Only is lonely?

I'm reading Somerset Maugham's _Of Human Bondage_ for my book group this month. It's a very well written book, and my first introduction to an author I was supposed to meet during AP English in high school. I didn't. I was too lazy. Same goes for Toni Morrison and James Joyce. I passed the test by talking at great lengths about Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors", which I had just performed in for our spring play. Anyway.... It's an interesting book, with some powerful language and intense emotional images. It chronicles the life of a young boy who is orphaned at the age of 9. Maugham makes several references to this child's loneliness, which comes not only of having lost both parents, but from being an only child. He goes so far as to suggest that this child is extremely socially ill-prepared for school when he arrives shortly after his mother's death, largely because he has held company with only himself for so long. As you can imagine, his social skills do not improve immediately upon meeting other boys. C'mon, does any great novel have a protagonist who is the quarterback of the football team and popular with all the girls? You can imagine what this boy's life was like at an English all boy's school. Misery makes great writing. But fictious characterization and miserable heroes aside, I get nervous when I read stuff like that about only children. There's a good chance my son will be an only child. We'll do what we can to change that, but a sibling in his life is far from guaranteed. Is he going to suffer in similar ways? Interestingly enough, Jacob's best friends both happen to be only children, and their mothers have made it very clear they are done. These children are happy, excited, basically well adjusted kids. But I wonder--are they lonely? I grew up with a houseful of people and close relationships with extended family. One of my best friends is my first cousin once removed, and our children play magnificently together. I mean, how many people can say that they know their 1st cousin once removed? I am close with not one, not two, but THREE of those kind of relations. Yeah, I know, pretty crazy. Jacob is not going to grow up with the same experience. And I think as far as social skills and all of that goes, he will be just fine. But how do you beat the solitude of being an only child? I don't know many Mormon families who face this. Actually, I can only think of one, and the mom said it was surprisingly difficult to raise an only child in the Mormon community. So I'm wondering, how do you do it? Are there ways to make sure an only child isn't lonely? Any onlies out there who can shed light on this? I guess there are lots of advantages to being an only child. You never have to wear hand me downs, and your older sister will never beat you up for stealing her bra. Not that I ever did that. I'm just, um, you know, speaking hypothetically.


Blogger Julie M. Smith said...

I don't know how big of an issue lonliness is in general because I think it would depend on the temperment of the child as to whether they perceived being sibling-less as lonely or not.

What does concern me about only children is that kids with siblings have to learn so much give and take, negotiation, social skills, etc. in order to survive in a house with siblings. I would think that a parent of an only would have to work quite hard to be sure that their child had those experiences. Not that it is impossible, mind you, just that it would take deliberate effort.

4/22/2006 09:41:00 PM  
Anonymous jbn said...

Heber J. Grant was an only child. He did pretty well...

4/22/2006 09:57:00 PM  
Blogger Deborah said...

Just yesterday, a few of my 8th graders asked me if I wanted children.

Me: "Sure."

Girl 1: I can see you with two or three children.

Boy 1: No! Don't have two children -- if you do, you will ruin the oldest's life! I had a good life for three years until my brother was born.

Girl 2: Listen to him -- you know what a terror my little sister is.

Boy 2: Look at me. I'm an only child. Look how charming and intelligent I turned out . . .

I didn't know any "onlys" as a kid in Utah -- so I guess there would probably be the occasional annoying comments from a fellow saint ( you've probably already fielded some). But I have taught several only children through the years, and in general they don't seem particularly better or worse adjusted than their peers. It's not as if I learn they have no siblings and say, "Ah, that explains why they look so lonely." My four current "only children students" each have very strong relationships with their parents -- I imagine life would be somewhat more difficult if that were not the case.

4/22/2006 10:05:00 PM  
Blogger Tracy M said...

You know, there are so many factors that go into creating our personalities and who we are... I know many only-children who are well adjusted, happy, people who are capable of sharing, too. Including a few family members...

The protagonist in your story was missing not only siblings, but parents too- big difference. Also, as you said, misery makes great liturature- most art actually, is contingent upon misery in some form!

Jacob has involved parents, a large and loving extended family, and from what I gather, more than a few cousins... Even if he doesn't have a sibling someday, I would say the odds are in his favor to be a well-adjusted, far from lonely boy.

4/22/2006 10:08:00 PM  
Blogger a spectator said...

I think you are right to think about this. I look at my so far only child and feel that she looks lonely. Maybe I am projecting--I am one of 10, so I am certainly not normal!

I am confident, though, that you provide him with a lot of social interaction already, and Church is another chance for that.

My worry about only children is not loneliness, but I think many grow up knowing that the world revolves around them. After all, their parents love them and do lots for them and they, as a family, don't have to accomodate anyone else. Maybe keep that in mind so that you can regularly, as a family, focus on someone else.

4/22/2006 10:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Nicki said...

I was an only child until I was nine because my mom had trouble getting pregnant. Maybe it's a personality thing but I never even thought about it. I didn't miss having a sibling but when my brother came along I was delighted. For me it didn't matter - I didn't know any different and I was happy either way. I definitely wasn't lonely because I had tons of friends and things to occupy my time. I also was far from spoiled or doted on and my parents never let on if they felt guilty about me being alone. I'm glad they didn't make me feel different because of our situation. It was just the way things were.

One thing that I will be forever grateful for: My aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. Because of weekends with them I have great memories of my family and I think it alleviated a lot of possible loneliness. Granted, I was very mature for my age because of the constant adult interraction, but in my case that worked for me, not against.

4/23/2006 12:56:00 AM  
Anonymous JKS said...

1. Social interaction-make sure he goes to preschool, church, playdates to learn how to deal with other people besides just his parents.
2. Strong extended family ties. Even if you live far away, knowing he is part of an extended family is a definite plus. Talk about the extended family so he feels connected to them.
3. Make sure he doesn't think the world actually revolves around him. Get a babysitter regularly so you do things without him. Serve others. Have rules. Have limits.

4/23/2006 01:52:00 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

When Heather became an only child she eventually felt very lonely.

I've known a number of older only children (40s or so) who felt very isolated. In parts of Texas there are third generation only children and their extended families are very small.

4/23/2006 08:37:00 AM  
Blogger Maralise said...

I am the youngest of four children but was quite a caboose. I lived alone with my parents from about age 11 onward. My experience with being an "only" was very positive. One result was that I always felt I could speak with adults and be their equal. I have friends in various generations and this has helped me have a different perspective on certain events in my life. I feel so blessed to have been allowed to experience and enjoy those not only of my same age, or stage in life, but also those that are older and wiser than myself.

The only negative aspect that I can think of is that I have always taken things very seriously. My only word of wisdom would be to encourage Jacob to experience all stages of his development. I know that sounds simplistic and obvious (and I'm sure you do a great job of this already) but because I enjoyed the company of adults, I took on their problems and internalized them. I don't view this as a "bad" thing necessarily, but I sure wish I would laugh (instead of get angry or cry)at some of the problems that I now face.

Although, in fairness, I don't think my parents created or even could have prevented my seriousness. And in so many ways, this "maturity" has been a blessing.

In conclusion, parenting one child is probably more like parenting two, or three, or ten than we think. It's an educated (hopefully) guessing game and I'm sure the most important thing that I can do for my kids is just to make sure they know I love them. My parents did that for me and that's what I remember most about my childhood.

4/23/2006 03:04:00 PM  
Blogger Ms. Hodgepodge said...

I'm also reading Of Human Bondage for a book group :) That's how I found your blog.

So far, I'm enjoying the book much more than I thought I would. I thought it would bring back bad memories of being forced to read dry novels in high school. Happily, it's making me remember reading engrossing novels I wanted to read in college.

Anyway, I think being an only child is just one part of Philip's makeup, specificially re: his loneliness and social skills. His club foot and his shame around it is certainly a big part of why he's bashful about participating in sports, for instance. And he did lose his parents very young, which, God willing, your children might never experience.

And, if anything, the way he alternately desires and then instantly reviles women he befriends shows that he actively pushes people away. That is his loneliness is voluntary, and that kind of personality, I think, would be there regardless of birth order.

One of my best friends is an only child. So is my grandmother. They are independent, confident women. They learned how to get along in the world and experience things for themselves without being clingy with another person. I don't think they were any more bored or lonely than anyone else is. They were very good at amusing themselves and hence quite capable of creative and emotional expression.

And while I sometimes found it nice to grow up with a brother, there was also a great deal of sibling rivalry between us. Think not only fighting over the toy in the cereal box or the front seat of the car, but beating each other's !@sses all over the place every single day. Nothing my parents did could stop us.

Which is to say, you don't know that your kids will make each other less lonely. It's pretty lonely if your sibling doesn't like you.

4/24/2006 05:03:00 AM  
Blogger Susan said...

I can't say I was without siblings. But my older brother was 10 years older, and my younger brother was 5 years behind me in school. And they were both guys. So in many ways I was like an only child. I never played or talked with either of them as friends. I did occasionally fight with the younger one, but rarely. It will be just fine, Heather.

4/28/2006 09:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think only is only lonely if your parents are neglectful and you're unpopular in school- both the case for my husband growing up.
good parenting, any cousins, and a church community could have helped tremendously.

5/04/2006 06:26:00 PM  

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