On Being an Only Child
“You’re an only child? Wow, lucky you.” As someone who grew up without siblings, remarks like these have followed me for as long as I can remember. More often than not, people react to knowledge of my “only-hood” by voicing some kind of assumption about what my life is like. Sometimes these reactions are slightly envious, sometimes they’re pitying, but other times they’re insulting, as in “well, aren’t you a princess.” Regardless of tone, though, almost all of the preconceived notions about being an only child are far from the truth. As someone with 17 years of experience as an only child, there are a few stereotypes that should be set straight.
We’re not all lonely.
It doesn’t take a genius to tell you that occasional loneliness is a fact of life. When you grow up without siblings, however, the general population assumes you spent your childhood watching the paint on your dollhouse dry with only a goldfish for company. While I did spend more time by myself that my non-only peers did, playdates and activities with friends from school more than made up for my “socialization deficit.” And if my childhood alone time did have an impact on my future, I can only say it was a positive one: In those quieter moments, I read, wrote stories, and honed my independence in ways that only solitude allows.
We’re not all spoiled.
As the above princess reference suggests, one of the most prevailing ideas about only children is that we are spoiled brats. Aside from simply being rude, however, snarky comments about an only child’s possessions or opportunities are also extremely unfair. While someone’s life might look extremely pampered from the outside, in reality you have no idea what’s going on behind closed doors. This mindset obviously applies to all people; but in my experience, only children are often treated like an exception to this rule.
We’re not all socially inept.
When you grow up without siblings, there is this prevailing assumption that you’re paralyzingly shy. In this case, I definitely embody the stereotype: I’m introverted, and like spending most of my time either alone or in small groups. But I also know plenty of other “onlys” (yes, we find each other) who are 100% extroverted. Meyers-Briggs results aside, there is also a prevailing notion that only children fail to thrive in social and/or professional situations. On the contrary, some of history’s most accomplished individuals—think Leonardo di Vinci, FDR, Condoleeza Rice, and Betty White—were only children.
We’re not “lucky.”
Of all the comments I receive about being an only child, my least favorite are those that involve the word “lucky.” Yes, I am lucky to attend a good high school. Yes, I was lucky to study abroad. I am blessed in countless ways, and all of it is the result of my own hard work and the encouragement of my parents, who recognize my efforts and strive to support me however they can. Talk to other only children, and they will gladly tell you the same thing. To reduce everything we’ve worked for to the result of our only-hood is offensive and incredibly hurtful.
But our parents are actually pretty cool.
Last year, a teacher made a comment about how I must want to go far away for college to escape my “helicopter” parents. It would be easy to shame the adult in question for saying something so inappropriate. However, it’s also true that he was just giving words to the prevailing idea that only-child parents are over-indulgent, hyper-concerned robots in sweater sets. In reality, though, parents with one child are no different from parents with five kids: They’re on a mission to do what’s best for their family, and to instill their child with the confidence and ability to take on the world.
Being an only child is a unique experience, but it’s not an alien one. In an age when so much work is being done to eradicate negative stereotypes, I’m disappointed by how little action there’s been on setting the record straight about only children. Going forward, I hope we all continue to develop more open minds and keep the dialogue open to all—even to us onlys.
By Olivia Land, 17