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It’s time to break the only-child stereotypes

In a world that idealises the big and happy family, how do we raise an only child?

Sure, the sibling experience can be great but single children have fun and meaningful experiences too.(Pexels)

By Shweta Sharan

LAST PUBLISHED 04.04.2023  |  01:00 PM IST

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A few weeks ago, the mother of a toddler posted a question in a social media group. Should she have a second child? Almost all responses to her question were the same.

“Go for it, you won’t regret it. It’s lovely for both the kids have each other’s backs." 

“Yes, they will have someone to talk to or turn to when they grow up, and will share and become more sorted individuals."
 “Kids with siblings have a lot of life skills that we parents fail to teach."

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Sure, the sibling experience can be great but single children have fun and meaningful experiences too. I am the only child to my parents. Growing up in the 1980s, I was the only kid in my class who had no siblings, a status that always drew concern or bewilderment from both kids and adults. Aren’t you lonely? Why didn’t your parents have another child? You don’t know the joys of being a sister or having a brother. You miss out on a lot if you have not experienced the love of a sibling.

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I am sure my parents had their fair share of such questions but they both wanted to work. They were able to give me more time and attention. In fact, renowned psychologist Toni Falbo conducted a study in 1986 titled Quantitative Review of the Only Child Literature and found only children to had stronger parent-child relationships.

As a single child, I had tons of friends. I even traveled to see my cousins in another city on my own when I was 14. I spent most of my time outdoors so I never felt lonely. Being alone at home, I developed strong intrapersonal skills.

I find the idea that we need to ‘give’ our child a sibling to be problematic. The decision to have a second child should be based on only one reason - a need for another child and a desire to nurture this person as an individual in his or her own right, and not as a playmate for the first.

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Family size isn’t always a choice - health and the rising cost of education often force urban couples to have just one child, leading to a shift. A study by India's National Family Health Survey-4 in 2018 showed that only 24% of married women in India (between 15 and 49) and 27% of men want a second child.

In my case, my partner and I didn’t want a second child at all. We wanted to explore our relationship with our daughter and put all effort and meaning into it. We wanted to make it count.

Parenting is more than just a given

Monila Sapre is a mental health practitioner based in Bengaluru and is a mother to a 7-year-old daughter. “Before we became parents, I wanted three kids and my husband wanted only one," she says. “I now feel that parenting is not something that can be a 'given'. It is serious business. Children don't just happen and just grow up. Also, my husband and I find meaning in doing many things other than parenting in life. We enjoy parenting very much, but having one child keeps things simple for us. It allows us more bandwidth and also deepens our bond with our child."

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Sapre believes that there are many misconceptions about single children and also about parents who choose to have just one child. “Everyone says that only children are very self-centred. They cannot share or adjust easily. They are full of themselves. And I would like to debunk them all. I have my first cousin, the only single child in the family. She forms wonderful relationships, has many friends, is very close to her parents as well as in-laws and has adjusted beautifully in a large family after her marriage," she says.  "My own child is praised for being kind, warm and helpful by all her friends. She is always ready to listen and comfort her friends even at the age of 7," adds Sapre.

Not all sibling relationships are formative

I know many friends who are very close to their siblings but I also have cousins and friends who are estranged from their siblings. In my own family, siblings fought over property. A few never spoke to each other for the rest of their lives. Instead, they chose to form deeper bonds with friends or acquaintances. Sibling relationships can be complicated, too.

I believe that sibling or no sibling, we can bring up our kids to be resilient and wonderful human beings. This shift towards a smaller, more self-aware family unit gives rise to questions about meaningful parenting and equality. Why should a big family be the norm? Let’s move away from ‘only’ and call them ‘individual children’ instead.

Shweta Sharan is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai

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