only childWe get the usual questions: Is he your only one? Do you want more? Most people we meet ask us if we are “done”—which leads to a conversation about why we have only one child. This conversation never seems to develop for people who have two or more children since that tends to be the norm in society.

Truthfully, we didn’t plan on any certain number. I think this is why we have always been content with one.  Our family routine grew around Henry, and we became comfortable and happy in that routine. For those who struggle with infertility, however, the awkwardness of the “one and done” questions are hurtful.

And then I think of the traits that are often ascribed to only children: selfish, spoiled, socially awkward, bossy.  Sometimes, I think these “only-child” traits are so ingrained in society that people overlook the positives that come with raising an only child. 

This is where the stress and worry about parenting an only child comes into play. What if we “mess up?” There is a joke about firstborn children being the “experiment” for younger siblings. Henry is our only one, so we have one shot.

My husband JJ and I joke that Henry knows no stranger. He is kind of like an adult in a child’s body.  I advise people who meet him for the first time to make sure they have twenty minutes to spare for a conversation! Despite popular belief, only children can be quite sociable. Their circle, however, may encompass an older crowd.  Only children are surrounded by adults, so they mimic our mannerisms and vocabulary more. They can be more mature in mind than kids of the same age. This is a challenge when raising an only child, because, well—they are still children—and most of their interactions outside of the home will be with other children. Making sure only children have a variety of activities helps create a strong social network that may otherwise be limited.

Luckily, managing activities can be easier with an only child. There is no choosing between one activity or another because of time or financial restraints that may come with more than one child.  JJ and I “trade off” to take Henry to his activities, so we do not feel the stress of rushing from swim to karate to piano. We are also able to spend more time with Henry because he is an only child. I think the best benefit in parenting an only child is the amount of time we have available for him. I can’t think of many instances during any given day when I didn’t spend quality time with him.

JJ is an only child, and I will joke with him when he “acts like an only child.” In seriousness, though, I ask, “Weren’t you lonely?” He responds with a firm, “No.” This is where his love of reading developed, and I have seen the same love of reading develop within Henry, who is also content to be by himself. This created a change in my thinking about only children: there is a difference in being alone and being lonely.

While I have trouble imagining JJ’s life without a sibling, he can’t imagine life with a sibling. My sister, Jenn, and I talk about all those “remember when….” stories from our childhood, and JJ doesn’t understand why she and I still talk!  Jenn and I had the usual sibling arguments all the time, so I sure am glad that the “Get Along” shirts didn’t exist back in the ’80s. Our best “remember when…” story is the Christmas when she told me her Lite Brite pieces were colorful candies and proceeded to offer them to me to eat! She may have nearly killed me, but we laugh over it today. Our story is now a cherished memory.

I am sometimes sad that Henry won’t experience sibling memories. So, we send Henry over to our neighbor, his “Auntie G,” to spend time with her three boys. Henry is able to get that “sibling” feeling: rough-housing, smack-talking, Nerf-blasting. He has his adopted “brothers” and comes to understand a dynamic that we will never have in our family of three. These are growing pains for Henry, to suddenly have three big boys in the midst, but his time with the boys are now his cherished memories.  

Parenting an only child means being more diligent when traits like selfishness or bossiness appear. JJ and I make sure that we all take turns deciding what we will do as a family. Henry does not “always get his way,” and while he doesn’t always appreciate the art of compromise, it is one way to combat some of those negatives on the list. When we choose to do something that is not at the top of his list, he is learning to understand that his voice is not the only voice.

People (myself included at one point) tend to think that only children are limited, but, really, the world is in their hands.  Henry—and other only children—can have the best of both worlds. They are comfortable being alone, yet they also enjoy the company of others. Their minds may mature more quickly, but they have a deeper understanding of the world.

I think of the lessons I learned because of my sister: I learned how to deal with challenges. I learned how to get along with people when I didn’t want to. I learned to get back at someone when I was mad! I learned how to make up and say “I’m sorry.” But so did JJ, and so will Henry. We can all learn the same lessons, no matter how many siblings we do, or don’t, have.

Deirdre Johns is Mom to Henry, an eight and a half-year-old lover of animals and nature. She has been teaching English for thirteen years, currently at Hilton Head Christian Academy, and has lived in the Lowcountry with her family since 2012.