The world isn’t set up for units of three. Plates and chairs come in sets of four. Recipes serve two or four. Recently, I heard this joke by director Judd Apatow: "Four people is a family. Three people is a child observing a weird couple." I laughed, since my husband and I have one child, a 9-year-old son.
Most of the time, I’m happy to have one child (partly by choice, and partly by circumstance), although sometimes I wish I had more children. My cousin Kyle was an only child, and now he’s raising an only child who is a very nice, well-adjusted person. I remind myself of this when my occasional guilt over having an only child sets in — like, say, during a global pandemic when my son is stuck at home with no one but his parents (and his faithful dog/furry sibling stand-in, Murray) to keep him company for months on end.
Like other parents around the globe, for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, my husband and I have been trying to juggle work, household responsibilities, childcare, online/ homeschool and keeping a child busy when school's not in session. When my son wants to play, that often means I have to stop working and try to find ways to entertain him, like art and science experiments or playing tennis; my husband’s given him guitar lessons and found new books that he thinks will engage him.
We used to have strict limits on screen time in our household, but that went out the window when school went online. We began to let our son play video games online with his friends because it meant he could safely interact with them. We recently started letting him have “socially distant playdates,” where the kids wear masks and do non-contact activities like water balloons, bike rides or kicking a ball around outside. Still, I worry if that's enough.
At least my son is old enough to participate in online games. Parents I spoke to who have only children in the preschool years say they’ve had to get creative to keep their kids entertained, doing things like hunting for bugs, collecting rocks or even driving by the town dump. One mom I spoke to said she felt compelled to work harder to make sure her child wasn’t missing out on developmental milestones.
She's not alone. Today, moms and dads in America are more involved with their children than in decades past. Parents have more pressure on them to play with their children — even though many parents say they find “pretend play” to be tedious — or to provide their children with siblings who will play with them. But there is a case to be made for letting children be bored — and for only children, time alone can lead to resilience and creativity.
Susan Newman, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and author of the book Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only. “Encourage only children to be independent and foster their ability to entertain themselves,” she advises, rather than filling all of your time with one-on-one play.
Dr. Newman says parents of only children should let go of their guilt during this time. “When there’s one child in the household, it’s time to be more lenient with things like online interactions," she says, though of course, parents should still monitor internet access. “Children want to keep up their friend relationships, and in the pre-teen and teen years peer interaction is especially important." Our socially-distant play dates, at our son’s age, are fine, too — he’s old enough to understand the safety measures that need to be taken, and he still gets to benefit from interaction with his friends.
“For all parents, this is a new landscape, and we all have to make tradeoffs and adjust, no matter how many kids there are in the household," Dr. Newman says. "Even though times are difficult, we can build positive memories and new traditions." Ultimately, only children and children with siblings are more alike than they are different. Each child’s personality — whether he or she is introverted, anxious or more easygoing — will affect how the child fares during this challenging time.
Parents of only children at all ages and stages can take advantage of having more time to build on the bond they already have with their child — like Carrie McDannell, the mother of a 3-year-old child from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. McDannell’s part of a private Facebook group called “Parents of Only Children by Choice” and says she’s been having more family time since the pandemic hit. “Our child has started to help us cook more, which is good for her and us," McDannell says. "Even with working full-time, we still find time to do special crafts or home projects."
So if you’re the parent of an only child, let go of any guilt, don’t worry too much about screen time, and enjoy the bond you have with your one and only kid. If all else fails, after a long day of endless pretend play, if you talk to your friend with three boys and ask how much money they spend on groceries each week, you might breathe a sigh of relief — like I did — that you’re the parent of just one child.
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