The Power of Being Precocious

Only children may thrive in their hothouse environment. Although the social voting age is eighteen for most young people, for an only child, the family voting age is much younger. She is often given equal say and influence in determining family activities: “What do you think we should do?” She is accustomed to being heard.

There’s nothing wrong in empowering the only child by including and involving her in adult decision making, but the more votes parents give their only child in determining the conduct of family affairs, the more willful that child shall become.

In cases of extremely precocious development, friends of the parents may notice how the child acts mature beyond her years, praising her for this speed of social development. “She acts so much older than other children her age!” No wonder they’re impressed. She has become more conversant with the culture and world of her parents than with the culture and world of children her own age.

When giftedness is combined with being an only child, the pressure cooker environment needs to be closely monitored for the dangers of parents living through their children and children becoming quite fearful of displeasing the overly dependent parents. If your only child is gifted, give her lots of opportunities to try things, mess around, and make mistakes without any vested interest in a cherished result. She needs to learn to trust her own inner compass, not your inner compass.

Acting More Grown-Up

Only children are at risk of growing so verbally and socially precocious that they can have difficulty fitting in and making friends with a group of other children the same age. Such only children are more at ease with adults and with younger children they can boss around. This is why parents of an only child must arrange for adequate socializing outside of their company so the child can learn to enjoy interacting with same-age peers. Possessive parents who are reluctant to share the pleasure of their only child with anyone else only retard the social learning with peers that she needs to accomplish.

To the degree that only children are lonely, it is usually not a function of being the only child at home, but rather because they feel precociously out of step with same-age peers and become socially ill at ease or even isolated on that account.

One benefit of being overly mature is that the only child is not shy about talking with adults; she is precociously skilled in expressing her needs and negotiating her way with these older people who control so many parts of her world. Assuming adultlike standing with her parents, she is not intimidated by their or other adult authority. Willful in this regard, she may consider herself the equal of any adult and therefore entitled to challenge other adult authority with which she disagrees. “When I don’t agree with what you want me to do at home, I tell you and we work something out, so why shouldn’t I be able to do the same with my teacher at school?”

As for the teacher, she may see the need to cut the presumptuous young student down to child size. “In this classroom, I make the rules, and your job is to obey, not to question why.” Sometimes willfulness with external authority can get the only child in trouble. These are important real world lessons to learn.

Expecting Adult Performance

When the only child puts herself on equal footing with her parents, she unwittingly puts herself under a lot of pressure. Believing that she has equal standing with her parents, she then applies equal standards of performance: “If I’m their equal, then I should be able to do what they do equally well.” But this is a false assumption. She is still a child. They are adults with much more practice, education, and life experience. Then when she fails to equal their performance, losing out to them on a vocabulary game one evening, she becomes harshly critical of herself: “I don’t know anything!” Not true. But because she’s much younger, she knows less than her parents do, as they try to explain, which causes her to get furious at the distinction they are cruelly making to comfort her: “Don’t treat me like a child!” To the only child, the term “child” feels demeaning, like she is being treated like a second-class citizen in the family.

One legacy of being an only child is exaggerated internal standards of performance that often create a lot of pressure to live up to, and can cause a self-punishing reaction when the child does not. In this case, willpower won’t tolerate anything less than the high operating capacity to which the only child has become committed. If parents see their only child laboring under constant performance stress, it is their job to help the child set more realistic standards that can be reached with reasonable effort.

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