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Do only children REALLY grow up to be loners? One mother seems to thinks so – but what do the experts and ‘lonely onlys’ make of their reputation
- Hazel, 31, is an attractive and successful fitness instructor from Lancashire
- She wasn’t looking for love she was very happy with her boyfriend of a year
- She turned to the internet for something else: she was looking for friends
Rebecca Howard Dennis (pictured) is a beauty writer and consultant
Like many modern women, Hazel Walsh turned to the internet when she wanted to meet someone special.
She signed up to an app and carefully sifted out those of a similar age and with whom she shared some common interests. Several weeks later, she found herself sitting in a coffee shop, counting down the minutes until she could make her excuses and go home.
Another bad dating story? Not so.
Thirty-one-year-old Hazel, an attractive and successful fitness instructor from Lancashire, wasn’t looking for love — she was very happy with her boyfriend of a year: she was looking for friends.
She didn’t have any (not close ones anyway), and as that awkward meet-up with other women in a similar situation proved, the social skills needed to set other women at ease, and relax and enjoy their company, just weren’t there. And this, she is convinced, is a legacy of growing up an only child.
‘My parents separated when I was four and Mum and I have been a little unit ever since,’ says Hazel, who only last year moved out of her 56-year-old mother Shirley’s home. ‘We’ve done everything together, from losing weight to venturing into dating, and I wouldn’t change our relationship for anything.
‘But the older I get, the more conscious I am that I would love to have female friends my own age. Mum has always encouraged me to try to make friends, but I’ve never managed to form a bond with other girls because I’ve always been used to entertaining myself or to Mum entertaining me.
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‘Even at university, friendships were transient. I think if I’d had a sibling, I’d have been used to interacting with kids of my age and making friends would have been easier.’
Hazel’s thoughts echo comments made recently by actress and model Liz Hurley, 52, who spoke of her regret at not having had another child as a sibling for her 16-year-old son Damian, whose father is U.S. businessman Steve Bing.
She implied that having a brother or sister would have helped her son develop social skills which can only be learned when you are part of a brood, saying: ‘I was one of three: a big sister and a little brother to squabble with and to love.’
Today, due to a combination of late-life motherhood and the length of time it can take a couple to feel financially secure enough to start a family, more parents than ever are sticking at one child.
The number of single child families has grown by 12 per cent in the past decade, and more than half of all British families will have just one child by 2022.
Only child Rebecca Howard Dennis with her parents. She says she is eternally grateful to her parents for sticking to one child
The latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows that in 2016, 45 per cent of all families with dependent children (those aged under 16, or under 18 but still in education) had just one dependent child.
That compares with 42 per cent of families in 1996.
Meanwhile, 40 per cent of these families had two dependent children, and just 15 per cent had three or more.
Some critics have warned that Britain will become a country of ‘little emperors’ — a phrase coined in China, where the government’s rule of one child for every couple has apparently produced millions of spoilt youngsters.
34-year-old Tom Murphy, a project manager from Hampshire, grew up as an only child
But there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that such assumptions about only children are ill thought through and not backed up by facts at all.
Many would argue, for example, that Hazel’s social awkwardness might be due to growing up in a single parent household — although she always saw her dad at weekends — or that she might be genetically predisposed to being socially awkward.
Claire Hughes, professor of developmental psychology at Cambridge University and co-author of Why Siblings Matter, points out that there is a great deal of evidence from studies in China, suggesting that the negative effects of being an ‘only one’ are negligible.
She goes on to explain that it is down to good parenting to ensure that children — however many siblings they do or do not have — learn to interact with others in a positive manner.
‘The key is not to be a ‘snowplough parent’ — don’t work too hard at sweeping any problems out of their way,’ she says.
‘As with all children, sometimes it’s good for things to be a bit awkward or inconvenient for them, because then they have to work out how to overcome troubles.
‘Let’s face it, it’s not a given that a sibling relationship is going to be all sweetness and light. I know parents who have to separate their children at weekends — Mum takes one, and Dad takes the other — purely to stop them fighting.’
Sarah Ockwell-Smith, a mother-of-four and an only child herself, is the author of nine parenting titles, including The Gentle Parenting Book. She believes it to be wholly wrong to label or stereotype only children.
‘All the research shows that our assumptions about being an only child aren’t the reality,’ she says. ‘So, they are not less happy, they don’t have more issues with friendships or with sharing and socialising.
Liz Handley, 39, of Birmingham is a teaching assistant with two children – and an only child
‘Whether you’ve got ten kids or one, they basically just need lots of love and support — and to be raised as individuals according to their character and interests. Only children who don’t easily make friends would probably have struggled even if they did have siblings. It will just be part of their nature.’
This argument is borne out by 34-year-old Tom Murphy, a project manager from Hampshire, who grew up as an only child. He recalls how his mother ‘devoted her life’ to ensuring he grew up as a sociable boy surrounded by friends.
‘She took me to every sporting activity going, including tennis and football, so I’m used to being part of a team and have never had a problem walking into social situations or making friends — yet I’d have loved to have had siblings.’
Today, he lives with his wife Hannah, director of a fitness company, and their three children aged nine, six and two, and says: ‘I would never have entertained us having only one child.’
He says he became acutely aware of being an only child when he was aged five, and his parents took him to Ireland to stay with his aunt and uncle, who had seven children.
Only child Liz Handley with her parents Tess and Maurice Coates in 1990
After that, he and his mother would spend every school summer holiday with them — and he loved nothing more than the cameraderie he experienced while spending time with his cousins.
‘I remember always feeling huge disappointment when we went home at the end of the summer and there was no one for me to hang out with,’ he reflects.
Professor Hughes says cousins can be crucial for only children when it comes to developing social skills: ‘The relationship between single children and cousins is of real interest and doesn’t get enough attention. I suspect this is where many only children find companionship in China.
‘A study in Ireland, where children often grow up in close proximity to their cousins, even if they’ve got brothers and sisters, found that they act as surrogate siblings.
‘There’s the potential for the same level of familiarity between cousins as siblings, the same enduringness to the relationship, and the same vested interest in the family as a whole.’
Despite having cousins he is close to, Tom says his wife regularly accuses him of having what she terms ‘only child syndrome’.
‘I’m quite opinionated and don’t tend to see other people’s points of view,’ he admits. ‘I didn’t have to learn to listen or negotiate.
‘If I wanted to go to the park with my mother, that’s where we’d go. But if I ask my chldren what they want to do, they all want different things so we have to compromise.
‘I often have to go downstairs early in the morning to sort out a squabble over what they each want to watch on TV.’
Tom’s father died when he was 15 and his mum died very suddenly three years ago. He confesses that being ‘orphaned’ has made him wish he had a sibling to share memories with and fall back on.
Hazel Walsh age 31 (right), a fitness instructor, admits that being raised as an only child just by her mum left her without social skills
‘It’s the part of being an only child that I’ve found hardest,’ he says. ‘From the moment Mum died, I felt like I was really on my own. It still feels so lonely.
‘My wife still has her parents and grandparents alive and hasn’t experienced loss yet, so I don’t have anyone to talk to about how it really feels.’
Teaching assistant Liz Handley, 39, shares Tom’s sentiments. After her father died in 2005, she spent the next decade caring for her mother, who was diagnosed with early onset dementia. At the same time, she was juggling two young children of her own and says the stress of the situation was a factor in her marriage breaking down in 2009.
‘I cannot describe the difference it would have made to have a sibling to support me and help make decisions about Mum’s care,’ says Liz, who lives near Birmingham with her children, who are now aged 17 and 13.
‘As Mum’s condition deteriorated, I struggled to cope. Then, after eight years of looking after her, making the decision to put her into a care home almost broke me.
‘My friends were wonderful, telling me that it was absolutely the right — and safest — thing for Mum, and that her illness was so advanced that she wasn’t aware of what was happening. Then, when she died in 2015, I struggled to cope with my grief. There was no brother or sister to share it with, someone who felt the same way about Mum as I did. When my daughter turned 13 recently, she asked me what I’d done on my 13th birthday. I didn’t know — and didn’t have anyone I could ask.’
Hazel’s social awkwardness might be due to growing up in a single parent household
Beauty consultant Rebecca Howard Dennis, 38, from Primrose Hill in London, however, says she is eternally grateful to her parents for sticking to one child, as it gave her the most wonderful childhood imaginable.
Because her parents didn’t have to spread their attention or finances among several children, they were able to give Rebecca the best of everything, she says.
She was supported academically and won a place at the local all-girls’ grammar school in Lincolnshire, and enjoyed exotic holidays around the world.
She also became the first person in her family to go to university, studying English literature at UCL in London.
‘Mum and Dad gave me everything, but without spoiling me, and we travelled extensively when I was a child,’ says Rebecca, who is married with two daughters aged seven and five.
‘We went on a road trip around America, scuba diving in the Maldives, and had holidays in Canada and Morocco.
‘Ultimately, it’s thanks to my parents and to being an only child that I had the opportunity to study in London, then stay here and have the lovely life and career that I do.’
Rebecca admits that the subject of her being an only child is usually of more concern to other people, including her husband, a script writer, who is the youngest of three brothers.
‘On one of our first dates, he quipped that he was used to getting his own way as the baby of the family and I replied, tongue in cheek, that I was an only child so he’d got nothing on me.
‘But I’m honestly not like that at all. I was always a great sharer of toys and so on.
‘People have preconceptions about only children being selfish and unsociable, which in my view are wholly naive and wrong.
‘I’m often asked if I wish I’d had a sibling, and I’m sure I’d have loved one — but I don’t recall ever longing for a brother or a sister. Mum miscarried two years after having me, so it wasn’t to be.
‘My parents are very much enjoying the fact that they are grandparents to two children, although they often comment, watching the girls fight, that they’re relieved they never had do adjudicate over sibling squabbles.’
Having had Rebecca young, her parents are still only 61 and 66, so she has yet to deal with the one aspect of being an only child that is impossible to avoid — coping with their deaths in the absence of a sibling.
‘I do worry that when they’re no longer here, I will be utterly bereft. We’re so close in life that in death it will be incredibly hard. Mum always says that having my own children will help to ease that.’
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