Being An Only Child

The Experience

It is not better or worse than growing up with siblings, but it is different.

Adult onlies see that the experience of growing up as the only child has given them many positive qualities. They're capable, reliable, a good friend to others, sensitive, thoughtful, considerate, organised and responsible. And some themes have emerged very clearly too.

As children, most wanted more children to play with and were fascinated by larger families. Very few rebelled in their teenage years.

The intensity of the child/parent relationship, its potential invasiveness and lack of privacy has often led to feelings being locked inside.

As adults, many have difficulty now expressing deep feelings in close relationships. Despite the independent image, they are still emotionally dependent on parents, or their memory.


An issue that looms large for everyone who has not already lost both parents is the loss of the last one, leaving them alone with no one, with whom to share family history.The loneliness of the only child comes full circle.

The Statistics

Europe: According to recent press reports in the British and US press, families with one child are estimated at 17% in Britain and 50% in Germany and Portugal.

USA: Between 1980 and 1998 in the USA, there has been an 85% increase in the number of women aged 40-44 (ie those deemed to have completed their families) who have just one child.

China: Since the introduction of the one child policy in China in 1979, an entire generation of only children has grown up.

(Guardian, USA TODAY,

'Beanpole familes', those with fewer children and multiple generations of older people - are leading to profound social changes, the Office of National Satistics said. Fewer brothers and sisters in one generation leads to fewer aunts and uncles in the next... and longer, thinner patterns of family relationships.
Guardian 30.1.03

There has been much publicity recently about the family tree changing shape. No longer are we creating large families which broaden out over generations to form a tree with a wide canopy. We are increasingly having one child. This phenomenon has been named the ‘beanpole family'.

The reasons are many - women choosing to have children later, the one child option as a lifestyle choice, marriage breakdown.

May be now is the time to get beyond the stereotyped image of the spoilt brat and become curious about the actual experience of growing up as the ‘only child'.

I would imagine that kids with siblings would be more competitive as adults (having to fight for attention, toys, praise). I find that I am lacking that competitive 'drive' that others have. As an only, I value my friendships ... many lifelong friends have developed in to my 'sisters' or 'brothers'.


My father died last year of cancer, now my mother is on her own and I am worried about what will happen if she becomes ill. I'm both worried about her but also about having no close family left.




'I would just like to express my thanks to your group for the work it is doing. I am an only child aged 54 and have listened to two recent talks on Woman's Hour, Radio 4 in which the state of being an only child was the topic. It was only after listening that I came to realise that so much of how I feel, the wanting some time to myself etc and independence is largely due to my being an only child. I agree that it can be difficult for a partner to understand in a relationship.

My childhood was extremely happy and I feel I have benefited from it. My parents are no longer alive and I do agree that it is not possible to be everything during the difficult times of caring for an aged parent. I found comfort in just taking things a step at a time and concentrating on the small things I could do to help instead of worrying about the larger problems that I was powerless to change.

I hope my thoughts have been helpful.