Special Concerns

From the outside looking in, only-child families seem easy to run. After all, parents don't have to divide affection, attention, and resources between children. They don't have to put the needs of one over the wants of another. They can give undiluted and undistracted focus to the well-being of a single child.

They don't have to put up with the normal bickering and push and shove that are part of how siblings tend to get along. And they don't have to mediate conflict between rival children to determine who started it, who did what to whom, who is right, what is fair, who gets to do what, who gets the most, or who goes first. All in all, parenting an only child seems like a relatively simple proposition — except it's not.

Parenting an only child is high-pressure parenting. Having an only child means their son or daughter is first and last child in one, so parents have only one chance to do parenting “right” (providing for all their child's needs) and not do it “wrong” (causing their child hurt or harm).

As mothers and fathers try to parent “right,” they can develop high performance standards for themselves, and to avoid parenting “wrong,” they can become prone to worry. The outcome of high standards and high worry is conscientious, labor-intensive parenting — carefully weighing responsibility to make sure their only child is served well and not badly by their decisions.

Add to performance and worry pressures the parents' desire to please the child, to make him or her happy, and parents of an only child have a complicated job on their hands.


Sometimes, what parents of an only child see as “discipline problems” turn out to be “excess pressure” problems in disguise. Be careful not to increase the pressures that already exist for your only child to please you and perform well.

The problem with this high-pressure parenting is that parents cannot demand a lot from themselves without communicating that concern for high performance and, more important, that example of high performance to their child. Fundamentally, what parents give their only child is who and how they are. Thus, seeing parents striving to do their best, the only child usually follows suit, striving to do his or her best, too.

Living in a family where everyone tends to be so dedicated to trying hard, not doing wrong, and pleasing each other, the only child can be extremely sensitive to instructional discipline (being given more responsibility to live up to) and correctional discipline (being faulted for failing to follow family rules or meet family expectations). Parents of an only child need to be particularly sensitive about how they give discipline, doing it in such a way that they do not increase special family pressures under which their son or daughter already labors.

To provide low-pressure discipline, parents of an only child need to understand what these special family pressures often are. Instructional discipline creates pressure on your child to master more of what parents want learned, when the child is usually already striving to learn all he or she can. Corrective discipline communicates parental displeasure to a child who usually wants more than anything to please his or her parents.

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