Some of my friends who have chosen to restrict themselves to a single-child family are often disconcerted by the kind of reactions they elicit from family, friends, acquaintances, hell, sometimes even passing strangers. Their decision not to extend their family always evokes shock, horror, amazement, even a smidgeon of pity.
The questions come hard and fast. Are they really sure about this? Don’t they realise that their child will grow up lonely? How on earth will he learn to get along with other kids or even share his toys? Who will be there to support her after they are gone? Maybe they should change their minds about this before it is too late. And so on and on and on.
Well, all those friends of mine who have been so exasperated by these demands over the years can now heave a sigh of relief. For a recent survey suggests that only children are far happier than those with siblings.
Well, I guess, at a certain level it makes some sense. Only children never have to compete with someone else for the love of their parents. Their parents can lavish more money, attention and praise on them because there is no other child around to make demands on them. They don’t have to cope with bullying by an elder sibling or make concessions for a younger one. There are no invidious comparisons to be drawn between them and a brother who is so much better at maths or a sister who can write so well. They never have to share either the bathroom or their books.
And when it comes to their inheritance, the whole caboodle will come to them in the fullness of time. Hey, maybe my friends with single-child families are on to something here. Perhaps they are actually doing better by their kids than those who bring two or even more children into the world.
Okay, so these kids don’t have the ready-made companionship of a brother or sister with blood ties to bind them. But they can go out and make friends of their own choosing. At least, that way they will be sure of getting along with them. With siblings there is always the danger that you will drive each other up the wall or be at one another’s throats before Mom and Dad charge in to break up the brawl. And sometimes these childhood – even childish – rivalries fester well into adulthood, poisoning relationships and ruining family gatherings.
Certainly there are enough grown-ups around who profess to be quite happy with their single-child upbringing. They enjoyed the feeling of being at the centre of their parents’ universe. They loved the idea of being the sole focus of attention. And they really didn’t miss the give-and-take that comes with a sibling relationship.
Of course, you could call them selfish, self-centred or even self-absorbed with no interest in anything other than themselves. And there may even be some truth to that. But they prefer to describe themselves as self-contained. Having grown up in isolation they are used to being by themselves. And as a consequence, they have developed enough inner resources to cope with being on their own.
You may see them as lonely but actually they are just alone – and no, it is not the same thing. But just as some people are content with their single-child status, others are actively unhappy. As children they probably pestered their parents for a sibling, as grown-ups they feel as if they have lost out on an essential part of the human experience. Some of them try and make up by creating big families of their own in an attempt to re-write history. Others content themselves with berating others who are disinclined to extend their families.
I guess at the end of the day, it all comes down to personality. Some people are essentially loners, who thrive on their only-child isolation. Others long for social contact and meaningful inter-familial relationships, and they can never quite make peace with their sibling-less status.
But even though the survey says otherwise, I can’t help but feel that only children do tend to lose out – sometimes in ways which they don’t even comprehend. Sure, they may not have to contend with sibling rivalry. But they have no opportunity to enjoy some sibling revelry either.
And I have a sneaking feeling that they are the poorer for it. The rich web of human relationships that is formed between siblings is lost to them forever. They may not have had to share their parents’ love, but there will be no one to share the burden of their care in old age either. And once they are gone, they will never be able to share the memories of their parents with anyone else. And there will be no one around with the same shared history of growing up.
They will never experience the special bond that forms between aunts and nieces. They will never have the pleasure of playing indulgent uncle. They will never enjoy the sight of their kids playing with their cousins, all of them united by a certain family resemblance. And they will never be able to fall back on the unconditional support that only a sibling can provide in a time of crisis.
But I guess, you don’t miss something that you never had in the first place. Perhaps that explains why only children profess to be quite so happy.
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