The lonely child: are we raising a generation of neurotics?

Birthrates in “1st world” countries are falling and who can blame us for failing to reproduce as the rewards of raising kids become ever slimmer and raising babies and young children becomes an increasing handicap in an ever more competitive world economy.

It’s happening among my friends as they approach their mid thirties. Kids are a status symbol of wall to wall childcare or stay at home yumminess, or a career breaker that no one regrets, exactly, but certainly feels the pinch. My gay friend, Laird, with four degrees and a jet setting lifestyle, has surprised himself by becoming broody, but hasn’t yet figured out the logistics. For many people, it’s still a choice between a successful career or parenting. Having it all has long gone by the wayside.

My sister, Katie is a case in point. She’s a ball breaker, a head honcho, a feisty go-getter who has grafted, flirted, commuted and stilettoed her way to the top of the tree in a top UK manufacturing company. For her efforts she is handsomely rewarded, but by god does she put in the hours.

She has a daughter, Sammie, two and a quarter, and a patient, gentle other half, Dave, who stays at home to raise her while Katie negotiates salaries, hires, fire and puts the wind up her line manager. Her job is so much a part of her identity she floundered on maternity leave; her earnings, which more than keep the family afloat, her main source of stability. Having another child, she says, would be career suicide, which is interesting coming from someone who is head of HR.

Be that as it may, my interest is more in how being an only child affects her daughter. Sammie is far from alone. This Christmas, I entertained the only children of several of my friends, and all of them garner a considerable share of their parents attention. Many of them are only children of single parents, which perhaps puts a different complexion on things, but certainly compared to my two, who very much look after each other, giving me the option to opt out perhaps more often than I ought, only kids appear to be pandered to in a way that I find a little over the top. But is any of this actually harmful? Does it make them too needy, or in fact, without having to compete for parental love, does it have the opposite effect of making them very secure?

Obviously there are too many variables involved in parenting to ever be able to draw a sweeping conclusion, and my own very non scientific observations would suggest that it can go both ways. Katie’s Sammie is happy amusing herself, and her father’s unflinching attention has made her seem very confident, although perhaps a little demanding. But then, most two year olds would come under this bracket. The older onlies I know can be a little worse at sharing, more prone to histrionics when ill, used as they are to their own things and the undivided interest of their parent(s), but by contrast they can also be very generous of spirit without having to share with siblings all of the time or put up with the diminishing returns of hand-me-downs, smaller bedrooms or earlier bedtimes; and perhaps they end up more independent too – Ava, at five has become exceptionally needy of Jonah, and won’t go anywhere without him, having been his shadow for her entire childhood.

Looking outwards, and on spurious evidence garnered from the telly and articles online, the documented effects of China’s one child policy on the national character have been noted, but the jury’s out on whether communism as an ideal can re-balance what lack of familial competition does to a child. If a generation of “little emperors” grow up insular and spoilt, market forces in a competitive economy will soon knock their corners off, and competing for the rather fewer females than there ought to be might be penance for not having to fight for their parents’ attention, and will certainly sort the wheat from the chaff – and hopefully in the future give women higher status – or at least market value – in a nation whose rapid u-turn and necessary loosening of the one child policy in an ageing population hasn’t resulted in offspring Armageddon – far from it – birthrates are slipping as in all developed and developing countries s families realise and shun the increasing burden of child rearing.

So only children are the future. Bigger families are increasingly disparaged in the West, remaining the preserve of the opposing ends of the class spectrum, and fewer and fewer of us will be able to afford the financial and time investment required to rear a brood as market conditions adapt to smaller families.

But having spent the holidays with my own sibling, I know life would be lesser without one. There is a unique bond of love and loathing that holds us together. Katie knows me the best of everyone, and yet her version of me is coloured by childhood squabbles, shared experiences and shorthand assumptions based of earlier versions of myself. There is no one who can quite get my goat quite so quickly as my sister, as familial traits are magnified into caricatures when we are forced to share the same oxygen. And yet, it really wouldn’t be Christmas without her. When all else fails, Katie is always there, chiding me about my dietary choices and congratulating me on my colour schemes. She props me up, and reminds me who I am, weighs me down and provokes emotions that are often best left in the attic of my soul. She is as much a part of me as my children, and to be without her would be to lose part of myself. Perhaps, as an only child, her daughter may feel more complete without the need to compete for her parent’s affections, but a little healthy competition never did anyone any harm either.

So I say here’s to siblings. The world would be a sadder place without them. And if Katie got knocked up again, it would make a better case for me doing so too, so we can compare, contrast, congratulate and commiserate as only sisters can.

6 thoughts on “The lonely child: are we raising a generation of neurotics?

  1. Beautiful site…..love the balloons! I really enjoyed reading this. I have an only, not really by choice but I have learned to embrace the positives of it as has my daughter. She is currently in the kitchen cooking a Jamie’s 30 min meal with her best friend, another only child! I’m just really torn on the pros and cons of siblings. I love my brothers, they are wonderful people but I have to say ALL I remember about them when we were children was arguing with them. Much as I love them I CAN imagine my life without them. I don’t have that closeness to them that you describe with your sister. I think I might have that with my sisters in law but we live far apart so it is difficult. I have that feeling with my women friends. Anyway, if you have an only child and there is no option of having another or you don’t want another it is pointless bemoaning that, it really is just “different” rather than worse in my opinion.

    • Thanks for your comments. Oh there were a lot of squabbles too for sure. I think it has to do with the age gap… Too soon and your toddler never quite gets over the shock of a newborn; and how fairly the parents treat each child. And personality clashes can never be accounted for, but I do think it’s more than luck that for the most part, my two get on. But you have to do what’s right for you, and if you feel your family is complete with your daughter, then think yourself lucky you don’t have to out yourself through childbirth again! ;) RM.

    • Hi there, well in this article I was really just considering the position of the many woman who through choice, and the pressures of modern life choose to have one child. I know from the experience of some of the women who were in my anti natal class who for a variety of reasons could only have one child, and in many cases have validated that experience, despite it perhaps not being their hope or expectation. Having your hopes for a sibling for your child dashed is undoubtedly devastating, but I hope that if this is the case, the many positives of bringing up only one child will bring some comfort. The point I am trying to make is that women shouldn’t be made to feel that making the choice to have a larger family is every bit as valid as choosing to curtail their family and in many cases beneficial to society, so we should never feel that larger families are to be frowned upon. But of course, having that choice at all is a luxury that many of us take for granted and for that reason, I am grateful for the options that were available to me. Having that choice denied must be heartbreaking.

  2. Firstly, I have 3 children and come from a set of four siblings. Secondly, this stereotype has been put to bed by science. As a former primary school teacher I’ve seen this trotted out based on a worry, or an individual anecdote, but whenever groups of only children and children with siblings have been studied the evidence points toward equality, or even an advantage to only children.

    Here is a rather in-depth article about the subject:.

    http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/06/14/reviews/mckibben-child.html?_r=2

    “In the mid-1980′s, Falbo and Polit concluded that ”only children scored significantly better than other groups in achievement motivation and personal adjustment,” and were in all other respects indistinguishable from children with siblings.”

    The rest of the results from my quick googling retrieved the following:
    Scientific study shows only children no less well off
    Or
    I think only children might be a problem for society?

    So, in short, nothing to worry about here. Though, another thing the science points to is that even in the face of evidence to the contrary, most peoples’ prejudice against only children does not diminish. Sad, that.

    • Hi there, thanks for your comments. The headline was of course, controversial click bait. I think in many respects, only children are much better off, but in this article I was speaking from my own personal experiences as well as a societal shift towards discriminating against larger families, from both the perspective of how many children we are ‘allowed’ given our economic circumstances, to the idea that the economy itself is putting larger families outside the reach of all but the very rich (or – according to popular press ‘feckless’ poor). I’m also interested in how a world increasingly made up of only children affects society – this article, in the Financial Times today raises – and in many cases puts to bed – questions, concerns and stereotypes regarding one child families: http://t.co/LqB7DH7G6l

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