The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, May 7, 2000
Lead Article

Only 1

Being surrounded by adults and being the centre of attraction, the child quickly develops a larger vocabulary and models his behaviour on adults around him. Parents increasingly give him responsible tasks and involve him in decision-making about the house and family. Indeed being the focus of attention can be a very good childhood experience, generating self-confidence, says Mohinder Singh

"I CAN spot an only child at twenty paces. It is something about the space they always need," says David Emerson, the co-author of Only Child (Souvenir Press, 1994). He and Jail Pitkeathley had interviewed in depth hundreds of adults who were only children.

Illustration by Rajiv Kaul"Having all those goodies, all that undiluted parental attention, not having to share with other siblings, missing out on the rough and tumble of a sibling childhood — and many more distinct experiences — does create in the only child someone special, someone with behaviour that can seem strange to those who have grown up amongst brothers and sisters," say the authors.

Being surrounded by adults and being the centre of attraction, the child quickly develops a larger vocabulary and models his behaviour on adults around him. Parents increasingly give him responsible tasks and involve him in decision-making about the house and family. Indeed being the focus of attention can be a very good childhood experience, generating self-confidence.

  The undivided attention of both parents means that whatever you say is likely to be heard. The moment his foot crosses the door there’s parent saying, "Hello, how are you? Has it been a good day?" The situation is vastly different where three or more sibling are clamouring for parental attention.

Only children get more parental support in education and starting life than what is available to children with siblings. That offers only children a greater range of opportunities. Parents indulge them more in their hobbies; concerned that the only child wouldn’t get bored.

But then there are negative aspects, too. When only children play with other children, their lack of experience in joining in can hold them backhand make them appear stand-offish. Only children just haven’t been used to the jostling and bumping up against each other that are common among other children. And only children find it difficult to cope with the teasing that goes on in schools — they have no such experience at home.

They are often unable to deal with anger in a lighthearted or non-threatening manner because they never had the squabbling, bickering and then forgetting it as most children have. This lack of practice in fighting is a serious handicap.

Relating to brother and sister and having to accommodate them, however reluctantly, is an invaluable training for later life. Surely you can get by without it; you can even learn some of it. But what siblings do provide is an emotional training for life that is difficult, if not impossible, to replicate.

No brothers and sisters to borrow or move things. Only children can retain a burning resentment at other people’s thoughtless rearrangement of their territory. Borrowing without asking and putting them in the wrong places make the only children (even when grown up) really angry.

The greater time and attention available from a parent means that the only child’s needs can be met fully and quickly. As a consequence, only children often develop a sense of immediacy. They want things to happen quickly and are usually more restive in queues.

Only children are often the first to criticise a less than perfect meal in a restaurant, to complain about poor service, to request a better seat — entering adulthood with the feeling mostly unconscious, that he or she is entitled only to the best.

When overwhelmed with the unrealistic expectations of their parents, they often become dreamer with excellent plans and intentions that are rarely carried out.

Being in the limelight for a few years is something first-born children may share with only children, and may explain some of their shared characteristics. But for the only child, of course, the focus is never shattered.

Any talk of only children brings in China. The country’s one-child policy is the most ambitious piece of social engineering in history. Never has any nation attempted something as drastic and of such magnitude as this policy. What will be all its ramifications for the Chinese society? And what about the coming crop of only children; only children born to parents who themselves were single children?

With son-preference strong in the Hen Chinese (akin to ours), one-child regime operated harshly on girls. Many were aborted or killed at birth, others given away or abandoned, besides the practice of under-reporting female births.

Yet, unintended it may be, the one-child policy has done wonders to the status and image of girls. Millions of middle-class urban families now have only one girl child. Parents dote on them, prize them highly. These girls receive almost as much parental attention and investment in their education as single sons. The one-child policy seems to have triggered a silent revolution, leading to greater girl-acceptance and a boost to women’s self-esteem in a traditionally male-oriented society.

In the early 1980s, various Chinese research psychologists found that the only children — "the little emperors" — were more likely to have personality and social behavioural problems. They grow more stubborn, moody, irritable, less sharing than children with siblings.— Being less exposed to setbacks or disappointments, they are unable to withstand emotional blows.

One consequence is that these children are usually overfed, many to the point of obesity. Whatever the only children demand — and they mostly demand foods rich infants and proteins, such as meats, sweets and fast-foods — they are given. Grandparents are even more indulgent; they tend to cater to every whim of the grandchild. No wonder, single children are known in Chinese as "four-two-ones": four grandparents, two parents, and one spoiled brat.

Besides spending relatively large sums on over-feeding their only children, parents are seen to spare no expense on their toys and clothes. In many families nearly half the family budget is snapped up by the only child.

And parents often go to extraordinary lengths to give the only child the best possible education. That’s the top priority, no matter what it costs. Special tutors are hired outside schools. Parents skimp on their own consumption, take loans, to buy the only child expensive educational inputs, such as a compute, even a piano. All this is coupled with intense pressure on the child to excel in studies.

No wonder quite a few Chinese surveys concluded that only children were more egocentric, with lower ratings in cooperation than children with slugs. Other studies even showed only-children figuring higher in delinquency.

Elsewhere in the world the only-child situation doesn’t go beyond the concerns of individual family happiness and the child’s psychological adjustment. But in China the problematic character of such children in huge numbers has become an important social issue. It even worries state authorities. Parents are frequently exhorted not to overindulge their only children.

Over time, however, Chinese culture has adapted. More and more parents are now encouraging their only children to participate in collective activities. As one-child families became a societal norm, parents changed their attitudes towards their children, doting less and using more authoritative parenting methods.

Some prejudice against the only child is age-old in every culture. Popular sentiment still persists that a second child is needed to provide companionship to the first, so that first won’t be spoiled or be selfish or feel lonesome. Parents experience pressure from relatives and friends to have a second child — sometimes even more pressure than to have the first. Many single-child parents feel stigmatised for being selfish.

The only child, however, is faring well in western research. There studies concentrate on IQ and school results, items lending themselves to more accurate quantification than the vague "personality". When it comes to educational achievements, the results are clear-cut: only children have been found to have higher achievements in both length of education and quality of academic work.

As to personality traits such as emotional adjustment and sociability, western research generally finds no significant difference between only and children with siblings — the only-children "more maligned than maladjusted". It is not the nature of only children that creates problems, but what is expected of them by their families and society. If they are any different, it is because of the heightened expectations and anxieties that others have about them.

In Europe where single-child families are nearly as common as two-child families, no adverse effects have been observed. Similarly elsewhere, including India, there has been a steady rise in single-child couples. A growing number of our matrimonial ads highlight that the boy or girl in question has the adventage of being an only child.

In recent years a new perspective on only children is emerging. The most noted researcher in this field is tony Falbo, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Taxas. She (herself an only) has conducted numerous surveys and examined more than a hundred studies done since the 1920s. And she has been going to China — home to the world’s largest pool of only children for studies over wide swaths of urban and rural areas.

Falbo concludes that "only children scored significantly better than other groups in achievement, motivation and personal adjustment," and were in all other respects indistinguishable from children with siblings. In China again, she did not find only children to be out of ordinary in any major way.

The debate, however, still goes on about the advantages and disadvantages of being the only child.