1. Mini-Me, you complete me. Only children often grow up as mini-adults, very obedient and eager to please authority — namely, you. But only children “need time and space with freedom to do what he or she wants,” write Cliff Isaacson and Kris Radish in The Birth Order Effect (Schwartz Books). Mothers need to realize that their 6-year-old daughter won’t be the Olympic-grade gymnast that she never was, and fathers must come to terms with the fact that their son won’t be a doctor, lawyer, Mensa member, and Grammy-winning rock star (oh, and a multimillionaire) by the time he turns 30. Your only child is your only child, not your second chance at redemption, so don’t push your own agenda on him. Instead, let him explore his own interests without interference. Your little guy may not be the next Elvis, but he might be the next Einstein.
2. Resist the urge to interfere. Only children tend to be perfectionists, so if you try to “redo” every little thing they do, like remaking their bed or redusting a shelf they just cleaned, you’re only going to reinforce their perfectionist habits. As Dr. Kevin Leman, author of The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are (Revell), writes, “Don’t be an ‘improver’ on everything your firstborn or only child says or does.”
3. Dethroning the king of the hill. Without any siblings, “Lonely onlies tend to be critical — and even more than a bit self-centered,” Leman writes, which means some only children have a hard time learning how to share, negotiate, or employ tact. Only children tend to project their thoughts, feelings, and motives onto others, even interrupting them if necessary. As a parent, it’s important that you exercise control and discipline your child as necessary, showing him that he can’t get away with inexcusable behaviors.
4. Jumping the high bar. Your 3-year-old feels down in the dumps because he didn’t get a get the lead in the preschool parents’ day play? Say hello to what Leman calls the “discouraged perfectionist.” According to Leman, only children “are very structured, with high expectations for themselves and others.” Inevitably, setting unrealistically high expectations for oneself will lead to failure, but what’s crucial is how the child deals with failure.
First, you must not let your only child indulge in negative self-talk, like, “I knew this would happen to me! It always happens to me!” Instead, help him examine the situation closely. Was it because he was chosen as a dancer because he has great rhythm, or maybe he didn’t memorize his lines because he was too busy with tumbling classes and swim lessons? Let him see that it’s okay that he got a supporting character role instead of the lead. After all, being the best at everything isn’t everything.
5. Stop and smell the roses. Only children tend to be ambitious, enterprising, energetic, and willing to make sacrifices to be a success, writes Leman. However, this can lead your piano-loving 10-year-old to putting undue stress and pressure on himself to learn the entire works of Tchaikovsky before bedtime. Let your child know that it’s good to set goals — but that there are other things in life than just work, and that you won’t be any less proud of him if he doesn’t end up at Carnegie Hall by middle school — or ever.
6. Unleash the beast. (Sort of.) Since your daughter (or son) is your only child, you’re probably going to devote a good portion of your waking hours to her needs. While this might translate into your helping her master her times-tables more quickly than she would have on her own, it can also mean she never learns how to do anything by herself. It’s good to be close to your child and act as her teacher, but it’s also important to expose her to uncertainty at times so she can develop problem-solving skills and assert her independence. In the long run, she will make mistakes and have to remedy the situation without your help. After all, it’s cute when your 5-year-old daughter clings to your skirt and is afraid to go to her first day of kindergarten. It’s not cute when your 18-year-old does it on her first day of college.
7. Avoid the “Lonely Only.” Since they have no siblings, only children can become lonely, warns Isaacson and Radish, and to keep from feeling this way, they often develop imaginary friends or ties to inanimate objects, such as dolls or stuffed animals. It doesn’t matter how much attention you lavish upon an only child; sometimes, they just need someone their own age to relate to. In this light, make an extra effort to have your child socialize with his peers. Have your 7-year-old join a scout troop, enroll him in soccer lessons, or take him to the park or neighborhood playground where he can interact with other kids.
8. Laugh! According to Leman, only children can be so logical, scholarly, and straight-thinking that they may become overly serious and fail to see humor in things. While there’s no set way to “teach” someone to have a light-hearted sense of humor, be a good role model: Avoid being an iron-fisted disciplinarian, and smile and laugh openly with your kid. Chances are, he’ll follow suit.
9. Do away with the lists. Only children are list-markers, Leman writes, but that means that they may become too boxed in with the details to see the big picture. Is your 10-year-old daughter too concerned that her she’s going to forget her dance routine steps in the fifth-grade talent show? Remind her that it’s just for fun — it’s not every day that she gets to reenact Madonna’s “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in a fuchsia Marilyn Monroe costume, blonde wig, beauty mark, and all.
10. “No” means “no.” And it’s important for your only child to remember it. Only children live to please their parents, so it can be difficult for Mom and Dad to turn down requests and offers. But does your daughter really have time to (or even want to) help you give Fido a bath? Let her know that being selective about her activities at home and at school isn’t going to disappoint you or hurt your feelings. By learning to say “no,” your only child is better equipped to prioritize her day — and the zillion things on her to-do list.