Growing up an only child, I remember people constantly being fascinated by the concept of a life without siblings.
When meeting new friends at school and being introduced to some of my parent’s friends, I was almost always presented with the questions:
“Do you like not having siblings?”
“Do you get lonely?” or even better…
The “Oh, you must be so spoiled!” statement.
The only child comments I received became redundant and annoying relatively quickly. I eventually learned to come up with a generic answer to ramble back, combined with a shoulder shrug and light chuckle.
Truth be told, I actually really enjoyed being an only child when I was younger.
Of course there were plenty of times when I wished I had someone to play with, share cheeky secrets with, and play dress-up with (other than my mom). But, when I went to school and had to listen to my friends complain about their brother playing too rough or their sister stealing all their clothes, I realized that being an only child may not be so bad.
As an adult, I am able to reflect on my life an only child, I often think about the different lessons, blessings, and experiences I had.
I also think about what I, as an only child, would want other people to understand about the experiences of growing up without siblings, and how that can shape one’s personality.
Only children can get a bad rep– often unfairly labeled as spoiled, loners or just “different” in a way that the average person doesn’t understand.
But there are reasons for the qualities consistent with an only-child upbringing, as well as nuances and perspectives that are really important to try to understand.
So, here is what I would tell you about my experience, and how it may also affect the other only-children in your life.
1. We can be extra self-aware and cautious because we received undivided attention and protection as children.
It’s no secret that only children can be spoiled with love and affection. Since our parents only have one child to watch and care for, we get all of their undivided love and attention.
This is both a blessing and a curse, in the sense that because they are constantly watching over you, so you have a near-impossible chance of getting into trouble.
While growing up with all the attention centered on me, there were times when I felt like my parents could be slightly overbearing and overprotective in certain situations. Looking back now I realize that my parents were looking out for me the only way they knew how and wanted me to still be able to have fun, but safely.
Because I grew up with overprotective parents, I participated in all the fun things that my friends did, just at a safer and slower pace. As an adult, I find myself to be cautious, and a little more reserved and hesitant when trying new things.
When I go out with my friends and they want to do something that I’ve never done before, I’m typically not the first to jump right in. I take my time and think about the outcomes of my actions before I participate.
If you notice only children behaving more shy and cautious, it could be because their parents were overprotective too and this is what they are familiar with.
Don’t rush us or force us to do anything. We will do whatever feels comfortable for us.
Sometimes it just takes an extra second to get there.
2. We place extreme value on genuine, lasting friendships.
Because we have no siblings, only children tend to deeply cherish their friendships.
When I was a child and upset with my parents (or life in general), I had my friends to confide in. They became an extension of my family. In a sense, my friends were the “siblings” that I felt I could openly vent to about any conflicts that I may have been going through at home. It was always important to me that those relationships were authentic and honest because friendship isn’t guaranteed in the way it might feel like if you have siblings.
I still chase that genuine connection in my friendships today. I love making memories with my friends and I love being a part of their lives too.
Although it’s pretty rare, through making friends with other only children I find that we are very loyal and take friendships seriously.
For only children, friends aren’t just people to hang out with in social environments. They’re your circle, the people you chose to be loyal, reliable confidants for a very long time. That matters to us, and impacts how we prioritize and evaluate friendships.
3. We don’t mind being alone.
Since only children are used to spending time alone, we typically don’t mind being in our own company. Oftentimes, I find that only children actually need to regroup and spend some time alone to get themselves back on track. I know this has come off differently to family or friends, and they have at times become concerned or taken it personal.
I remember growing up there were times when I would be up in my bedroom and I had minimal conversation with my parents that day. My mom would be so concerned and ask me questions like, “Are you upset with me?” or, “Did Dad and I do something to upset you?”
This broke my heart because I didn’t want her to think she was the reason I was keeping to myself, but I could tell she was taking my behavior totally personal. I had to somehow explain to her that nothing was wrong, I was just really enjoying being alone.
Because I have such a close bond with my parents and receive all of their undivided attention, I still sometimes feel I need a breather in the form of solitude.
I feel that way as an adult too with social situations too. A quiet reprive can be rejuvenating for anyone, but especially if you’re an only child.
We learned to self-soothe and self-entertain from a young age, and those qualities don’t just go away.
Try not to take it personally if we need some time alone!
We’re also often big fans of the arts and hobbies for this reason. The only children in your life are probably drawn to books, movies, music– anything that can be enjoyed alone. But they still LOVE to talk about them.
4. We aren’t very demanding of others and are used to making our own fun.
Only children grow up without the constant noise and commotion created by siblings, just the calm, serene peace of our own inner world. There’s no fighting, no arguing, just a chill lifestyle trying to come up with activities to keep us busy.
I remember spending a lot of my free time coloring and painting, crafting using playdough and making friendship bracelets, and playing outside in my backyard. I learned to make my own fun and be content with that, so I never grew to be particularly demanding of others. A lot of only children adapt in this way as well.
5. We can be particular, and we are comfortable setting boundaries.
However, because we did not have the constant commotion that siblings bring, only children prefer to do things their own way. Yes, we know how to share, but we can be pretty particular. We are not used to having siblings intrude on our space, so if we have a super tidy desk area and a color-coordinated closet, it’s because this is what we are used to and what we want.
We can confidently set boundaries, not just with our physical space but also in our personal and professional lives. We know how to say, “I don’t want to do that,” or “This is my time and I prefer to spend it this way,” because we grew up having a bit more control over those choices than those with siblings did. It doesn’t mean we are unwavering or uncompromising, but it does mean we know what we want (and what we don’t want) and how to vocalize that.
6. We are highly independent, but we still need you in our lives.
Growing up as an only child means becoming independent at a young age. When you are young and have to learn to independently entertain yourself, the behavior extends into your adult life, and we find it easy to rely on ourselves and to do things alone. Even in my life today I find that in my professional endeavors I have no problem working independently.
I consider myself to be a responsible and self-sufficient person. I am okay with being on my own and know I can take care of myself. I have a confident attitude and take responsibility for my own choices.
On the other hand, I sometimes find it difficult to ask for help, because I am so familiar with having to figure things out on my own and make do with whatever solutions I come up with.
One of the biggest things I (and probably other only-children) want you to know is that this doesn’t mean we don’t need or want you in our lives. We do.
We still need help, support, encouragement and love. We still desire companionship and community. We still want you in our lives.
It’s just that admitting that, and asking for help, doesn’t always come naturally. Be patient with us. Ask questions. Take that extra step.
It’s worth it.
Growing up an only child makes us just as “normal” as anyone else, but it definitely shapes our personalities and behavior in certain ways.
The idea that all only children are weird or bratty is rooted in misunderstanding. Everyone’s life experiences make them beautiful and unique in their own ways.
Only children can be independent and reserved, yes. But they can also be sensitive, intuitive, self-aware, self-possessed and creative.
Despite our private and quiet nature, we are fun weirdos on the inside and we just need to take our time to warm up and get comfortable.
Give us that time, I promise you won’t regret it.