Your child brings meaning and joy to your world. She's all you have and the knowledge of this awesome responsibility leaves you overwhelmed—you're grateful and terrified—all at once. You want to give her the whole world on a platter. Little do you realise that as a parent of an only child, you have just fallen into one of the most common parenting pitfalls there is.
Where parents err
Although we tend to blame an only child for behavioural problems, the actual problem lies in parenting. "Rearing an only child has its own unique challenges," says Brinda Jayaraman, a Chennai-based counsellor, psychologist, and founder of Anchor Self-Help Access [ASHA]. "This is largely due to the fact that doting parents may be tempted to be too permissive. When they yield too easily to demands, the child may feel more privileged at home. However, the world outside is harsh and when this special treatment is not meted out to him/her everywhere, adjustment problems can arise," she explains.
The child could turn out to be self-centred, unwilling to share in any way. According to Jayaraman, parents of only children tend to be over-protective. This creates anxiety issues, leaving the child unable to cope with any real challenges. "Since everything is arranged for the child, s/he doesn't learn problem-solving skills and may have difficulties taking up responsibilities at a later stage," says Jayaraman.
Only and lonely?
The biggest issue of concern to an only child is that of companionship, or rather, the lack of it. It stands to reason that if you've never experienced something, you can't miss it. Oddly enough, parents of only children tend to feel unreasonable guilt for having deprived their kids of the experience of having siblings. The guilt intensifies if they enjoy a special bond with their own siblings.
When Hasmita Chander, a writer based in Mumbai made her decision to raise Mikita, her only child, she was more than a little apprehensive. "I'm not sure what the effects of not having a sibling would be for Mikita. I do know that I treasure my own relationship with my only sibling, my sister. So it worries me sometimes that she may not have that. Then again, it's perhaps because I had a sibling that I was more reticent with friends—after all, I had my sister. Friends can provide companionship as well and teach lessons in sharing and tolerance, which we would like to provide with a second child's presence."
Often, when the age gap between children is over 2 – 3 years, having another child, simply to provide a sense of companionship for the first, just isn't plausible. "Your two children are more likely to be in different stages of their lives, with different needs and interests," says Emma Watson, a Chennai-based psychologist and counsellor. "In such cases, it isn't until adulthood that a true bond is struck, if at all."
It's commonly believed that only children have to battle with the demons of loneliness. "I've never felt lonely because once you are an only child you get used to doing things on your own. You don't always need somebody to entertain you. You find ways to entertain yourself. And I don't believe that being spoilt, over-ambitious, or attention-seeking is restricted to single children," says Kshitija Pande, an MBA student in the Symbiosis Institute of Management Studies and a single child.
Chandana Banerjee, a media professional based in Pune also grew up as an only child. This, she believes, gave her the opportunity to develop her creativity because of all the time spent playing imaginary games and thinking of new activities that would keep her amused. "I enjoyed being an only child and never felt that this situation was unique or any different in any way. I loved reading, painting and making up stories. I could also spend hours on my own, chasing butterflies in the garden, watching ants go about their business, looking for fairies beneath bushes and in hollowed trees. Neither was I lonely, nor did I ever yearn for companionship."
Contrary to their image as loners, studies have proven that only children gravitate to large crowds, make friends easily and can be more open and outgoing than those children who grew up with siblings. "I feel anybody can be an extrovert or a loner—one doesn't have to be an only child to fit into these two moulds," says Banerjee.
"A lot of people assume that being an only child, I must have been pampered silly or spoilt rotten, but, my mother had always been extra-strict, in order to counter this." she says further.
Balancing the beam
Interestingly enough, when you are dealing with a single child parenting styles can vary greatly, often veering towards both ends of the spectrum—either being too permissive or too harsh, even alternating between both. It's the parents who manage to strike a balance, acting both as a friend and confidante, while still maintaining a level of necessary discipline. This kind of democratic parenting easily manages to fill the void left by a lack of companionship that a single child might normally face.
"I've always felt it natural for me to confide completely in my mother or father. And this has raised my confidence levels as they've always supported me," says Pande.
Studies have shown that single children are often more ambitious and successful than their peers who have dealt with siblings. In many cases, they are hailed as over-achievers, mostly because they have reason to feel more secure. Only children don't need to constantly compare themselves with a more successful sibling, or feel the resentment of a parent's unwitting partiality. And this creates a strong sense of self-esteem that helps propel them through life.
So if the stork has visited you just once in your life, remember, you have every reason to rejoice. By balancing love and discipline, strictness and indulgence, and having fun and laughs you can ground your only child pretty well. After all, it's quality over quantity any day.
Watch out for these parenting pitfalls
Recognise the problems commonly associated with the single child syndrome and avoid these oft-repeated mistakes:
Resist the temptation to give in to her whims and buy everything she asks for. Often parents tend to be indulgent out of a misplaced sense of guilt. They feel their child is lonely or aching for companionship and wish to make up for it by providing her with the best money can buy. If both parents are working, the feelings of guilt are compounded and money isn't really an object.
"In such a situation, remember why you made the decision to have just one child in the first place—in the best interest of the child and to be able to provide a better lifestyle and focused parenting," advises Sharda Sumpurna, MBBS, MS, and a holistic health consultant who runs Sumpoorna counselling in Gurgaon.
"Remind yourself that you have nothing to feel guilty about. Also, keep in mind that material possessions just can't keep a child occupied or satisfied in the long term. Develop your child's interests in art, dance, music or even an unusual hobby like carpentry instead."
Allow her to fight her own battles.
You may be sorely tempted to avenge a wrong done to your only child, but don't take these battles too seriously. Whether it's dealing with a school bully or an unfair teacher, remember it's all a part of growing up. Children need to be allowed to face these difficulties on their own, in order to be initiated into the real, not-so-rosy world. Your interference could solve the problem now, but it would leave your child helpless in similar situations all her life.
Extend your child's social circle.
Encourage your only child to develop a close circle of friends. Take her to playgrounds where she can experience a community feeling and sharing through group activities. "This extended family approach to the world is critical for her wellbeing and development," says Dr Sharda. Once the children are older, allow them to go out on camping trips, treks, cycling or sign up for tennis classes where they will meet more like-minded individuals who share their interests.
Establish a healthy relationship with food.
A single child with doting parents is at risk of developing unhealthy food habits. Sometimes, an over-protective instinct might cause parents to unduly stress over the child's intake. Be aware of the detrimental effects of force-feeding or nagging too much at mealtimes. Establishing a balance here too will ensure that the child relates to food in a healthy manner.
Be judicious with the praise.
You've heard the new-age parenting rule—praising a child as much as possible builds up self-confidence and self-esteem. However, lavishing excessive praise on your the children may give them a false impression of their own merits, a view that will soon be shattered in school, very often leaving the child confused and resentful. To deal with this problem, don't be overtly critical. Learn the art of praising judiciously.
Instead of telling your child that she is the best artist in the world, tell her how much you liked her particular picture and be specific. For instance, you could say, "I love the lighthouse that you added for the beach scene. It gives the painting a realistic feel." Remember, it's critical that a single child receives true feedback about her capabilities. She needs to know that she can trust you to tell her the truth.
Turn off the pressure.
Some parents tend to impose their dreams on their children, but when this happens in single-child homes, the problem intensifies since the child is under a great deal of pressure to fulfil them. Never put your child through this pressure or it could lead to an intense sense of guilt and hopelessness.
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