5 Things People Don't Understand About Only Children
It's estimated that 23 percent of American families have only one child, if you leave out deformed siblings that live in the attic and are never discussed. And that number's only going to increase, because raising children is expensive, and it's no longer acceptable to send them to the coal mines when their voice cracks. There are a lot of misconceptions about being an only child, and since my parents told me that they achieved perfection on the first try and the scratching coming from the ceiling was just the insulation settling, I've encountered a lot of them. Allow me to speak for every only child and set the record straight on what it's really like.
People Make Weird Assumptions
When I tell people I'm an only child, their response tends to fall into one of two categories. It's either, "Wow, you must have been spoiled" or "Really? You don't seem like the spoiled type!"
First of all, hypothetical stand-in, study after study has found that there's no difference between only children and the sibling-abled. The entire stereotype of only children as spoiled, isolated brats can be traced back to one dumb statement made by a prominent child psychologist. It's like how everyone thinks spinach is a superfood because of a nutritional information typo, or how Tiger Woods' career tricked people into thinking that golf is fun and interesting. Second, way to be casually judgemental and insulting towards both me and my parents, hypothetical jerk.
Go back to your dumb job!
As an adult, I just Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off," but as a teenager, I couldn't help but wonder if it was true. I knew I got more Christmas and birthday presents than most of my friends, but was I spoiled or just part of an emotionally distant family that could only express love through the spending of what I assume was drug money? It's not a fun thing to worry about at a time when you're already worrying about how to get the attention of the cute girl in math class and why your penis is so much bigger than all the others in the locker room.
People who say things like that don't mean to be insulting; it's just a knee jerk reaction to a stereotype we all grew up with. I'm sure I annoy one-legged people when I ask them what their pet parrot is named. But where are all the only children perpetuating the stereotypes? Are there a bunch of Richie Rich types lurking in the suburbs that I'm not aware of? It's annoying to discover that, despite a lack of evidence, some people are going to assume you're a brat and wait for you to demonstrate otherwise.
"If you want to prove you aren't selfish, you can start by buying me some ice cream."
On the Scale of Hurtful Stereotypes, assumptions about only children rank just above assumptions about how much fun you have in life based on your hair colour, and so far below actual damaging stereotypes that anything involving a black person is a distant speck on the racist horizon. But if we're going to perpetuate stereotypes about only children, why not spread the fact that they tend to perform slightly better on IQ tests? I've yet to meet someone who's said, "You're an only child? You must be so smart!" and I can't begin to imagine why that is.
There's Implicit Pressure to Succeed at Everything
I've never really felt pressured by my parents. And I'm not just saying that to assuage their guilt -- I'm pretty sure they'll never read this, so I can say whatever I want about them without consequence!
I, uh ... I love you, Mom.
But even if my parents haven't come out and said that they wish I had gone to law school instead of taking up mime street fighting (please don't tell them I write Internet comedy, or they'll be even more disappointed), I feel pressured to accomplish, well, everything. And so do the other only children I know. Don't follow me? OK, say you have a family with three kids.
"Alright. You have a family with three kids."
The parents aren't terrible, so the kids want to make them proud. But because the siblings can spread the responsibility around, some of the pressure is off. One son can marry young and pump out grandkids for Mom and Dad to fawn over, the daughter can put off family to be the rich, career-driven one who pays for the nursing home, and the other son can be the irredeemable fuckup. Mom and Dad get everything -- the continuation of the family line, financial security in their old age, and a black sheep to complain about after they drink too much at a family reunion.
My natural proclivity would be towards the fuckup role, but with no brothers or sisters to pass the hard parts onto, I can't enjoy the stress-free life of leisure that comes with completely failing to live up to your expectations. If you're an only child, you feel like you have to get the great career and get married and have kids and support your parents when they're elderly, and you have to accomplish it all in a short time frame. And that's scary.
At least I have a couple of cousins I'm pretty sure I can guilt into helping.
Rationally, I know it's not as overwhelming as I make it sound. Most adults, siblings or not, shoot for both financial security and a happy family life. And I know my parents are understanding enough that they won't mind if I struggle with one, or both, or with the most basic of responsibilities. Or, if they do mind, they'll at least be nice enough to hide their disappointment until they whisper it in my ear on their deathbeds. But without siblings to fall back on for help, it feels like you're performing a complex stunt without a safety net. Maybe one day I'll be late to pick up my dad and he'll miss a doctor's appointment, and because I don't have any new pictures of my cute niece to make up for it, he'll get cancer or explode. Literally every only child has worried about this exact hypothetical scenario, among many others.
It's (Mostly) Great as a Kid, and (Mostly) Not Great as an Adult
I lied to you by omission earlier because, along with punching lions in the face to feel a rush and making up ridiculous claims about myself, lying by omission is one of my three bad habits. People have only judged my only childishness since around high school. Before that, the reaction tended to be along the lines of, "You're lucky, I wish I was an only child!"
Even though you're not being spoiled as an only child, you're getting 100 percent of the praise, attention, and Pokemon cards your parents see fit to dole out. When you're 8 years old, no one considers that their parents and yours might be splitting up the exact same child-rearing resources in different ways. Your friends just think it's bullshit that they had to give their Charizard to their little sister so she'd stop whining, while you somehow ended up with two.
That's right, I had two. Bring it.
My friends did acknowledge some downsides. When they got in trouble, they could always try to blame their siblings, while my parents refused to believe that "Jeffery, who hisses and watches with blazing red eyes from the cracks in the ceiling as I dream restless dreams" was responsible for letting the cat eat a Pog. But I generally got envious looks when I told my friends I spent Saturday afternoon playing a new video game while they had to go to their sister's dumb ballet performance. And since my friends usually just complained about their siblings to me, not having them seemed like a pretty sweet deal.
On one hand, I missed out on potentially countless memories that I would later cherish as an adult.
On the other hand, I beat Banjo-Kazooie, like, three times!
Now that I'm ostensibly an adult, those same people offer pitying remarks about how lonely it must be to not have a sibling to talk about life's problems or reminisce about forced ballet attendance with. And I agree with them. It would be nice to have a niece I could tell embarrassing stories about her mother to, or have a brother to consult when my parents start having conversations with their lamps. It does feel a little lonely at times.
However, I don't have any deadbeat siblings asking for beer money, my parents were able to put me through university, and I can do anything short of join ISIS and still end up with the biggest chunk of the inheritance. I'm not exactly losing sleep over it, but you do find yourself idly wondering how your life would have turned out with siblings. I don't think other people speculate on what life as an only child would have been like nearly as often, unless their couch is currently being crashed on.
"Hey, remember when we built that huge snow fort?"
"Yeah, good times. Remember when you got a goddamn job?"
You Get Used to Being on Your Own
As I dictate this article from my sensory deprivation chamber deep within the bowels of my isolated abode, I reflect on another only child stereotype: the idea that we tend to be antisocial loners. It's ridiculous, of course. Why, just last night I hung out with the people I pay to be my friends. But what is true is that you adapt to, and get comfortable with, spending a lot of time on your own.
I had good friends growing up. Like every child raised in the '90s, I was legally required to participate in soccer and karate, and sometimes when my parents weren't paying attention, Jeffery would sneak down to lick my hair and tell me how much fun we were having together. But inevitably, I'd spend a lot of time on my own, because you can only schedule so many school night play dates, and you can only show your dad the results of your latest action figure fight so many times before he loses the ability to feign interest and tells you to go do something else. So you end up getting pretty good at amusing yourself. Go ahead: Take a minute to get any filthy jokes out of your system.
Masturbation. There, are we good? Can we move on?
I had a large collection of stuffed animals that I anthropomorphised to the point where I'm surprised that I don't occasionally dress as one of them today, and I had a number of imaginary friends who have all since gone on to do really well for themselves.
Look, Steve got married and had a kid.
Once I grew out of that phase, I entertained myself with video games and books and solo backyard sports that must have looked very sad to anyone observing. Kids with siblings do all this too, but often only as backup options if the other kids in the house don't want to play. When you're an only child, keeping yourself entertained is the rule, not the exception. If you go out to dinner and your parents start talking about boring adult stuff, you're on your own.
While this makes for less interesting childhood memories, it does help you adjust quicker when you decide to strike out on your own. People think it's weird that you're comfortable spending a lot of time alone, because they've had to adjust from being surrounded by siblings. But it's just business as usual for only children -- a quiet night in presents plenty of ways to keep myself entertained, and yes, this time, I am absolutely talking about masturbation.
"Got any big plans for the weekend?"
"Nah, just going to jack it."
The Whole Concept of Sibling Affection Is Foreign
How many pieces of pop culture include a sibling relationship? I'm too lazy to do an actual study, but I'm guessing it's a lot. Bart and Lisa get into shenanigans despite their many differences, Luigi never complains about having to help rescue Mario's girlfriend yet again, and the Pines twins do their best to ignore the fact that half of Tumblr wants them to fuck. Unless you're watching Game of Thrones, the message is always "siblings may annoy you, but ultimately they're pretty rad."
This all makes sense to me in the abstract, because I'm a functional human being capable of basic empathy. And I've had a brother from another mother or two in my day, which is the most underrated of all familial relationships. But when, say, Frozen came out and everyone went on and on about how loving and real the sisterhood between Anna and Elsa felt, my response was to shrug and say, "Yeah, they ... they sure do seem to like each other a lot! 'Let It Go,' am I right?"
"And how about the realistic portrayal of a cripplingly lonely man who's way too into his pet? Did that hit home for you guys, too?"
This extends to friends or strangers with few qualms about sharing personal details, telling stories, or venting complaints about their siblings. Yeah, I understand why their brother is great or annoying or about to become the next Abel if he doesn't get his shit together, but I always feel like I'm missing some underlying point. It's a relationship that fundamentally means nothing to me, so stories about them fall flat.
And again, because you see it so much in pop culture, you can't help but speculate about what might have been. What if I had a brother to fight demons alongside, instead of having to do it by myself? What if he then went to jail on false charges and I had to get myself arrested so I could break him out? What if after he got out, he moved in with our parents across the street from me and kept bringing them over at inconvenient times, and I had to be all, "Dude, stop bringing our parents over to eat my food; we have to go fight the demons that sent you to jail!" And then we'd laugh and reminisce about something and pretend to do a freeze-frame, and everyone else would say, "Oh, those wacky, inseparable brothers!"
"Now stop bonding, and go save the city!"
I might be glamorizing it a little, but I can't help but wonder. Although on the plus side, I'll never have to worry about a sibling betraying me for power or fortune like all of yours are plotting to do at this very moment, and I don't find weird incest subplots in pop culture nearly as squicky as other people do. Shit, did I just end yet another column with an ambiguous endorsement of incest?
You can read more of Mark's endorsements of incest at his website.
And also check out 5 Everyday Groups of People Society Says It's OK to Mock and 4 Signs You Need to Spend Less Time Online.
Charlie stumbled onto something big happening inside an abandoned warehouse. Specifically, someone big. Check out the audiobook of Chris Pauls and Matt Solomon's YA novel The Giant Smugglers with a 30-day free trial of Audible!