Your one and only

The pride and prejudices of raising an only child

At 17, Courtney Heffernan is busy with school, synchronized skating, and hanging out with friends. But when her dad, Regan, drives her to school, the two catch up, talk about homework or friends, and laugh together while listening to Johnny Cash or Blink-182. Courtney’s mom, Lynn, says the family has also taken many longer drives together over the years: to Florida, Cape Cod and Quebec City, as well as regular jaunts to Toronto from their home in Oakville, Ont. For parents of two or more Timbit-tossing kids, even an hour in a minivan can be slow torture. But for Regan and Lynn, the car is a place where they can savour some precious, peaceful time with their only child.

At the height of the postwar baby boom, the average Canadian woman had more than three children. That number has shrunk to just 1.6 and one-child households now account for 27 percent of Canada’s 8.9 million families. In many cases, life makes the decision for them, but today more parents are consciously deciding to have just one child. Sometimes the reasons are financial: it costs more than $166,000 to raise a child to 18, according to one estimate from the Manitoba government. Not only do one-child families tend to have more disposable income, there are no headaches over trying to distribute it equally.

Parents of “just one” also say they have more time and energy, and some feel less strain in their relationship as a couple. Nick Gamble of Toronto says his decision to have one child grew out of his own upbringing by parents who divorced when he was 15. “Having a child at all was a big leap out of my comfort zone,” he says. What’s more, the hectic environment of a house full of kids doesn’t appeal to him or his partner. “Neither of us is good at chaos. Having one child suits our personalities best.”

Lynn Heffernan loves being able to focus on her one and only. “My husband and I have a very close relationship with our daughter. We give her our undivided attention. We can spend more money on her. And when she was young, it was easier to parent just one.” Life as a trio has advantages for Courtney too. “She’s good at occupying herself, she’s comfortable being alone, and she’s very good at talking to adults.”
Heffernan acknowledges that the downside of too much togetherness is that parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s social activities. “When Courtney was younger, I felt like I had to be the social director.” That often meant setting up special events for the weekend. All parents do that, of course, but Heffernan recognizes she may have tried to compensate for Courtney not having siblings to play with. And since Courtney became a teenager, the Heffernans take vacations with other families so their daughter will have someone to hang out with.

When Nick Gamble was growing up, the hardest part was having no one to share the experience of his parents’ divorce. Instead, he was left on his own to try to negotiate his mother’s weekly visits, while protecting his father from their effects. The result? “I felt a lot of pressure, and I was lonely,” he confesses. But in most cases, the “lonely only” stereotype doesn’t hold up. Carolyn White, author of The Seven Common Sins of Parenting an Only Child, says kids without siblings usually thrive on alone time. “Every only child I have ever interviewed says one of the best things is the creative time they had.”

Yet our culture still equates alone time with loneliness. In kids’ books, it’s inevitable that an only child (or only bear or rabbit) is longing for a playmate. White says cultural signals like these can cause parents in one-child families to feel guilty, particularly those who wanted to have a larger family, but couldn’t. Sandra Sanz, an early-childhood educator in Aurora, Ont. — and herself one of 12 siblings — admits that her 14-year-old, Emily, has often said she wishes she had a brother or sister. Emily’s laments play into Sanz’s guilt and disappointment at not being able to have another child. “Should I have tried harder? Should we have adopted?”

Growing up without siblings may also affect how a child handles social challenges. According to Carl E. Pickhardt, author of The Future of Your Only Child, kids with brothers or sisters are more likely to assume that conflict is a natural part of relationships. In contrast, singletons don’t get practice from the “rough and tumble, push and shove” that’s common with siblings. They may assume this kind of normal interaction is the sign of a problem, and tend to walk away instead of learning how to address it.

Lynn Heffernan recalls how Courtney reacted when, many years ago, two other girls began excluding her. Fickle friends are a part of any school kid’s life, but Heffernan was alarmed at how her daughter responded. “She wouldn’t stand up for herself.” It’s only in the last couple of years that Courtney has become more assertive with her friends. Sanz describes a similar passivity in her daughter when she’s in a large group. “Emily is more of an observer of things when she’s in an unfamiliar setting,” says her mother. She’ll jump in if asked, but not before.
If only children sometimes struggle in their friendships with peers, they are often completely comfortable among adults. As parenting expert Alyson Schafer observes, only children “grow up in a land of competent giants, where everyone can count to 100, tie their shoes and speak in full sentences.” Because kids have a natural tendency to want to fit in, they tend to look like the adults they’re hanging out with, she says. When Courtney walks into a room or sits down to a dinner at a table of adults, you’d never know she was the youngest one there. Perfectly poised and graceful, when she was younger she seemed to feel more at home with her parents’ friends than at a kids’ table — although she’s grown out of that.

The danger with children acting so mature is that their parents can end up treating them like adults. The family can start to feel like a triangle with three equal sides, when really one side is much smaller. Sanz recalls how she and her husband asked too much from Emily when she was younger because their daughter seemed so capable. There were times, for instance, when Emily would lose her temper and they would tell her they expected more from her. They had to step back and realize that Emily was simply expressing her anger and frustration like other children her age.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the stereotype of only children as spoiled. Parenting experts can still be ruthless — even insulting — when they describe one-child parents as overprotective and doting. Heffernan recalls how her husband would scrutinize Courtney’s school work, always addressing a bad test. “She needed room to breathe on her own,” Heffernan says. “Sometimes she would break down in tears.”

Yet, ultimately, most parents of onlies insist that their goal is to raise an independent child. Sanz says Emily has chores around the house, and they’ve always focused on her being responsible. And Courtney? Last summer, she travelled to Ireland on her own, a trip both her parents supported.

Indeed, the Heffernans have raised such an independent teen that they worry she may fly the coop before her mom and dad are ready. “I will have a hard time with that,” Lynn says. “The nest will empty very suddenly.” As for Regan, he admits he’ll miss those car rides with only his daughter for company. “Going from one to no one at all — that will be a big change.”