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Your Only Child

Why you can trust your decision to have one child. By JoAnne Solchany, R.N., Ph.D.

What do Robin Williams, Laura Bush, Franklin Roosevelt, Tiger Woods, and Barbra Streisand have in common? Each is an only child and all became confident, secure individuals who learned to use their abilities in exciting ways.

Whether you’re a couple or a single mom or dad, you’ve most likely gone the extra mile to reorganize your life for parenthood. But you worry that your decision to parent just one child might not be fair, or the right thing to do. Well, ease up on yourself.

Only child does not equal lonely child. An “only” has the permanent position of center stage in her parents’ eyes. It is a wonderful place to be, especially for the adopted child who has experienced multiple placements or institutional care. Research shows that only children tend to become self-reliant and believe in themselves and their families. They also seem to develop great skill at social interaction.

Unfortunately, only children have been longtime recipients of a “bad rap.” They are often described as rigid, perfectionistic, lonely, or self-centered. Their parents have been criticized as doting and intrusive. Yet such characterizations can be true of any child, whether she has siblings or not.


Certainly, parenting an only child has its challenges. The tendency is to be overprotective, to solve a child’s problems at the expense of promoting her independence. Parents may slip into overindulgence, forgetting that their child needs limits and needs to do for herself. Again, these problems can plague any parent with any number of kids.

Parenting an only child can also be wonderful. It can afford you the logistical and financial flexibility to offer your child a unique set of experiences, such as travel or a choice of schools. Your child may grow to feel different from kids with siblings, but it can be a wonderful kind of different—special, loved, and cherished. To steer your preschooler on this path:

  1. Strike a balance: closeness with space, opportunity with responsibility, trust with limits.
  2. Connect him with pals. Encourage peer relationships: in preschool, your neighborhood, pee-wee sports programs, arts programs; with different-aged kids, families with multiple children, and other adopted kids.
  3. Let her fight her own battles. Encourage your child to figure out with her playmate how to share that toy or decide who gets to go first. This will help her develop confidence and self-reliance. Offer suggestions and give ideas, but leave the problem solving to her.
  4. Avoid taking on the role of a brother or sister—you are the parent, not the playmate, rival, or best friend.
  5. Tell her why she’s special. Let your child know that she is an only child because you want to be the best parent you can be for her. Will an only child sometimes ask for a sibling? Complain that life is better for the six-kid family down the street? Sure. Everyone has moments when the grass seems greener. But what’s most important in childhood is the nurturing presence of a loving parent.

Dr. JoAnne Solchany is an assistant professor of child and family nursing at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Read These:

  • Parenting an Only Child by Susan Newman Ph.D. (Random House, 2001). Read our review.
  • You and Your Only Child, by Patricia Nachman and Andrea Thompson (Perennial, 1998)
  • Little Bunny’s Sleepless Night, by Carol Roth (North South Books, 1999)
  • Why Am I an Only Child? by Jane Annunziata, et al (Magination, 1998)

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