I have written about the so called only child trait of ‘selfish’ before, linked to the difficulties only child adults find in sharing, and the age old problem of the only child stereotype which depicts only children as spoilt and therefore selfish. I thought now is a good time to look at this particular stereotype more closely.
Firstly, I believe, the reason why only children are often accused of being selfish is because they do not learn ‘how’ to share from an early age. Parents will share with them but this is often a one way process: the parents give – the child takes. In the post What should I do, I comment on the need for parents to learn to share decision making, in order to model this way of behaving to their child. Having siblings, enables children to learn the importance of not always going first. Only children do not have this experience of being last or having another child go first. Some parents actively give too much to their child and thereby set up expectations that the child can have whatever they desire, when ever they desire it. This is not a healthy situation and will cause problems for them as adults. On the other hand some parents go over board and almost deny their child things, or make them earn them in order not to be accused of ‘spoiling’. Neither of these ways of bringing up children are helpful and the first example will certainly attract the label of selfish!
So whilst sharing and selfish are linked, equally only seeking to fulfill one’s own needs, at the expense of others, or not seeing beyond oneself (as in the cartoon) is another form of selfish.
At this point I think it is important to recognise that there are often different cultural and gender differences around this subject. In much of the history of both West and East the ideal of the feminine is a woman who puts her own needs second to the men in her life. Whether we agree with this or not, it still prevails. This means that even today many female children will be rewarded for being self-less in a way not expected of male children. However I would argue that being self-less is actually not a psychologically useful place to be for anyone. We all need to feel a level of self, a sense of our own autonomy. If our sense of self is overwhelming – we will probably be considered narcissistic. Too much sense of our own importance will be considered selfish! But there is a whole continuum of selfish behaviour some of which I believe is necessary. We need to have a sense of self in order to function as individuals. One of the problems that only children can face is not developing a sense of themselves because of parent-child enmeshment. This happens to both males and females and can be particularly crippling for boys who never find a way of separating from their mothers, but equally it is bad news for girls too!
It is particularly difficult if, as an only child, we were ourselves enmeshed. In this case it is so much harder to break that pattern when bringing up one’s own children. This is because enmeshment feels normal and anything else can feel uncomfortable or even abnormal. As this mother wrote, an only child herself:
“Looking more closely at my own very anxious thoughts about my son, over decades – I would say that the most appalling difficulty seemed to me – was to discover how to deliver personal autonomy to him. In a sense - he perhaps did not seem ‘self – ish’ enough. As if his ‘self” had been lost completely. It was a nightmare journey for me to recognize that perhaps no one can deliver ‘personal autonomy’ to any one else, and managing the accompanying terror of the potential for destruction that, I think, we might all ‘feel’ we have. I felt, at that time, an abject terror of sick symbiosis, where perhaps neither he, nor I, might ever have sufficient strength to stand ‘alone’. I had seen mother/son relationships that ‘looked like’ dreadful control bonding, not love at all.”
This writer realised, as a single mother, it was much harder, in fact impossible, to ‘teach’ autonomy to her son – this had to be offered by example, which meant she had to become autonomous from her own parents first. In her words: “By ‘example’ had to be the way – It seems to have worked out well enough for now!”
So in answer to my question: Do only child adults fit the stereotype of selfish?
Yes perhaps some do. However we all need a level of selfishness to the point of having a separate identity from our parents. We need to be autonomous individuals who can take control of our lives and make decisions accordingly. However if we do not learn to respect other people, equal to ourselves, then ‘selfishness’ will become a problem and the stereotype will remain valid.
Having said that I also believe some only child behaviours are always considered selfish. As described above, difficulties in learning to share (rather than the opposite behaviour some only chldren have of giving everything away) can be viewed as selfish when only children enter adulthood. There is also the reality that when you are an only one in the family, you may well have experienced the world as revolving around you. Take this into adulthood and the label selfish is sure to follow!! Difficulties in coping with intimacy and commitment can be a problem for adult onlies and this will also be labeled selfish.
So what should we do? I suggest it is important to be aware, that as an only, we see and experience the world in a particular way, which although it makes sense to us, but may well be viewed differently by others who have been brought up in the more social context of a sibling family.
So be aware! – the label might fit but we can always do something about it!