The word syndrome taken from the Greek word ‘sundromos’ meaning ‘running together’, is used for a group of symptoms thatcollectively indicate or characterize a disease or psychological disorder, and can be attributed to a distinctive or characteristic pattern of behaviour. The strong medical connotations and the negative meaning usually attached to the word syndrome makes the word emotive and in many ways derogatory to the experience of the only-child. 

I’m a middle child out three siblings but I am a parent to an only child so I can appreciate how birth order can affect our personalities and actions in life. Some common personality traits of only children are : being confident, well-spoken, not afraid to make decisions, like to be organized, typically do well in school, and sometimes have a tendency to be overly critical of themselves and others. Because they spend a lot of time around adults, they tend to seem like “little adults” with their ability converse and sound more mature than their chronological age.

Many of the negative attitudes towards only children are based on the following view that only children are:

  • Over indulged
  • Require constant attention
  • Are selfish – and put their needs first
  • Expect their needs to be instantly gratified
  • Fear independence and leaving home
  • Can’t empathise with others as their world revolves around themselves – in psychological terms narcissistic.

Being a parent to an only child, I recognized early on that our daughter being an only child living at home was going to have a different life experience. I also knew that I, as a parent to an only child, was going to have a different parenting experience then my many friends with multiple children. Let me share some of my experiences and observations wearing the hat of a parent dealing with the only child syndrome:

  1. Don’t mistake their overconfidence for their inner sensitivity: Only children are known for their confidence, sometimes bordering on arrogance. But because they seem more mature then they are due to being around many adults, remember they still have all of the sensitivity of their age dealing with their day-to-day issues.
  2. Teach them empathy so that they learn other perspectives: Being an only child sometimes does not give them the opportunity to have to deal with multiple points of view like other children with siblings. Role model empathy by asking them how it would feel to be in someone else’s shoes. This is important for them to learn how to deal with another person’s feelings or actions beyond their own. By doing so, this will aid them in their social interactions.
  3. Don’t be afraid to let them fail or make mistakes– As parents of only children, our main focus is on them. We end up feeling their pain, frustration, their sadness and then want to make it better for them. Actually all parents feel this way accept parents of only children feel it more acutely. Failure is just another opportunity to learn; it is not a reflection upon our intelligence or aptitude. A child’s best learning experience is turning around those mistakes and learning from them. Don’t take that life growing experience away from them so they can learn the lesson of resilience on not giving up.
  4. Let them learn how to work out friendship or other interpersonal issues: If you as a parent intercede too much and try to overly involve yourself in friendship issues, your child will never learn how to solve them on their own. The typical “ he/she said this to me or they did this to me” rant is very common among children. As a rule of thumb, I never got involved in my daughter’s friendship issues but would guide her in ways she could overcome them. I would pose questions to her like “ What do you think is a good way to solve this issue?” or “ Is there something you may have contributed to this situation that caused this? (kids try to make themselves sound innocent yet there are always two sides to everything!)”. Now if it was a bullying situation or an issue that was way beyond the typical friendship spats, then involvement would be warranted.
Finally, what we should take out of all these is that, if you know you have only one child, please bring that child up in a way that will please God. Don’t forget that this child is not yours but belongs to God. Yes, some parents live and breathe their kids! They treat this kind of children like ‘Demi-gods’ and for this reason, God gets upset and takes those kids away from them, if you know what I mean.
So please, detach yourselves from over-pampering!

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