Single Parenting: Divorce and the Only Child
Parenting: Understand Your Relationship with Only Child Can't Be Perfect
By CARL PICKHARDT
To keep pressure off their only child, parents must understand the special pressures that are already built into this relationship – from the parents on themselves, from the parents on the child, and from the child on himself or herself.
PRESSURES FROM THE PARENTS ON THEMSELVES
Despite what parents with multiple children often think, parenting an only child is high pressure parenting because less is more. In significant ways, having one child is more demanding and complex than having several children. As soon as parents have a second child they must compromise their parenting. Now they cannot give as much attention to the first child as they once did, and they can never give as much attention to the second child as they gave to the first.
So in this way, pressure to solely attend to each child is reduced because they can’t afford the luxury of full absorption in a single child anymore.For parents of an only child, however, that girl or boy is first and last child in one, the only chance for parenting they get. Because they want to do parenting “right” (provide all their child needs) they apply high standards for themselves, and because they don’t want to do “wrong” (cause hurt or allow harm) they live with a lot of worry. This combination of high standards and high worry make parental decision-making a very deliberate, conscientious, and labor intensive process.
The problem here is that they can’t put so much pressure on themselves without putting pressure on the child because they lead by example. Fundamentally, what they give their only child is who and how they are. Thus, seeing parents struggling and striving to do their best, the only child usually follows suit, struggling and striving to do his or her best too, to some degree pressures of standards and worry both built in.In the worst case, there are parents that are perfectionists from elevated standards and overprotective from intense worry. As perfectionist parents, with no tolerance for their own human flaws and faults, they can encourage (by example) the child to be the same. As overprotective parents, they can inspire fear in the child because of all the precautions that they take.
It can be helpful to remember that the only way to be perfect parents is to have a perfect child, and who wants to put an only son or daughter under that kind of pressure? And the only way to keep a child totally protected from worldly harm is too never let him or her out of parental supervision or sight, and who wants to stifle normal risk taking required for a child’s healthy growth? Perfection is ideal and complete protection is impossible, so to serve these masters as parents is both unrealistic and counterproductive. Real is what human beings are – a mix of strength and frailty, wisdom and stupidity, capable of good decisions and bad. Dangerous is what life is – a constant exposure to the unexpected and the uncontrollable. The job of parents is to teach the child to be real and to cope with reality.If parents want to reduce pressure on their only child, they can start by reducing some of the pressures from high standards and high worry they place upon themselves.
PRESSURES FROM THE PARENTS ON THE CHILD
In single child families, from providing each other exclusive family company, the parent/child relationship is extremely close. Parents and child come to know each other so well they can usually feel when something is going “wrong” for each other. This heightened sensitivity can create pressures of emotional responsibility. As one only child described it: “When either parent was unhappy, I felt unhappy too, and believed it was my job to cheer them up. And when they got in an argument, I felt scared, and so to feel safe I tried to smooth things over between them. I just couldn’t stand they’re being sad or not getting along.” To help reduce this pressure, parents can tell their only child that he or she is not responsible for their feelings and that it’s their job to get themselves feeling better when out of sorts or down. They can explain that occasional unhappiness is to be expected in life, is normal, and is okay.