Only child or lonely child?
Picture a perfect family. The pure joy a family shares on Christmas morning. The kids waking up early and running to wake their parents up so they can open the presents they’ve been eyeing for weeks. Or maybe, picture a family camping trip, the telling of scary stories while cooking smores around a fire pit.
I’m no psychic, but if I had to guess, I bet your vision of familial perfection includes more than one child. I know mine does.
The only problem, however, is that I am an only child.
To me, having no siblings is such a core part of my existence and identity that I forget I’m in the minority. While the average number of children per household is shrinking (according to The Pew Research Center that number is currently about 2 children per family), it is still more common for families to have three children than one.
Maybe that is what accounts for the general response I receive when I tell people I’m an only child. It usually seems to be one of jealousy, and sometimes outright resentment. Phrases such as “Oh my god, you’re so lucky,” or “Oh, so you’re probably super spoiled” seem to be common themes in my life. Is that really the case, though? Just because I’m an only child, does that make me spoiled or enviable? Maybe it does, but maybe it’s just a stereotype with no real evidence.
If I had to state my opinion, I would say that like everything, being an only child isn’t just black or white. It’s more of a muddled grey.
My family’s choice to have an only child also fell into this grey area. It wasn’t anything they planned out. My mom has a younger brother, and when I asked her why she chose to only have one child, her response was surprising. “I didn’t set out to have only one child,” she leveled with me, “I always assumed I would have two.” Then, life happened, and by the time I was born, my mom was forty.
For her, the long-time desire to have children didn’t manifest. “I had always felt young, but my once unlimited energy left me. Having a child at forty is difficult. But even though I didn’t foresee how tired I’d be, I also didn’t expect to be so overwhelmed by joy.”
Maybe for her having one child was enough. For me though, it’s hard to feel like I got the whole childhood experience. According to a French study conducted by Arnaud Regnier-Loilier, most only children want to have more than one child of their own. Maybe it’s because only children have a sneaking suspicion that they missed out on one of the key aspects of life, having a sibling, and want their children to get in on it.
However, my dad’s side of the family provides a counterexample. My dad considers himself to be an only child. “I have two half-siblings,” he explains, “One of them is fifteen years older than I am and one of them is twenty years older than I am. I didn’t grow up with either of them, so they’re not really siblings in the sense of people that you grow up with.”
The way he sees it, I am a third-generation only child (my grandfather on my dad’s side also had no siblings), so that begs the question: can it really be that bad? If one set of my great-grandparents, grandparents, and my parents all chose to have exclusively one child, wouldn’t at least one of them have broken the chain, especially if it was such a bad experience?
When I asked my dad why he didn’t want any more than one child, he told me that he didn’t even think about it like that. “There wasn’t a plan. In fact, to be quite honest with you about it, I didn’t ever really see myself having a kid … Once you were here though, it was a conscious decision to have only one.”
After talking to my parents, it seemed to me that being an only child wasn’t something they were vehement about. As my dad put it, “It was kind of just something that happened.” The thought that it could have just as easily gone the other way and I could have had a sibling was disorientating to me. I was so close to having such a drastically different existence.
To begin to answer the question of how a sibling might have changed me, I first looked at the advantages and disadvantages of a sibling-less existence.
The clearest advantage in my mind is that I have no competition in any aspect of my home life. I have never had to wonder which sibling my parents prefer or fight for the front seat in the car. I don’t have to fight for counter space in the bathroom or compete to see which sibling the family dog prefers. I always get the front seat, I have my own bathroom, and I know my parents and my dog don’t love any other kids more than they love me. In a way, that gives me a sense of security and adequacy.
Sophomore Ryan Yanevich told me that “having three siblings is something which greatly complicates your schedule, as your parents have to plan around four children, in addition to their busy lives.” I never have to compete for my parents’ time, because for the most part, I get to plan my own schedule without much interference. Additionally, my mom doesn’t work, so I get to have a lot more control over my life than most of my peers. This has allowed me to fully explore anything I have ever been interested in the fullest extent possible.
However, there are two sides to every coin, and I think that in a lot of ways, growing up without competition wasn’t the best thing for me. First of all, I can’t deal with conflict. As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned to deal with it more, but even now, when people make fun of me I take it harder than the average person. Miriam Baram, a sophomore at Sarasota High with a twin brother and an older brother told me that “having two brothers definitely made me a tougher person mentally and physically.” I never benefited from the thick skin that comes with growing up with what I imagine a sibling to be: an in-home boxing partner who delights in nothing more than to insult you.
Baram says that “having siblings can be complicated. I hate them one day but the next day we are back to being friends. When push comes to shove, I know that they will be there regardless of what happens between us because we are family.” That’s probably the one thing I feel that I missed out on the most: the unconditional bond siblings share. Since I have no siblings and my family is smaller than average, I am the youngest person in my family by a lot. When I grow up, there won’t be anyone who I can look back on my childhood with and reminisce on the so-called “golden years.”
There’s also a definite social aspect that comes with having siblings. According to pyschologytoday.com, “the first microcosm of a peer relationship exists with a sibling. Hence, what happens in the sibling relationship is the catalyst for all future social engagements.” That means that sometimes, as the stereotype goes, those sibling-less ones among us can be a little socially challenged. I know that for me, I spent a lot of time alone growing up, and it became something that was comfortable for me. Now, when I spend prolonged periods of time around other people, I become exhausted. Alone time isn’t boring or sad for me, it’s restorative.
Nikole Gaydos, my fellow sophomore and only child, admitted: “Growing up without siblings was lonely, and I wish that I didn’t have to do that.” I definitely feel her pain, but I also think that one of the best things being an only child gave me was the ability to be alone without being lonely. Being alone teaches you how to do things yourself, and it means you have to learn how to deal with responsibility fairly quickly. It also means you often get comments like “Wow, you’re so mature for your age!” because you have to learn how to converse with adults early on.
At the end of the day, I think a lot of what makes people unhappy with their situations, whether they have siblings or not is the “grass is always greener on the other side” mentality. Personally, being an only child has given me a lot of opportunities that I may not have otherwise had, but I still find myself wondering if having a sibling would’ve been better for me as a whole.
The way my dad summed up his whole experience as an only child was this: “If you would have asked me at fifteen [whether I liked life without siblings] I would’ve said no, but now that I have the maturity that comes with growing up, I think that it was a positive experience overall. Though having no siblings did make me different than others, it gave me everything I needed to succeed, and it was an experience I wouldn’t trade.”1
Brother or bother?
Around 80% of Americans have at least one sibling, and I am no exception. As the younger of two, there has always been this annoying presence constantly looking over my shoulder, generally making my life more difficult than it should be, my brother.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my brother, but for most of my young life, I didn’t like my brother. I didn’t really understand how much of an impact he had on me until he left for college. Without him even knowing it, he’s actually taught me to tackle difficult problems, allowed me to socialize effectively, and made me more responsible by watching and imitating him.
Having him around has had a profound effect on my life, from my outside relations to my ability to deal with conflict.
Since I am not the only person in the world with a sibling, I’m not really ‘labeled’ as anything, unlike most only children, since most people tend to think of them as spoiled, attention-seeking, or awkward in social situations. This is because they never had a brother or sister to grow up with, fight with, or learn from.
Most kids without siblings also tend to have biased opinions of what having a sibling is like. For instance, sophomore Nikole Gaydos said that she thinks that “if you have a sibling either you hate them or you’re best friends.”
To be honest she’s not entirely wrong. However, many people fall into a middle relationship with their sibling where sometimes they get along and sometimes they don’t.
Maria Erquiaga said, “there are times when I love being in a big family but also times when I wish it weren’t so big.” She is the second oldest of seven and in a big family, it tends to “get a little loud and a little crazy.”
I only have one brother and while I occasionally get along with him he tends to get on my nerves.
My dad used to say, “sometimes [your siblings] take your stuff without asking and sometimes your parents have to do stuff for them and not you. [your parents] have to split their attention to accommodate all the demands on their time.”
While sharing can be annoying it does teach you that there are other people in this world and you can’t be the center of attention all the time.
My dad, the eldest of five, said.“[Being the eldest sibling] I definitely got in trouble more because I had more responsibility and I had to babysit my siblings or drive them around,” You learn that sometimes you have to take responsibility for yourself and your actions, and look out for your siblings because no one else will.
Having a sibling forces you to have a relationship with someone for the rest of your life. There is not much that you can do to make them hate you so much they’ll never talk to you again. This means you can act however rudely, or kindly, that you want to your sibling and at the end of the day, you’ll still have to share a bathroom.
Growing up with a brother, I was much better suited to make friends. We fought a lot as kids and still do today, but that probably gave me two of my most important life skills: arguing and being able to be insulted. That kind of sounds bad, but siblings squabble, and after hearing someone yell insults at you, you become better suited to taking them.
Having more than one sibling is even more different. Not only do you have more people to deal with, but you also have more people to hang out with. Growing up without siblings kind of seems lonely to me. If I was ever bored, I could go and find my brother. If he didn’t want to play with me I’d annoy him until my mom had to intervene. Even though we didn’t get along most of the time, he was still a part of my life, and now that he’s in college, it’s odd not having him around.
My mom, who grew up as the second eldest of nine, said, “Most of the time I preferred having siblings. There was always someone to play with growing up, someone to annoy, and now some of my siblings are close friends.”
For her, her siblings shaped the way she grew up, and she learned “how to share and how to realize the world doesn’t revolve around you, and also how to negotiate to get what you want and accept it if you don’t. You also learn to not take yourself so seriously.”
This is something that a lot of only children don’t understand. While being an only child doesn’t necessarily make you spoiled, a lot of times these children have problems accepting that sometimes they won’t get everything they feel they deserve.
Erquiaga said, “It’s interesting because you are working with a lot of people who are really different from you because when you hang out with friends you hang out with people who you have stuff in common with. I hang out with my brother I’m like what are we supposed to talk about. But at the same time, it makes you figure out what common ground you have with everyone. Also, our differences make us reach out to each other more. We have to learn to compromise and get along, or we don’t get along.”
Siblings teach you to get along with someone who is completely different from you. This is important later on if you’re at school or work, and you have to interact with someone you’ve just met or aren’t really friends with.
I know that some people might think that it would be nice to get all the attention or not have to share a bathroom with your sibling, but to me not having an older brother growing up would have made my life much different. I feel like being an only child would be lonely. There would be no one to hang out with, no one to annoy, and no one who will understand the same experiences you had growing up. Also, there’s no one to ask for advice about life other than your parents. Your parents grew up, went to high school, and applied for college a long time ago, but your sibling went through similar situations much more recently.
My mom said that she and my father “wanted two children. [They] wanted [my brother and I] to have siblings when [they] were gone.” While a little dark, this is a common factor that brings siblings together when they’re older. Once your parents are gone, you still have a sibling or two that will always be there for you, and who are you are stuck with for the rest of your life.
While I personally think that having a sibling would be better than being an only child, I don’t really know any other way. I grew up with an older brother, and while I can imagine what it’s like, I’ll never really know. Having a brother has taught me how to get along with people different from myself, made me more conscious of others, and also gave me someone who for the rest of our lives, I’m stuck with.1