"You're so well-adjusted for an only child."
"You're an only child? So you like got whatever you wanted as a kid, right?"
"I would never (Editor's note: be wary of people who use this phrase. They're usually both sanctimonious and self-righteous.) want to raise an only child. I wouldn't want my child to be a brat."
"Only children are usually really selfish people. I mean, you're not that selfish."
"It must have been so lonely to be an only child. It's so much harder for them to make friends."
The above statements and many like them, are just a few from a vast pool of casual conversations I've had about my up-bringing with friends and neighbors of varying degrees of closeness. The weirdest part about these comments (other than how rude people can be without meaning to be!) is that those who said them, seem to believe that they draw from some universally accepted pool of tried and true wisdom on only children. That somehow my being raised without siblings naturally makes me a certain way.
I actually believe that to be somewhat true. Just not in the way they do.
I'm definitely not an introvert by many conventional measures; I talk to strangers easily, have little trouble speaking publicly (so long as I feel know what I'm talking about), as far as talking goes, in fact, I'm one of those people who talks incessantly and is very interested in listening to (and asking lots of questions from) other people. However, (though I've not read her book) many of Caine's points resonated with me. At the time couldn't quite put my finger on it. How did I, someone who's always self-identified as an extroverted person, recognize in myself so many characteristics described by this patron saint of introverts?
A few months later though, I had a conversation with my milking partner Heather that suddenly made all the pieces click together for me. Heather is also an only child. We were discussing life in a small communities and I mentioned that I often struggle with the constant social activity that knowing everyone anywhere you go inevitably brings about. How at the end of the day at work, where I get to visit with tons of friends and community members, the last thing I want to do is to go to a party, or a dance, or some other social event. How I don't feel like I get to spend enough time by myself.
My friend came back. I've seen her a number of times now on my walks. I wonder if she ever feels lonely by herself? I kinda doubt it.
"Of course you don't!" Heather exclaimed (she's not necessarily someone I'd call an introvert either;) "You're an only child. We need a lot of time to ourselves." She said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world. And it is. But it hadn't ever really occurred to me that the seemingly disparate sides of my personality had something to do with my upbringing.
The more I thought about it, the more sense it made.
Unlike many siblings (as in people who have, and are siblings to, at least one other person) I know, I don't charge my batteries, or relax in group activities, but rather have my energies depleted by them. This doesn't mean that I don't enjoy them, it just means that no matter how much fun I'm having, after a party, a gathering or any other social activity, I need a lot of time just by myself to recuperate from it. Typically too, in any group larger than five or so people, I prefer observing to active participation.
I'd also just as rather stay at home with a book than go to an event. In fact in my teens and early twenties, I used go to parties then, after a couple of hours when I grew tired, retreat to the upstairs bathroom, closet, basement, or porch to read until my friends, or date were ready to leave.
I've actually deduced that my love of reading is two-fold: first came the magic of words, but it was re-enforced by the fact that a person reading is usually left to do so in peace. A book is taken as a dis-invitation to engage its reader in conversation. When I still lived in shared apartments in large cities, constantly surrounded by literally millions of people, a book was like a square foot of private space around me, a territory no one else could venture into, even if they were pressing right up against me in the Tube.
It's not that I don't enjoy new adventures, meeting new people, or having "fun". I do. It's just that often my need to be alone triumphs over experiencing those things.
Having spent so much time by myself as a kid, either physically, or with grown-ups in the room but otherwise engaged, I've grown used to needing to be alone with my thoughts, entertain myself, or as Heather puts it "just stare into space". It is almost a physical need, the way being touched can be too; where if it doesn't get fulfilled for a long time, an imbalance is created in I become ill somehow, either emotionally, or physically.
I prefer people one on one, am intensely private about certain personal things, have a strange love of keeping secrets, prefer group activities involving an agenda (such as dancing, crafting or learning, or politics or ceremony) rather than idle hanging out, I'm very self-sufficient and often find myself drawn to the company of other only children.
I'm never bored by myself. I never feel lonely by myself. In contrast, I sometimes feel lonely and bored in large groups of people.
While these traits may be unique to my experience as an only child, particular to my circumstances, I've had most of them affirmed by my other "only"-friends in the many conversations spurred by my epiphany.
As for the myth of only children being strong, demanding personalities, I've often found the opposite to be true.
Many only children are actually pretty good compromisers, just as likely to adopt the middle-way than try to force their own will on others; a trait that I attribute both to not having a posse (or even just one) of other siblings who'll be there no matter what, as well as having your main sparring partner in childhood be an adult.
More often than not, they're also very sensitive to other people's non-verbal communication, good at assessing a given situation and able to see both sides of an argument, something that I think must stem from observing complex, "grown-up" situations from a young age.
This exposure to adult behavior can also make them assertive in the manner that siblings may not be, because they are imitating their parent(s) reaction to a given situation, but this doesn't automatically mean that they're going to grow up to be demanding attention hogs.
In my experience though, it is just as often those who do come from families of siblings that want to dominate a given social situation, or are demanding and inflexible. I also find that they're just as likely, if not more so to need the attention of the crowd to be on them. One could argue that on some level, siblings are used to compete with others to get heard, while only children usually have no trouble of getting undivided attention.
I was a pretty lonely child, but I actually think it had just as much to do with our lifestyle and family dynamics, as it did with my lack of siblings. As more or less, the only weird hippie-family in town, it wasn't exactly easy for me to bond with other kids my age. For one thing, I didn't really meet many, and for another, by the time I started to pre-school, I was pretty precocious and actually preferred the company of adults. Being not just an only child, but in a single parent family, I spent a lot of my time with other adults in places that adults went to, like work, gatherings with my mom's, or even my grandma's friends.
Frankly, I remember being confused over how children seemed...well, kinda dumb. They just wanted to run around and play games about TV shows and none them had had The Lord Of The Rings read out loud to them. Not exactly a great attitude for making pals. Through kindergarten to fifth grade I had very few friends (I had tons of fictional friends of course; ). Then in sixth grade things changed, it was as though everybody caught up. Instead of play we were suddenly having conversations and that I was good at. As we entered our tweens, being an oddball suddenly turned into an asset instead of a liability. (This was the 90s, after all.) After that I never really had trouble making friends.
In fact, the only problem I've had with friendships since childhood, is that while I love my friends and like to think that partly because my only child-characteristics, I am a good friend (I'm a good listener, I'm emphatic, I'm interested in other people...) when it comes to spending time with me, I'm also my own best friend. I instinctively choose time by myself over time with others and so, sadly, I can sometimes be a little neglectful of friends.
There's so much more to say on this topic and, of course, like Susan Caine (although she actually has science to back up her emotional argument ; ) I'm biased because of who I am, but this having been a big year of revelation about the topic for me, I wanted to hear other people's thoughts on it. So, tell me:
Are you an only child or one of many? Raising one, two, three, more? Do you crave solitude or human interaction more?