Ode to the Only Child Sarah Neal

Oh, I see you, only children out there.

You’re giddy because you just read the title and thought, “YAY! It’s about me!!!” Not an uncommon occurrence, am I right?! (Don’t get angry. I’m one of you.)

The other day was National Sibling Day, which I didn’t know existed until I read the funny posts on Twitter from some of my fellow only children:

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Their sentiments about being sibling-less reminded me there’s a lot of misconceptions about only children: we’re lonely, spoiled, selfish little Veruca Salts.

*politely steps on soapbox*

As an only child, I would like to clarify MOST of us do not conform to these stereotypes. Besides, regardless of birth order, all humans can behave like award-winning, self-absorbed jerks at times. (Some more often than others.)

I want to take a moment to talk about who only children really are. There are always exceptions to the rules, but I feel these are just a few characteristics that often define us:

1. We are giving – and, yes, selfish.

Growing up, we didn’t have siblings we were forced to share with, but that doesn’t mean we’re stingy. On the contrary, most of us are generous when it comes to offering our talents, resources and dedication—without reserve. We often over-commit ourselves because we HATE to disappoint others. Excelling in our endeavors is paramount for us.

We can be selfish . . . with our personal time. Only children really need their quiet time. Having moments of personal space is vital. We didn’t grow up in a large family with the constant buzz of brothers and sisters around the house. If we demand time alone, please keep in mind: it’s not you, it’s us. Really.

2. We HATE conflicts.

Who doesn’t? However, I think only children have a strife phobia. We don’t handle it well, so we’ve learned to be expert peacemakers.

We never had sisters or brothers who fought with us, took our stuff, kissed our high school crushes or ratted us out for sneaking home past curfew. So when conflicts arise, we become the MacGyver of quarrels and try to diffuse them. If we find our attempts are unsuccessful, we run like hell.

3. We’re old people trapped in young-ish people’s bodies.

Sure. I had friends my age growing up, but I spent a lot of time hanging out with my parents and their friends, thus creating what I refer to as “Korean Estelle Getty”—a little kid with an old soul.

I grew up listening to my Mom’s records which consisted of Streisand, The Bee Gees and Broadway musicals—not my “cool brother’s” music like The Cars, David Bowie, The Clash. I spent a lot of time going to art museums and symphonies instead of getting into all kinds of underage mischief with my sister.

But I wouldn’t trade my childhood for the world. Being the only kid didn’t affect me at all except for the fact that:

  • I love the macaroni and cheese at Luby’s cafeterias
  • I’m a huge fan of 60 Minutes, Jeopardy!, and PBS
  • NPR’s Michele Norris is my hero
  • Harrison Ford is my Ryan Gosling
  • I still listen to The Bee Gees and Streis–PLEASE DON’T TELL ANYONE!

Basically, I look young, but inside I’m an 80-year-old lady driving around with a AAA sticker on her bumper. I’m totally okay with this.

4. We’re independent.

We’re confident. Maybe not Kanye West confident, but definitely hipster-wearing-his-grandpa’s-fedora-at-Coachella confident.

We’ve developed our own unique style and make no apologies for it.

EXHIBIT A: In kindergarten, I could’ve picked the popular Rainbow Brite backpack, but I opted for the studious attaché case because Angela Bower on “Who’s the Boss?” carried one, and she was an advertising executive. I wanted to be an advertising executive. I grew up to be an advertising executive. Did I mention only children are also very driven?

First Day of School

“I’m the only Asian kid at my school. Maybe this enormous, red satchel no one would be caught dead with will help me fit in!”

5. We can be über critical of ourselves.

Maybe this is where the “selfish only child” misconception stems from.

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  1. You basically just described me, especially when I was younger. My friends/ cousins never understood the ‘me’ time thing and my parents couldn’t understand why I didn’t want friends to play with every day as they both grew up in large families. I’m glad it wasn’t just that I was a weird child! Haha.

  2. “Only children really need their quiet time.”

    People have laughed at me for saying I need my “downtime” in the evenings…thank you for validating my feelings! I must have known how good I had it as an only child, because my parents say I never asked for a sibling when I was a kid. :)

    Wonderful article!

  3. Preach it, girl! Can I get a Hallelujah? Can I get an Amen? You should write a new gospel or something. Perhaps an addendum to the Golden Rule: that sibling-blessed treat only children with the same love and mutual respect that they bestow upon their own kin. So thank you. Your words resonated with so many memories and feelings I’ve had growing up as one, singular sensation. P.S. I too, was the only Asian at my elementary school. I also have a documented math disability. No joke. I feel ya, girl : )

  4. This is possibly the best article I’ve ever read!
    Completely bang on and sums up life as an only child perfectly, well done! :)

  5. This has got to be the best article I’ve ever read!
    Completely bang on and sums up only child life perfectly, well done! :)

  6. Your article totally nailed it! I love being an only child and I have the most amazing relationship with my mom that I wouldn’t trade for anything. My husband is 1 of 6 kids!! Our childhood experiences were completely opposite, but now that we have one little girl, I have been seriously struggling with the idea of giving her a sibling. I would have loved one growing up, but can’t really imagine having one. My husband can’t imagine not having one, but likes the idea of an only child. After reading your article, I was able to chill out for a minute and just relax on the idea. So thank you for giving me a moment of peace from my over-analytical only-child brain!

  7. Thank you for this! I am grateful every day for being an only child; had I not been, I wouldn’t have had the education, opportunities, support and confidence I now have. And yet, people still comment and presume to know me, what I’m like and that I must be “spoilt”. If by spoilt they mean lucky, then yes, I am. I wonder sometimes what it would have been like to have siblings, especially as I get older and when my I lost my Mum. I am my Dad’s next of kin and that terrifies me. But, I work with older people and see their children fighting every day. So then I know, I’m lucky. Luckyluckylucky. Parents out there with one child and worried? Don’t be xx

  8. LOVE it!!! Thanks so much, it’s weird how so many people think “only children” are spoiled little brats – so not true:-) That bit about our personal space, lol, so true – I’m hectic when it comes to my “me time”, when I want to be alone then give me just that and be okay with it dammit, lol! I have this thing I always say to my friends or colleagues, when I do something that’s a wee bit selfish or just weird, I just tell them it’s called “only-child syndrome”,that usually gets everyone laughing:-)

    Thanks again, made my day!

  9. Thank you so much for this. Your writing is superb, and I really got a kick out of your article. I have a beautiful 10 year old daughter, and she is an only child. I often wonder how that feels, because I grew up with a brother exactly 1 year and 2 days younger than me. I couldn’t imagine life without him. So because of that, I always felt bad that I never had another child prior to my divorce. This article completely changed my perspective on the idea of being an only child, and what that means to my daughter. I feel confident that my she will love being an only child as much as I love having a brother. Sarah, you rock. High five! =)

  10. I have a sister (that i swear is adopted) but I always felt like an only child. this list is me!!!! and now that I have an only child, yes, this is her too. and we’re both about as neurotic as a Woody Allen movie.

  11. Wow. This is amazingly dead on. And while I never had the red satchel, I did start high school with a messenger bag made out of recycled tires and a license plate instead of the typical Jansport backpack. Great list!

  12. I read this because my son (nearly 4) is an only child at the moment and I wondered what you had to say. I grew up with an older brother, my husband is an older brother so it was interesting to read a positive view of being an only child. I do worry about our little man sometimes as he loves having someone to play with. We do hope eventually to produce a playmate for him but won’t worry too much now about him being an only child after reading this.

    Lisa Webb

    • Oh, Lisa! Your last comment is SO encouraging to me. You are one of the reasons I wrote the article. If your son remains an only child, he will be just fine. Only children have their cute quirks, but I think everyone does. :^) Much love to you and your family!

  13. You are awesome. Although I do have siblings, I was an only child for the first 10 years of my life. So I can relate to alot of your comments. Thanks for posting.

  14. Though I have a big brother, I relate to all of these. I knew he neglected me too much! (love him dearly)

  15. Sigh! I knew I wasn’t alone in this :)

  16. I’m not saying anything that hasn’t already been said but you have nailed it with this article! I’m an only child and am such an old soul. I love spending time by myself even when my friends don’t understand why. I doff my cap to you madam!

  17. Great article! You nailed my personality – except, I’m not an only child and now I’m confused… Love the “imaginary friends make horrible fall guys” comment, although I’ll have you know that so do little sisters. If you’re the oldest, it all comes down on you, even if it was your crazy little sisters less-than-genius plan (again).

    • Thanks for sharing, Elle! It sounds like you’re the oldest sibling. I’ve read from expert sources that first-borns and only children are very similar. You can be an honorary member of the OC club anytime!

  18. As soon as someone finds out I’m an only child, the responses range from “Really? You don’t act like one,” to “Aaw, would you have liked a sister?” to “You wouldn’t even know.” Because I’m not the selfish, self-absorbed, bratty loner who can’t play nicely with others everyone expects us only children to be, I – and my parents – have heard the same back-handed compliments and ignorant assumptions about my entire character and life since I was little.

    I’m now 23. Still an only child. Still a fully-functioning, relatively normal (I had a briefcase too, and enjoyed keeping it next to my dad’s when he came home from work, pretending I’d also had a hard day…!) person who had a great childhood, loves her family and friends and, oh yeah, would never dream of assessing someone’s entire being on their family situation!

    Totally agree with everyone below – ace article, and excellent use of lace and ribbons for day wear, Kindergarten Sarah :)

    • I loved what you said about being an only kid, Liz! Thank you for sharing a little of your story. The kid briefcase was tops!

  19. This is the best article I have read and I have been on this site for a very long time! Please please, can there be an Apple app for Hello Giggles

  20. I’m so stupid I wrote two comments I thought the first one wasn’t entered wtf so sorry

    • Adisti! I LOVED your comment. It was worth repeating. I’d love to be sisters. Please note: I don’t plan on sharing. ;^)