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First Person

Being an only child felt like a blessing – until I realised it wasn’t

Oliver Keens used to have an unwavering belief that being an only child was a relief, and rejected the notion of ‘only child syndrome’. But caring for an ageing parent – and having two children of his own – has made him rethink

Tuesday 07 March 2023 06:30 GMT
‘Only children aren’t a gaggle of catastrophic freaks sat aggressively counting all the marbles mummy gave them in a lonely, anti-social huff’
‘Only children aren’t a gaggle of catastrophic freaks sat aggressively counting all the marbles mummy gave them in a lonely, anti-social huff’ (iStock)

In the days after my dad died, I noticed a woman around my age in my parent’s building on the Isle of Dogs in London (it’s the bit on the map of The Thames that looks like a testicle). She’d be wheeling her frail, elderly father into the lift; I’d be consoling my grief-stricken mother up the stairs. One afternoon, having each attended to the people who, decades before, attended to us, I saw her on the stairwell. “Only child, right?” I said. We sat, talking about the strange new realities of our lives. I definitely wanted to cry. I don’t remember if I actually did. But we hugged, then parted. I never saw her again.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a completely unwavering belief that being an only child was an awesome blessing. I’ve reassured so many people over the years who’ve chosen to be “one and done” (aka the majority of families in Europe, according to data from 2021) that their kids would turn out just fine. I was evangelical, and almost political about it. I hope it’s not snippy to say that sometimes the greatest struggle for middle-class twentysomethings in the UK is the search for a struggle itself. Mine definitely manifested around trying to convince people that only children weren’t a gaggle of catastrophic freaks sat aggressively counting all the marbles mummy gave them in a lonely, anti-social huff. It was a soft campaign, but I could still be relied upon to get comically stroppy whenever someone told me: “You don’t come across like an only child”.

Most of the assumptions in that dreaded phrase have prevailed, amazingly, since the Victorian era. Probably the most malign influence in the dodgy narratives around onlies was child psychologist G Stanley Hall, whose writing in the late 1800s created the whole notion of the spoilt, deficient only child often prone to narcissism. Hall went as far as to call having one child “a disease”. One of his less pervasive views was that masturbation is immoral and a blemish on the human race – another G Stanley Hall fail. More extreme views from the era include Cecil Willett Cunnington’s fears that only children would grow to become “plagued by a frail physique”, or Sigmund Freud’s idea that only children were fated to become perverts.

Sure, I’m guilty as charged on the latter. Yet, while society has globally worked to better understand minority groups in the 125 years since Hall’s writing, the toxic narrative that onlies are spoiled, secluded and selfish is – depressingly – still the majority view. Despite modern researchers and writers like Dr Susan Newman and Dr Toni Falbo spending decades debunking the so-called “only child syndrome”, seek out a book or podcast on the matter and you will see a sea of titles that riff on the same anxieties.

As I mentioned at the start, I’m currently looking after an ageing parent as an only child, with all the responsibility and solitary worry that entails. This was a scenario that was, of course, inevitable to me. But what I didn’t imagine was that, as I and others around me became parents, how kaleidoscopic my perspective would become.

For example, I now see how the stigma about only children does more than just mess with the children themselves. People can get amazingly weird when someone’s parenting choices clash with their own lived experience. Couples who have had one child are still routinely prodded, poked, examined and confronted by adults who need to know the status of a hypothetical forthcoming sibling. Once a woman has a child, society seems entitled to treat them like a production line, not a person. It’s a habitual rudeness that makes my synapses spasm when it happens around me, especially if you know the answer involves medical issues, trauma or a million of the financial anxieties that burden any parent. If in doubt, honestly just don’t ask.

‘Maybe the fact I spent my childhood around adults made me mature a little too fast?’ (iStock)

The really unexpected part, though – and the bit I have to confess here – is that since I’ve become a parent to not one but two children, I can start to see ways in which maybe I actually was a slightly strange proposition as a child. Maybe the fact I spent my childhood around adults made me mature a little too fast? I was a moderate “centrist dad” aged 15. My first DJ name was “Mister Safety”, inspired by a robust respect for all things health and safety. I didn’t do a single rebellious thing until I was around 34. Watching my kids hurl themselves off trees also makes me wonder if I was too risk-averse? Watching them fight makes me wonder if I could have understood the dynamics of confrontation sooner?

So if you’re one of the many parents I’ve previously convinced about the awesomeness of only child-ness, apologies: in retrospect, I may have been a bit hasty. I’m still convinced your kids are going to be tremendously happy, though. With one-child families becoming the norm, the clock is surely ticking on G Stanley Hall’s claptrap and the stigmatisation of the only child. Moreover, I urge you to build on the things I didn’t realise I’d missed out on until recently. Do what you can to surround only children with as many of their child peers as you can, and encourage them to collectively dominate the adults in your household, too, so they get a feel for what being in control is like. Go out of your way to make them feel in charge and encourage them to take risks. Just because you can smother and shelter them from bad things better than you can with kids with siblings… don’t. Try as hard as you can to get them familiar with asking for help (they’ll need it) and in the most fun manner possible. And for heaven’s sake, go out of your way to teach them how to be responsible. After all, one day they might be solely responsible for you.

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