Masters of the Universe: Are You the Parent of an Only Child?

Posted January 11, 2009 by

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Tonight my son shocked me into silence. (A rare occurrence, as my husband can attest.) I was reading Alex a book called “What Dogs Teach Us” or something like that (sage advice includes: “Take naps when you can…Practice good grooming habits…Don’t chase cars” — that kind of thing.) When we got to a picture of two Golden Retrievers bounding across a meadow with the caption, “Everything’s more fun when you share it with a friend” my son said, “Yeah, but that’s not true.”

“What do you mean,” I asked after a long pause, my mom antennae up and quivering a little.

“Everything’s not more fun when you do it with friends. I’d rather play by myself.”

My son, now 6, is an only child. I’m not even sure if people use that term any more — maybe I should say “singleton”? (That always sounds like a last name to me, though. Like I’m telling people that my son is a member of the Singleton family, and not really my kid.)

I get worried because Alex has a hard time sharing things at times, or understanding the concept of give and take. He also cannot stand to lose — at anything. Now I’m starting to wonder: Is this because he’s an only child? I know, probably almost every kid has a hard time with these things, but is it more pronounced when your child has no siblings to put them through the old rock tumbler of life? Sometimes I feel bad about the fact that there’s no one around to give Alex the reality check, no sibling saying, “Hey, it’s my turn now!” or “Your feet smell!” or all the things my brother and I used to yell at each other across the orange shag carpeting of our childhood living room. (Hey, it was the seventies. The only thing more popular than the color orange was shag carpeting.)

I wonder if being an only child is like being a celebrity surrounded by an entourage of people telling you that you’re great all the time. (And who wouldn’t love that? For awhile, anyway. Just sayin’.) Not only is Alex an only child, he’s the only grandchild on my husband’s side of the family. For the first three years of his life, my Italian mother-in-law actually referred to him as the image of the “Jesu Bambino” — that’s right, the Baby Jesus. (I swear to you I’m not making this up.)

So you can see where a kid might start to think that they were, oh, I don’t know, a mini master of the universe. And where they might have a harder time when they don’t get their way. We talk to Alex about the importance of sharing — and letting other kids have a chance to make the rules or decide what game will be played — all the time, but sometimes I wonder if it’s really sinking in. On the other hand, I have to say that our son has a lot of great qualities. He jumps into everything with enthusiasm, is kind to other kids, creative, and fun-loving. The truth is, I think he is secretly starting to feel like he’s the third, shorter adult in our family of three. It’s hilarious at times, but also frustrating, because I don’t think he sees that he’s turning off other kids when he acts bossy or is a sore loser.

A mom named Ann wrote to me recently about her only child, also a son, and had this to say:

We tend to go through periods from time to time when we really hit a roadblock with our eight-year-old not behaving or listening to us. He can be bossy, entitled, and sometimes downright rude with his friends (let me also add that he can also be a tremendous amount of fun, and is very creative, etc. Children are drawn to him.)

Boy, can I relate! Unfortunately I don’t have any answers yet…this is all new to me. So, any parents of “onlies” out there have any advice for those of us who are figuring this out as we go along? I’m all ears…


Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. Cathi Report

    I totally relate. My son is 8 and I am often irritated and shocked by his entitled behavior. I do believe it is difficult to feel a part of the team of other children when there is only an adult team at home. I plan to have him choose a team activity or sport that gives him some of what he is not experiencing at home. I also plan to do my part to model selfless, loving behavior. Thank you for sharing so I don’t feel so alone!!

  2. Suz Report

    Thanks to all of you that shared your “onlie” stories. I have a 31/2 yr daughter that has “lost” her best friend because of her “rejection” problem. Her best friends mom just informed me they will no longer be having play dates with my child because she has had “rejected” her child too many times. I related to the comments of only children having periods of wanting to play alone. I think my daughter has had some problems relating to her friend and expresses that by wanting to just leave or go inside. The friends mom considers this a rejection. The friend, by the way, is an only child as well. I just dont understand why this mom is taking the situation so personal. Any suggestions? Thanks.

  3. Elisabeth Wilkins Report

    AndreaM: Thanks for commenting, and yes, there is definitely time for improvement! It’s funny, since I wrote this post, I’ve been doing an informal survey of all my friends — especially the ones who were raised as “only” kids. What I’ve found (as Julie and a few others said) is that it doesn’t really matter if you’re a singleton or a child with 5 siblings — you can still learn to be generous and kind, and that you are not the center of the universe. I think it sounds like you’re on exactly the right track with your daughter. The book you mentioned sounds perfect.

    The other thing we’ve been focusing on this year is having our son (also 6) help others. He helped raise money for some children in Haiti, and we’ve also been donating to kids in our area who don’t have winter coats, etc. I truly think that has opened his eyes.

    Good for you, Andrea, for thinking about this now — I have no doubt that only children can grow up to be just as kind and caring as kids who have siblings, and it sounds like you are doing an excellent job of teaching your daughter about this.

  4. AndreaM Report

    I share many of the frustrations and joys mentioned by so many others. My daughter is an “only” and homeschooled as well, so at 6 1/2 she has two strikes against her so to speak. I have tried my best to engage her with playdates and other activities. A challenge since she is not into sports or anything “easy” that other kids are involved in. We also live in the country, which makes things twice as hard.
    I find that many of my traits are echoing in her and get frustrated on how to avoid this. I was sent a character traits book that touches on every different characteristic there is, matches an animal’s personality to it and even gives a Bible story to go along with it. It has been interesting to see my daughter’s reaction to such ideas as loyalty, honesty, etc. when reading these stories. I think it has broadened her views of positive ways to act. She still hangs back and watches other kids for quite a while before joining in, but, hey…she’s only 6. There’s time for improvement…right?!?! : )

  5. Sandy Report

    Having a only child (tween) 12 years old, I find that by me trying to have her share with others always was not best thing to have enforced. I stressed this point so she would have lots of friends. Now I noticed when she is on a sports team she is not as agressive as I hope she would be. She seems to lack the confidence to be herself. I do not know if this due to not being able to have a sibling to interact with? How do I get her not be so shy?

  6. Compassionate Parent Report

    Single, working Mom here …!

    I have grown so used to just the two of us that I am really able to appreciate the distinct advantages.

    It seems so foreign to envision my son being deemed as different because of the distinct distinction of being an only child. Yet, I hear the term quite liberally thrown around, out there.

    Yet, in here, I find that my son thrives. More self-confidence. Higher self-esteem. and Critical life-skills extremely intact.

    Since I am really just beginning to read the wonderful blogs on this incredibly helpful site. I am sure some more understanding shall unearth itself. Wheee!

    Focusing on the positives has become such a healthy, healing habit.

    Once my son did say, many years ago, that he wanted a brother. Of course, once he noted: “older brother”, I was felt it only fair to let him know: “They don’t come out that way”. Could be a very painful procedure.

    How my son and I see it is that WE are best friends and we give a lot to one another and accept a whole lotta love in return.

    I believe it is up to the individual child, the role the parents play and what environment the child is dropped gently into or dumped in. So many factors at play.

    After all, there are families with many children and one is the spoiled baby or bossy older brat, supposedly. I define by the nature of my lowing heart – Thank Goddess.

    Saving Room,


  7. LynneCorey Report

    As a 40-something mom of an only child (a wonderful, maddening 6 year old boy), I am finding it very difficult to teach him that he’s not the ‘center of the universe’. Because, of course, he is the center of our universe!
    He has trouble sharing with friends and also tattles a lot; I find that in most social situations the less I interfere, the more likely it is that he will work it out together with his friend.
    My mantra has become , ‘Go work it out with (insert name), honey.’ If I am consistent with that, I find that after a few attempts to get me involved, he will work it out on his own.

  8. Ann Marie Report

    My only daughter is now 17. She is entitled, bossy and rude to us, her parents. She wants things we cannot afford, and will not stop asking even if we can only eat bread and water for the week. However, it’s a different game with her friends. Wanting to be liked and accepted has nothing to do with being an only. Making friends means the world to a teen. We are trying to turn her behavior around at home; by that I mean treating my husband and I more the way she treats her friends. She once had manners, and now has consequences if she forgets them which is often. About age 9 she figured out that she would not have any friends unless she learned how to share. She did not act out with us until age 15; I bought this kit one year ago and it’s done wonders. We are now in family therapy (our daughter is miserable over it but we still go). What a tool….hang in there all of you. It gets worse before it gets better, but go through with it no matter how hard it seems.

  9. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    Lisa, thank you for your insights. I agree with you, and I think that the idea of teaching your only that they are not the center of the universe is a very important one…in fact, we’re doing an article on this very topic in the coming weeks. I think all parents struggle with this one, but in particular, it’s a crucial thing to work out if you’re the parent of an only.

    Besides the love we give our kids, as you said, I think it all comes back to coaching, limit setting, and teaching…and of course, the question, “What does my child need from me right now?” For an only, the answer might be, “For me not to make him feel like King Tut, the boy emperor!” (LOL)

  10. Lisa Report

    I am an only child (adult) and I have an only child who is 6. When I read through this Blog – I see a common theme. The theme (that I see) It is challenging to teach some (not all) of the life skills required when you don’t have siblings. I think some of the ideas of getting the “only” involved in team sports and groups is excellent. Those groups can help the “only” learn some really necessary skills. I also think that what I missed as an only was having to wait for things — there were no line ups at my house! However, I think that excellent discipline and parenting skills are very important with only children. My opinion is that if my parents had used a lot of the skills that James teaches I would have been better off. I think the role of the parent is to coach and guide some of the poor behavior –So I guess what I want to say is that maybe some of my less than positive personality traits developed NOT as a result of being an only – but of poor parenting skills. I really believe that you need to teach the “only” very fast that they are not the centre of the universe. The world is not an easy place for someone who has always been the centre of attention. I am absolutely delighted I found this program and I use the support line many times per week! If you weren’t parented properly yourself — this as been a wonderful resource — and hopefully I won’t repeat the parenting mistakes my parent did. I am now working on trying to figure out how you absolutely love your child and make them feel whole — without giving them the impression that they are the centre of the universe. I hope someone gets something out of this rambling!

  11. Granny of an only Report

    I am the grandmother of a 6 year old grandson who is the only child, only grandchild and only nephew on both sides of the family. Here is the issue he is in the 1st grade and is having alot of behavioral problems ie: sharing, lies to get attention, unable to make friendships with other children. My daughter went to parent teacher conference today and was told by his teacher that he constantly lies about being sick, having broken bones, anything to get attention, if he wants to play with a puzzle that another child is playing with he does not ask
    if he can play too, he will just push the puzzel off the table. Everyday my daughter gets him off the bus and askes how his day was and he states good so we have been unaware of these issues at school, the teacher states she has sent notes home but we have not received them. Which makes us think he is fully aware of his behavior and is intentionally not bringing home these letters.

    We just don’t understand, he is a totally different child when he is at home and around his family. Why would he be acting this way and how do we correct these issues now that we are aware of them.

    The teacher suggested we have other children over to play, but my daughter and son both work night shift. Which means that the grandson comes to my home at night until they get home from work. There are no children in our neighborhood for him to play with. My daughter and son live in another city which means other parents of children in their neighborhood or in his class would not allow their children to come to my home until 11pm. The only other thing would be after school activities id: boy scouts, little league but that would have to be in the city that they live in and this would mean that I would have to leave work several days a week to be able to take and pick him up which is not an option. Does anyone have any suggestions?

  12. Elisabeth, EP Editor Report

    CowboysFan24: Thanks for your input — your insights are very helpful. I’m starting to think that only children are stereotyped with a lot of negative associations that they don’t necessarily deserve. As a result, I’m trying to be much more aware of that when dealing with my son. Yes, your personality is shaped by being an “only” or by having siblings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are definitely going to be a loner later in life, for example, or unable to share with others as a 30 year old.
    Thanks, also, for pointing out the benefits and strengths that an only child gains by virtue of their solo status. Seems to me we need to rethink the whole only child debate.

  13. CowboysFan24 Report

    I am a college student taking a Child and Adolescent Psychology class and one of our assignments is to take part in blogs about children and their families.

    I was drawn to this blog because I am a “singleton” or only child. I got a kick out of the stories that you had about your son. I was pretty much exactly like that when I was a child. I also was the only grandchild for 10 years. Being bossy, selfish, or liking to be alone is called the “only child syndrome” so my mother says. Although most of these negative conceptions of only children may have some truth but there are also many great qualities that only children possess that kids with siblings do not. We (the only children) have the majority of the time extremely confident and we are leaders who stand out among our peers. We also are more independent and we are able to go out on our own without depending on others (especially our parents). The selfishness and bullying will go away with time as it did for me. I believe that the older an only child gets they value good friendships and bonds because of being alone during childhood, and thats when all the negative conotations leave.

  14. Linda Report

    I was born 7 years before my brother – the oldest child. I have always felt more responsible as a result. I was the one who got blamed for everything – “you’re older, you should know better, etc.” I was definitely thrilled to have siblings though. I do find even now that I can do many things on my own. I don’t need a host of people around to be happy.

    However, I have an only child now (not by choice). I think that having siblings teaches empathy. I have befriended many “only” children in my lifetime and that seems to be what is missing in their lives. I would not call them “selfish”, but I do think that empathy is something that is hard for them to understand. Sometimes it is hard for them to relate to the suffering or problems of another. I learned a lot of this by having siblings, even though we were spaced far apart. I don’t know if this will help anyone, but it’s been my observation.

  15. Elisabeth, EP Editor Report

    I love hearing from the adult only children — makes me realize I am probably being sucked into the only child stereotyping game. Thanks, Lynndah, for the wake-up call. I think my son also does act more adult for the same reasons Amy mentioned…not sure if that’s a good or bad thing, but sometimes I think it makes it harder for him to relate to other kids (or maybe vice versa.)

  16. Amy Report

    I’m #8 of 8 kids. My parents were 42 when I was born. Not much chance of relating equally with them at that age. My siblings were still coming and going in their young adulthood while I was finishing the last 4 years of school and I always knew that they were just kids too when I was younger. But even though I spent the last 4 years of school alone at home, there was an obvious line and it didn’t occur to me to cross over to being an adult until after I moved out. My parents played the parent role well and I often felt they didn’t give me what a friend would give me. Now I see it as a good thing.

    I’m also a singleton mom with an onlie boy of 8. I think that my parent role gets muddied with being his friend because he doesn’t have a sibling to side with against me in the home. I’m his confidant and friend at home. He’s quite needy about playing with someone, even though he does play alone by default. Perhaps the onlies are just too lonely at home with no one to relate to and therefore forced to act adult, or what they perceive as adultish in order to have peers.

    Just thinking out loud.

  17. Julie Report

    As an only child myself, I can certainly attest to the fact that there are a lot of stereotypes about onlies which are mostly not true (I’ll admit that sometimes I have personal space issues, and I am totally flummoxed when the people in my family don’t want to listen to my brilliant witticisms right this second). I agree with Lynndah on all of this stuff!

    A lot of what you’re all saying definitely seems to be normal child traits (like BrendaMom talking about “amazing magical traits and some terribly annoying behaviors”), but I can understand not knowing if those are normal or attributed to onliness. I have three kids, and they’re all different, and the oldest one also definitely likes to (NEEDS to) play by himself and have alone time in his own head. And yeah, they share and play together, but sometimes they shriek like screech owls and throw train parts at each other.

    I mostly really liked being an only child. It’s really special, and you get wrapped up into a cool adult world and toted along on all kinds of fancy grownup adventures that parents can’t really manage with more than one kid. That said, I am outrageously jealous of my kids and the bond they have with each other. I will actually say that I loved being an only child until I had more than one kid myself, because then I saw that that could be really special too.

  18. Lynndah Report

    As a grown only child who is the mother of a 10 yr old only child, I can offer perhaps a different perspective on this subject. I find it interesting that people ALWAYS assume (and feel entitled to comment on it) that only children are poor sharers or selfish or unable to socialize properly. What a load of rubbish! I feel strongly that children are born with their innate personality traits and while you can encourage and enhance positive traits, ultimately, you are who you are. I personally have never had a problem sharing anything in my life; I have more friend than I can shake a stick at and I can talk for England without any trouble. I’ve always wanted to have special friends as well as a group of pals, yet I feel thoroughly comfortable with my own company — I never get lonely, nor does my daughter. Regarding the sharing angle — yes, only children get all the attention from their parents — but kids obviously need direction. If they don’t get it from home, then they’ll learn it the hare way in social situations as they get older. I could go on and on, but all I really wanted to say is that parents of only children truly need to not overpraise their kids (only children aren’t any more special than multiple children) and stop sterotyping!!!

  19. Brooke Report

    I think Wisconsin Mommy is right.

    If you only have one child, its probaly hard not to blame everything worrisome about their behavior on the fact that he is an only child. In a way, maybe you consciously or unconsciously, feel you are also to blame because your child doesn’t have siblings.

    I think every child has strenghts and weakness, which are made worse or better by their birth order. An only child might have a harder time sharing, but they may be more creative because they always have to invent their own games.

    I have two children, who love playing with one another, but there is always a point in the day where they argue over whose mommy I am.

    If there are multiple children, you can spread around the blame.

  20. Wisconsin Mommy Report

    I also have an only son who is 4 1/2. He is not overly outgoing or precocious outside of our house and can be downright shy in some situations. I find him to be mostly a typical kid although I do find him to be somewhat more sensitive than his peers. Whether that is just his personality, a result of having so much “mommy time”, or a result of not having siblings to help toughen him up will remain to be seen, I guess.

    I try not to dwell on the “only” thing too much. After being in education for over 10 years, I can vouch that I have had plenty of well adjusted only children as well as the stereotypical ones. I have also had kids with multiple sibs who acted like the “stereotypical only”, so I think people tend to attach the image that suits their preconceived ideas.

    Plus, I am an “only” and turned out okay…I think.

  21. Louise Sanborn Report

    Lisa: LOL! There’s just something about orange shag…and fighting with siblings. (I think I did quite a few face plants INTO the orange shag, as a matter of fact.) As Cheryl pointed out, having a sib is no guarantee of closeness. (Though I’m happy to report that my brother hasn’t shoved a smelly tube sock in my face since about 1985.) I like BrendaMom’s parable idea — I’m going to start to use something like that and see where it leads us. My son is actually a funny mix of being extremely extroverted but also kind of a loner. (Tends to be either one or the other, and always on his terms — which I guess isn’t all bad.) And John B., I’m wondering if some kind of team sport or children’s theater might be good for your daughter? Some activity where she’d have to work with others as a team (and maybe come across some other precocious kids.)

  22. Adrienne Fuller Report

    I, too, share your memories of orange shag carpeting. I, too, share concerns about my “onlie/singleton/soloist”. Most ‘onlies’ I’ve known (grown) were very precocious and independent from an early age. I don’t know if it’s bad, only different. Sometimes I think my son could use a sibling to sit on his head or break one of his toys once in a while, but I also think my son would drown out any sibling in his great need for my time and attention. I was/am the youngest of three and now that are parents are gone we are still at an impasse with each other as adults and how we define “family”, even in the context of our own! Lots of baggage there that I’m kind of glad my son won’t have to carry around with him when he gets older. I would have loved to have been “a Walton” or some other loving family, but my experience with siblings has not been a pleasant one. Some time spent at a place with peers like ‘Brothers/Sisters of America” or some other after school care gets them some exposure to sibling rivalry.

  23. BrendaMom Report

    I have a 6 year old son who is an adopted only child with some amazing magical traits and some terribly annoying behaviors. Your thoughts, and those of the commentators echo mine. I feel sorry for him, though. I was the youngest of 6 and really cherished my siblings. I can sort of relate because once all the siblings left the house I was alone and didn’t like it much. My son also seems to act like he thinks he’s a little adult, repeating to us some of the things we say to him, such as “you’re not in charge.” The good thing is that he is extraverted so I think he will always have friends….as soon as he starts learning how to be nicer to them.

    We have a bedtime story that we use as a parable to teach “leadership.” Adam (my son) has his construction crew and each day they work on a different job site and they each take turns being “in charge.” As yet, he does not seem to get how the taking turns translates into real life, but we’re working on it. Thanks for bringing up the subject.

  24. John B. Report

    Our 11 year old daughter is having the same kinds of problems. She also has an explosive temper, and I think being an only child makes it worse. She’s never learned how to share very well or how to let other kids take the lead. She also says that the other kids “don’t get her” and tends to break off friendships if she thinks the other kid isn’t as smart as she is. (And none of them are, in her opinion!) She says she prefers talking to adults because they understand what she’s saying. My wife and I aren’t sure what to do with this, and feel like some of her attitude is our fault.

  25. Cheryl Report

    My 7 year old son is also an only. However, our experience is different and I think personality plays a role. From the time our son was 9 months old he began to show signs of being an extrovert and extremely gregarious. He wants friends at all times and is at his best in a crowd. He asks for a sibling on a regular basis and I remind him he has 4 (two dogs and two cats!) Some of the issues of sharing, dominance, etc. will work themselves out once he is in school and engaged in extra curricular activities like sports. If he chooses activities that are not group related, that may just be another peek into his personality. But non-group activities like piano can have winners and losers (recitals, etc.) too and that will teach him the life skills of not always being the center of it all. As a parent you can help manage those qualities of bossiness and turn it into teaching him the difference between being a “pain” to his friends and instead being a leader. I try to look at my sons sometimes annoying traits and help him develop them to be useful in adulthood.

    It is difficult having an only, but if you peek into other families with multiple children you will find that kids with siblings can be bossy, stingy, rude & self-serving but it isn’t as noticeable because all of the attention isn’t put on just one child.



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