulties in their relationship or if they are particularly abusive or neglectful.
However sibling social and emotional learning is unavailable to the only child who has only adult role models to learn from, which may sound beneficial, but can lead to the learning and displaying of behaviours, which are not appropriate for a child. These behaviours are learnt from the parent and will sound parental in form and tone. The child can appear precocious or as described elsewhere as a ‘little adult’ who may become a figure of fun or ridicule because they display ‘parental’ behaviours (rather more than adult ones). An example would be a child who gave parental warnings to ‘be careful’ or ‘tell the teacher’. A ‘little adult’ can find themselves left out or spend time standing on the edge of a group rather than joining in. They are not used to interacting with peers and find them childish, instead they may be more comfortable and happier interacting with the teacher or another adult, as this is more familiar.
Similarly the only child who primarily experiences adult role models can be left very aware of the power differential between them and the adults around them. This can lead some only-children to feel inferior by comparison. This is further exacerbated when the child enters the social world of teachers, peers and other members of the community whilst learning, sometimes for the first time, social skills required by society. To enter this new world in deficit, leads to a greater danger of developing a sense of inferiority or incompetence. At this stage, if not before, the only child may also become aware of the social stigma surrounding their ‘only-childness’ which can continue to engender a sense of shame. Often this becomes apparent because of the only-child’s lack of social skills, their difficulties in sharing, knowing the rules of the game, or even standing up for themselves. Only child adults who have written to me have indicated a high incidence of bullying because they did not ‘fit in’.
However none of this is inevitable and many only-children can be very popular because they are prepared to be different. They have gained trust, autonomy and are able to develop socially and emotionally. These only-children appear more comfortable in themselves, and have experienced supportive parenting who have enabled them to interact with a lot of children from a young age and have not allowed them to become the centre of their parents relationship. These are often the ones who really appreciate their experience of being an only-child.
In my next post I will look at adolescence.