“When are you going to give him a sibling?” a complete stranger asks. It’s maybe the dozenth time I’ve been asked this question. When someone offers to be my pro-bono, full-time nanny, I think.
There’s a kind of unspoken expectation in America to have multiple children. Only children, or kids who don’t grow up with a sibling in the home, are seen as self-absorbed, maladjusted, unhappy loners lacking in social skills. I have an issue with the way these assumed behaviors are referred to — only child syndrome — and how it suggests that being without siblings is a disorder of some kind: all children that grow up without a brother or sister are subject to this same set of negative stereotypes, with little or no regard for the environmental factors that influence characteristics like adaptability, agreeableness, empathy, and resiliency.
The unspoken assumption is that parents of only children do little or nothing to encourage or facilitate socialization with age-mates, or that only children are treated as little adults, isolated from situations that allow them to develop critical social skills that will allow them to flourish as they become old enough to interact with the world independent of parental guidance.
To tell parents that only children are in some way worse off places an excessive amount of pressure on parents to reproduce — even if they lack the financial stability or mental energy to do so. The decision to expand (or not expand) the family is a deeply personal one. More worrying, this pressure entirely disregards the possibility that many couples are unable to expand their family, whether due to fertility reasons, a lack of resources to pursue adoption, or other equally personal reasons. How does a parent compensate for the multitude of ways they are told their child will suffer for their solitude? Can they compensate?
Of course they can. I’ll be damned if I let strangers and ill-proven theories about stunted development persuade me to put my body through the difficult, painful, year-long process of conception, pregnancy, and newborn period. I’ll be double damned if my son isn’t going to be the happiest, most well-adjusted kid ever. The common factors that are most often pointed to as being causes of only child syndrome are things that can be significantly influenced through the active and ongoing evaluation of the child’s environment, relationship with caretakers, and various social outlets.
Ben is in daycare three days a week. We get a little report card telling us how he’s doing on his interpersonal skills, like listening to directions, table manners, and waiting patiently during hallway time. We also get a note on what we need to work on at home. Right now (surprise) it’s listening ears. Ben has a mind of his own, but I’m pretty sure kids his age have maybe a 50% return rate on listening the first time anyway.
From the time Ben was old enough to be aware of the world around him, I made an effort to get him out of the house and into the world on a daily basis. While I’m sure this started as a way to relieve myself of the monotony of caring for an infant, it eventually grew into a much-needed reprieve for Ben, who becomes restless if he’s been cooped up inside all day. We have a large yard and two active dogs, but this isn’t enough stimulation for a vibrant, giggle-happy toddler. Our daily outings to the park or grocery store or a friend’s house for play time allow Ben ample time to interact with the world and other children outside of the structured routine of daycare.
So here, friends, is my deepest (and newest) fear. What if I do everything in my power, but my everything turns out to not be enough? What if my family history of depression ensnares him as it did me? How much of his adult self is determined by nature vs. nurture? The truth at the heart of it — the same truth at the heart of everything we do — is that only one outcome is ever guaranteed to us. So I’ll do my due diligence and hold onto the hope that our efforts won’t be for nothing or in vain. The rest is a combination of chance, effort, timing, and love.