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More one-on-one time with Mom and Dad, resources that don’t have to be shared, the absence of sibling competition—whatever the reasons, the result is the same: Research finds only children tend to develop a closer bond with parents than do their peers with siblings.
“I wouldn’t swap being my parents’ best friend for anything in the world,” Nina*, a 30-year-old only child, told me.
So is this closer bond that most only children have with parents a good thing? Can kids and parents get too close? For the most part, it seems like a positive, but there are some potential pitfalls to be aware of, too.
A well-documented close connection
The existence of a tight connection between only children and their parents was observed in a research review dating back to the 1980s when social psychologist Toni Falbo and researcher Denise Polit pored over 115 studies and concluded that only children “…surpassed all non-only borns, especially those from large families, in the positivity of the parent-child relationship.”
Since then, similar results have been seen in studies done in the West and East. When researchers in China, for example, explored the parent-child relationship of junior high school students, they found that singletons were more likely to say they had a close relationship with their parents than were children who had sisters or brothers. That finding held even in two-child families.
The closeness is well-established and makes sense, given increased interactions and time spent together. Cassie*, 47, is the middle of three sisters and parent of one. “I’m much closer with my daughter than the relationship I had with either one of my parents.” She attributes that in part to a different philosophy of parenting. Her parents expected her and her siblings to simply do what they said and didn’t have the capacity to go over their requests with each child as a parent of one generally has. “I have time to be very loving and respectful with my 7-year-old only.”
Singleton Sofia, 29, was raised in a large Hispanic family, as were most of her friends and relatives, yet she feels her relationship with her parents is much healthier than many of her friends have with their parents. “They couldn’t confide in their parents when they were younger and don’t today.”
The junior high school study also concluded that the connection remained tight even after the typically turbulent teen years. That was exactly the experience of only children Henry and Beth, who said they pulled away from their parents as adolescents. But they both reported that their bond with their parents grew stronger again after their rocky teenage years.
Today, Linda and her adult daughter Beth check in daily. They talk for about 10 to 15 minutes during Beth’s drive to work. “We are very close now, but high school and college were really rough,” Beth admits.
As an adult, Henry, 38, is closer to his dad than many of his friends with siblings are to their parents. “Dad and I became close buddies when I was a young boy, and we still are. My dad has a new hobby or interest with great regularity. I became his partner in all of that; we continue to do many things together… I loved his company as a kid and again as I got older. It was only the teen years when I pulled back.”
Henry’s experience is different with his two sons. “As a kid, my dad was joined to me. My boys, ages 6 and 8, are joined at the hip. When I was a kid playing cars or He-man, it was with my dad.” Sometimes, his boys don’t want him to play with them. “They tell me I’m playing wrong, and they don’t come to me with questions like I did with my dad,” Henry says.
There may be slight variations in closeness and findings based on the number of children, birth order, and gender. For instance, in the China study, “parents were emotionally closer to their same-sex children,” and daughters appeared to benefit more from being only children than sons. Looking at the broad picture of the studies to date, however, the consensus holds that only children have closer bonds with their parents.
Shannon, 38, would second that. “I’ve noticed my relationship with my mother is unique in that my mother is my best friend, my everything. We have a strong bond… we work out our troubles. We went through a lot when my mother remarried twice after my dad, but that further cemented our attachment. Sure, there are glitches. Sometimes, though, I ask myself, ‘Who am I separate from her?’”
Possible problems in being too close
One of the biggest potential problems only children and parents face is becoming enmeshed to the point there is no separation between the two. As youngsters, the closeness can be stifling for the child, and as a child gets older, boundaries can be hard to decipher or difficult to maintain.
For all the benefits of the close parent-child bond, like camaraderie, emotional support, and a sense of security, when your connection is too close with no breathing room, it becomes difficult to separate.
Only child Connie, 64, has an only child and an only grandchild and had difficulty separating from her parents. “Being too close,” she says, “is a detriment not only to the child but also to the parent, who sometimes fails to develop outside interests and relationships and relies on the child as their raison d’etre. I see my daughter-in-law doing that now with our grandson, and I’m worried about it for him… and for her. Someday, he’s going to fly away, and she really has no other interests in life except him.”
Enmeshment can be a problem in families of all sizes. In the one-child family, close ties are common and beneficial as long as the connection is not too close, too dependent, or too smothering… and parents don’t apply too much academic pressure.
As the body of research on only children continues to grow—and the negative only-child stereotypes disappear—the strong only child-parent bond stands out as one of the few remaining distinctions between only children and their peers with siblings.
*Names of study participants in the Only Child Research Project mentioned here have been changed to protect identities.
Copyright @ 2023 by Susan Newman