Even in a “normal” year, sending your only child to school for the first time can be stressful. And then there’s the anything-but-normal past 20 months. How long was your siblingless kid stuck at home with you? And how hard was that? (We know.)
Whether this school year is your only child’s first experience in school, or first time being around lots of kids again after a long quarantine, it’s safe to say it’s been a big transition. And just when we’re all about to catch our collective breath, here come three long weeks of holiday break. That’s 16 school days off (for Los Angeles Unified School District students), if you’re counting.
It’s been tough for everyone, but onlies may have felt especially isolated, and those first couple of months around other kids have been tough for some. Here’s how to make your child’s ongoing transition to school — and the “new normal” — as seamless as possible.
The only child is not an anomaly
We’ve all heard the stereotypes about only children: Spoiled. Selfish. Lonely. But single-child families are the fastest growing family unit in the U.S. From 1976 to 2015 alone, the percentage of only-child families doubled from 11 percent to 22 percent, according to Pew Research.
Here in Los Angeles, the rise of the only child should come as no surprise. Mothers tend to wait slightly longer to have children, and quite a few families are content with an only. Consider a longstanding playgroup in Silver Lake, for example, where five out of seven kids are only children as they start second grade.
Whether this one-and-done trend has to do with the decreasing fertility rate, financial concerns or families’ desire for a more balanced life, the only child is no longer an anomaly.
Now, back to those stereotypes: We can thank Granville Stanley Hall for the negative labels that have stuck around for at least 125 years. In 1896, the child psychologist famously declared, “Being an only child is a disease in itself.” Fortunately, science has come a long way to debunk the myths he championed.
Research in the 1970s found no difference between only children and those with siblings. Also, only children are more likely to have higher self-esteem and achievements. More recent research by psychologist Toni Falbo reflects similar findings: Kids with and without siblings display no different characteristics, though only children seem to have stronger bonds with their parents.
And so, the next time your family or friends criticize you and your only-child family, you can point them to this 50-year-old research.
Benefits of raising an only child
A strong bond isn’t the only benefit of raising an only child. Consider these pandemic times: How much more difficult would it have been to have multiple kids at home while you were trying to work — not to mention, maintain your sanity? You probably daydreamed about a sibling’s permanent playmate status, but let’s not gloss over all of the inevitable fights and arguments, which were no doubt exacerbated by the lockdown.
The truth is, with only one child, parents’ extra time, energy and attention can be a game changer for both parents and their child. According to Kristen Mehn, a licensed clinical social worker with Los Feliz Marriage and Family Therapy, “This does not create spoiled children, as some people say. Attention leads to healthy attachments and confidence.”
Jessica Freeman, a Silver Lake mom of only-child Quinn, is grateful to have the time and energy to nurture her relationship with her daughter. Having one child also allows her “to keep a foot in the door of the life I had before kids — with the kid.” She explains, “I think a huge benefit of having an only child is that you can write your own story about what you want parenthood to be for you.”
And what about the benefits for the child, beyond all that extra time and attention? Marca Whitten, a teacher at Glassell Park Elementary School, agrees with Mehn that only children tend to be comfortable around adults and have advanced verbal skills from a young age. Whitten points out that parents’ time and energy often translates to help with academics and homework, so many only children read earlier than their peers.
“I have also noticed that some only children seem more confident and sure of who they are,” says Whitten. “They are more comfortable sharing their opinions, thoughts and beliefs, and are less likely to allow themselves to be ignored or even bullied by peers.”
However, with these benefits come some challenges, many of which play into the transition only children face when they head off to school for the first time.
School can feel overwhelming
Without siblings to stir things up at home, only children often grow accustomed to a calm and orderly environment. So, when they’re thrown into a classroom of 20-odd kids, it can be a big adjustment. “The noise and energy of a school or classroom setting can be stressful at first,” says Mehn.
These factors were top of mind when Freeman researched kindergartens for Quinn. “She does not do well in a chaotic environment, probably because she’s used to a quiet house,” she says. When Quinn started preschool, Freeman explains, “She kept saying to me, ‘There’s so many kids. There’s so many!’”
In time, Quinn adapted to her new environment, and her parents were grateful for the challenge. “The most beautiful thing about school is that it forces them to adapt. And that’s good,” says Freeman. “As many experiences as you can give them to do that, I think is key. Even if it’s uncomfortable. It needs to be uncomfortable. Siblings are uncomfortable.”
Make them wait
The social dynamics of school can be equally challenging for only children. “They may not have the same street smarts as kids with siblings, so may have more trouble dealing with conflicts and disagreements with peers,” says Mehn.
Whitten agrees. “Children with siblings are more accustomed to sharing their parents and their toys and get more practice negotiating for all kinds of things with siblings,” she says. One of the biggest challenges in social environments, she points out, is all of the waiting — waiting for a turn to talk, to use an item or an area in the room, waiting in line to use the bathroom, etc.
“Many only children rarely need to wait much at home at all,” says Whitten. “When they want to talk, they don’t have to wait for a sibling to finish their story, all of the toys are theirs, and generally when they need something, they get their needs met quickly without a lot of waiting.”
So, how can parents help prepare their only child for this often challenging new reality? Whitten, who coaches parents on kindergarten readiness, recommends consciously building in wait time for your child, as difficult as that may be.
“When they want to say something, make them wait a couple minutes, if possible,” she advises. “Try not to let them interrupt when other people are talking, and when they want something, make them wait or set a goal they need to reach to earn the thing they want. It may seem rigid and contrived, but I guarantee that the ability to delay gratification will pay off when they start school, and it is one of the greatest skills for success in life.”
Start socializing early
Beyond building in some wait time for only children, there are several other actions parents can do to help prepare their only child for school and other social settings. Not surprisingly, early socialization and community are key. We know what you’re thinking — easier said than done in the midst of a raging pandemic! True, but there are creative ways to encourage socialization and community, even if it involves masks, outdoor space and six feet of separation.
Building a community has been a focus for Freeman’s family from the time Quinn was a baby. “I want her to feel at home wherever she goes in her life and to figure out how to make friends that become community without being actual family.”
Freeman joined the Silver Lake MOMS Club when Quinn was just six weeks old and sought out regular casual meetups in a free-play setting. Because they don’t have extended family nearby, Freeman says, “We’ve been forced to find other family for ourselves and for Quinn, and I think that’s a life skill that she’s going to have forever.”
The transition to kindergarten at Franklin Avenue Elementary was a tough one for Quinn, but she was equipped with the tools to get through it. After attending a play-based preschool, getting used to a more academic setting with less playtime and social interaction was difficult. But after a few challenging weeks, one day Quinn came home and declared, “We’re throwing a Halloween party. I’m going to make the invitation.”
Thanks to Quinn’s resourcefulness, the Freemans have kicked off a new tradition that helps establish social connections at the beginning of the school year.
Some ‘messy’ advice
Beyond outdoor play dates and pandemic-safe exposure to other kids, what can parents do to help ease their only’s transition to school? Mehn suggests allowing things to be a little more relaxed or messy at home — just as they would likely be if there were siblings around. And don’t take things so seriously. “Humor and silly behavior can be good and helpful since kids tend to be sillier in general,” she explains.
Now that we’re a few months into school, Whitten encourages giving your child the opportunity to talk about their day. If they express frustration or sadness about conflicts with peers or other challenges, acknowledge their feelings rather than trying to solve the problem for them.
“As parents, one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is the sense that we believe in their ability to overcome challenges — to let them struggle a bit without stepping in to solve their problems for them,” says Whitten. She acknowledges how difficult this can be, especially for the parents of an only child.
At the end of the day, Mehn recommends focusing on your strengths and those of your child. “How much you love and enjoy your kid has a much bigger impact on the child’s overall success than how many people are in your family,” she says.
Melissa Gage has been an L.A.-based freelance writer for more than 15 years and is the mother of one son.