As the parent of an only child, I do not believe many of the prevailing stereotypes about singletons. They are not, as a group, spoiled, maladjusted, selfish, weird people. Any child can be any of those things, regardless of how many siblings they have.
But as parent coach Meghan Leahy writes in the Washington Post, one thing parents of only children might want to give a little extra attention to is what she calls their “frustration tolerance.” Because while being an only child doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being lavishly spoiled on a daily basis, it does mean that their needs—and their wants—are more easily catered to.
I have empathy for parents of single children because how can you hold all of the boundaries you want to hold when you have only one child pulling on your leg? How can you show your child how unfair life is when you can make life pretty easy for one child? I cannot take care of all three of my children’s needs all at once. One child needed to be fed while another child was bored, tears were shed, and that was that. Frustration tolerance was built! Parents with many children don’t set out to create frustration; it just naturally happens.
Because I am a former foster parent, I have the somewhat unusual experience of having parented an only child, then two children, then back to one child—more than once. And each time, it wasn’t until after we went back to only parenting my son that it struck me how easy it was to structure our life in a way that worked best for him.
It happens without even really thinking about it. We can get the pizza toppings he prefers each time we order it (because we can all get the toppings we prefer). He rarely has to miss a soccer game or a school event because if one parent’s schedule has a conflict, the other one’s doesn’t. He can pick what to ride first at the fair, because why wouldn’t he pick?
This is not to say that I think only children get whatever they want whenever they want it. They’ve got to wait in lines and follow classroom rules and go to bed early on school nights just like every other kid. But do they have to practice patience at home as regularly as a child who has a couple of brothers or sisters with their own needs and wants? No, they really don’t.
But that’s ok, Leahy says. Because parents of only children can find ways to help them flex those patience muscles.
When you are parenting one child, you have to mindfully create situations where you allow your child to suffer. Yup, you need to help your son suffer with purpose. This means that you allow scenarios to play out where his whining, refusals and general bad attitude don’t grab your attention or change your mind. His whining and denials will reach a fever pitch, but if you toe the line and remain calm, your son will eventually run out of steam. He will not have gotten his way, and this path through the tantrum is the frustration tolerance you want.
Let them suffer a little! With purpose! They want to leave the family gathering before you do? Too bad, they can whine all they want; they’re not going to ruin your good time. They don’t like the menu at that restaurant? Oh well, we do.
When you deprive them of their preference, in reasonable but frequent ways, you’re actually helping them practice how to feel and manage frustration.