Wednesday 23 October 2019

Going solo The lot of the only child

Only Child Kachela Murray was shy starting school.
Only Child Kachela Murray was shy starting school.
Self Reliant: Helen McHugh. Photo by Arthur Allison
ALEESHA TULLY says she had more opportunities as an only child. Photo: Martin Maher.
David Carey says the 'spoilt' label is unfair. Photo: Martin Maher.
Aisling O'Rourke fantasised about having siblings. Photo: James Flynn.

Chrissie Russell

Single kids have often been portrayed as spoilt, demanding and difficult to get along with. But is there any truth to this image?

Only children are selfish, introverted and maladjusted. Well, tell that to Ghandi, Frank Sinatra and Samuel L Jackson. For years, only children have been lumbered with labels that, as these sibling-free celebrities prove, bear no resemblance to reality.

According to the most recent census, almost a third of Irish families have one child while in the UK single-child households make up half of all families.

And yet so many of us still have negative associations with what it means to grow up without brothers or sisters.

An informal poll recently conducted on MagicMum.com revealed that 37pc of respondents would prefer siblings for their child and just 5pc had an only child by choice. Many parenting forums are a-buzz with mums anxious about the ramifications of raising a solo child.

"I do sometimes worry that she will be an 'only child'," writes one parent. "I don't want her to be a naughty or annoying child that other children and parents want to avoid."

Another posts: "I'm inundated with advice from family and friends saying it's selfish to think about having an only child . . . I just feel pressure as it's an expectation that if you have one, you automatically try for a second."

"The pressure to have more children definitely exists," says Mary Bouchez from Magic-Mum.com.

"But asking 'When are you going to give him/her a brother/sister?' can be quite tactless and hurtful, especially when you don't know why a family has one child and whether it's by choice or not."

Joanna Fortune, founder of the Solamh Parent Child Relationship clinic, agrees.

"Parents often tell me that they feel their only-child status makes them feel like a failure in the eyes of others. Phrases like 'just the one' aren't helpful and are often driven by society's belief that it is not ideal to have one child when really there's no evidence that growing up in a single-child family is any better or worse for children than growing up in a larger one."

In fact, a plethora of research suggests all those negative associations are without foundation. Not only are the personality traits of only children indistinguishable from their peers but, like first-born children and those with one sibling, they are more likely to score higher in terms of intelligence and achievement.

"The image of the spoilt only child is hugely unfair," says Mary. "Only children are often mature, friendly, sociable, independent and able to mix with others.

"Having siblings doesn't automatically mean your child will have a playmate with whom they get along or someone to share their ups and downs with as an adult. Every type of family has its advantages and disadvantages."

We asked five only children what it means to grow up sibling-free.

'I have a lovely bond with my mum'

Belfast receptionist Kachela Murray (34) finds the sibling rivalry between her two young children fascinating having never experienced it herself. She says:

"My son is four and my daughter 21 months and already they snatch things off each other in a good-natured way that I totally missed growing up.

"I hate confrontation and sometimes wonder if that comes from never having to compete with anyone over the TV remote or playing with a toy.

"I was also quite shy when it came to starting school but, on the flip side, I have a lovely bond with my mum – we're very close.

"It's funny that sometimes, when people hear I'm an only child, there's a wee bit of pity, like 'Aw, you're on your own' but I've never felt I missed out."

'I was a novelty'

Dublin digital marketing executive Aleesha Tully (26) is conscious of defying the only-child stereotype. She says: "A lot of people tell me, 'You don't strike me as an only child', which irks me because I hate the idea of labelling someone and expecting them to be a certain way.

"It sometimes makes me paranoid – I worry if I'm talking about myself too much or looking like I want attention because I don't want to do anything that could be construed as being 'a spoilt only child'.

"I had opportunities that I might not have had if we'd been a bigger family but my parents made sure that I appreciated praise. I think having only one made life a little bit easier for them, especially in terms of the cost of raising a child, and we're very close as a result.

"At school I felt a bit of a novelty; there was only me and one other girl who had no siblings, but that's the legacy of Catholic Ireland where it's the norm to have larger families and there's something wrong with you if you only have the one child."

'I made up games for myself'

Former school principal Helen McHugh (59), from Dundonald, Co Down, says: "I did feel when mum died last year, and dad a few years previously, that it would have been nice to have someone who shared the same childhood memories of them and who could have been there to help share the load.

"My husband was very good, and I've always been close to my cousins, but it's not quite the same.

"Growing up, I remember asking mum 'Can we not have a baby?' because I did feel lonely on occasions but I'd plenty of company with my cousins and I was glad to start school and make friends.

"My mum spent a lot of time with me, but she also encouraged me to be independent and I remember making up games for myself.

"From my own experience and working with children, I do think only children tend to be quite independent and anxious to do well – perhaps because their parents have only one to focus on.

"But it's hard to generalise: ultimately it depends on the parenting style – not how many children there are."

'Others were one of 13!'

Dad-of-two David Carey (65) is a psychologist at Dublin's Connolly Counselling Centre. He says: "Where I grew up in Connecticut, three kids was a large family. Then I moved to Ireland 20 years ago and people my age were telling me they were one of nine or 13 – I can only imagine how being an only child in Ireland might feel quite unusual!

"I don't think the spoilt label is fair at all because so much depends on the psychology of the parents and how they link up cause and effect. Over-gratifying a child can be damaging, but being an only child doesn't automatically mean you'll be over-gratified.

"I think we just live in a world were we like to label each other to make sense of things, but really we're all more alike than different.

"The only thing I would find is that being in a room with children and noise causes me discomfort, possibly because I didn't develop that tolerance of busyness in a confined space at an early age.

"It unnerves me in a way it never seems to affect my friends who grew up in larger families."

'I want a Waltons-size brood'

Aisling O'Rourke (27) is an award-winning broadcaster for Midlands 103. She says: "I didn't like being an only child and fantasised about having someone else to fight with, steal clothes from or help me campaign to get a dog.

"But I think everybody who is an only child has thought that at some point – it's just a 'grass is always greener' thing.

"I was brought into offices and out to events with my parents from an early age so I learned to relate to adults and communicate properly at an early age.

"As a result, I've never felt nervous about meeting a partner's parents or going for job interviews because I'm comfortable talking to people more senior.

"Growing up I had lots of after-school activities and went on foreign holidays from a young age.

"It's just a fact that the budget stretches further for one than two.

"Many of the only children I know are a little bit more competitive and ambitious and I think we procrastinate less because we're used to occupying ourselves.

"I always say I want The Waltons when it comes to having my own family, but then I've never had to deal with a screaming baby, so we'll have to wait and see!"

Irish Independent

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