As a parent, there are so many challenges when it comes to dealing with this current reality. But for me, most of them stem from one thing: I’m parenting an only child. We never get a break from each other because there’s no one else to distract him. I can’t just tell him to go bug a sibling while I get some work done, or try to get 10 minutes of peace. Trying to do this with an only child can feel even harder. But there are ways to maintain some semblance of sanity.
My son is six, which means social distancing and quarantining are more of an abstract concept to him. All he knows is that some “sickness” is robbing him of the life he knows. There are no more trips to the playground, leisurely Saturday afternoons at Target, or special trips to Starbucks. Hell, our local McDonald’s isn’t even serving sundaes, which is his favorite treat after a Friday night Happy Meal. Being an only child, I worry how missing his regular socialization is affecting him.
For only children, especially one of school age, being with their peers does a world of good. Spending the day with a bunch of kids his age makes everything easier. And now he’s stuck with adults who can’t engage with him like his friends do. Of course, I worry that this all is doing long-term damage. It might be, but it’s not something we’ll know for a while. And realistically, this is going to affect all kids. Right now, there’s no way of knowing if it’s affecting only children more than children with siblings.
“There’s no special problem or obstacle that only children have to overcome because of the pandemic,” Toni Falbo, Ph.D. tells The New York Times. Dr. Falbo is an educational psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and has studied only children for 40 years. Parents of only children often worry, even under typical circumstances, that we’re depriving our children of regular social interaction. And that we know we’re depriving them, it certainly does cause us anxiety or stress.
Like many parents, I’m working from home through all this. The only difference is I always work from home. My son is used to entertaining himself while I work. But now it feels different. There’s a lot more of me yelling at him to stop pestering the dog, leaving us both frustrated. Without the option to spend time outside, the days feel like an eternity. More often than not, I’m quietly praying for bedtime.
Normally, we break up my work day with a trip to the playground or an out-of-the-house activity. Because we can’t really do that now, it’s hard for me to stop working and pay attention to him. As a result, we both get upset and I worry I’m leaving him to his own devices too much.
In an article for Psychology Today, Susan Newman, a social psychologist, offers some insight on how parents of only children can deal with this time. “Left to their own devices and without constant parental input, only children become good at utilizing the extra time they have,” she writes.
It’s true. My son is quite good at entertaining himself. Since he’s been home his love for building has been reignited. The train tracks that have been collecting dust are now regularly out. He can quietly play like that for hours. It’s certainly easier for me. But then there’s that worry that he’s spending too much time stuck in his own world. Creativity borne of independence is important, of course; however, that doesn’t fill the void of being around kids his age.
But of course, we still want our kids to have some sort of social interaction. Only children are now solely around adults, which is fine, but not great. To maintain some sense of normalcy my son still goes to his dad’s house twice a week. He’s still just around another adult, but I hope the change of scenery helps. It’s so hard not to feel like you’re totally messing them up. I hope he doesn’t look back on this time and only remember being alone and bored.
Remember, social distancing doesn’t have to be social isolation. The World Health Organization actually believes we should be calling it “physical distancing” instead. Now more than ever, social interaction for kids is crucial. And loosening up about screens right now is the best thing we can do for our kids.
“For the only, using electronics to connect is invaluable. Let them FaceTime, text or play online games with their friends, and engage in a video chat to see the wider world in terms of family,” Newman tells The Washington Post.
My son’s kindergarten teacher has set up twice weekly Google Meet chats for the kids. That time has become invaluable for him. We also regularly FaceTime with my girlfriend’s niece who’s the same age as my son. Being able to talk to other kids and see their faces really makes a huge difference in his mood. I’m also setting up a virtual story time with some of my friends and their kids. Some of them have only children too.
As an only child myself, I remember being his age and feeling lonely a lot. And I could see my friends as much as I wanted. My heart breaks for my kiddo and all the others who don’t have anyone but their parents around. I’m an adult, and I miss my friends terribly. I know the kids are feeling it a million times harder.
Since we’re all together, we can use this time to strengthen our bonds. Yes, only children tend to be closer to their parents than kids with siblings. But there are ways to foster that bond further. Newman suggests creating new family traditions or learning new skills. Finding a specific activity to do together is a great start.
I took advantage of a sale from Target and bought board games. Games that use numbers and strategy like Sorry or Trouble are great for reinforcing math and critical thinking skills. And of course, you can never go wrong with games like Candyland or Chutes and Ladders.
We’re also spending a lot more time in the kitchen. He loves to help me bake cookies, so we’re doing more of that. I’m trying to make a point to stop and have lunch with him in the afternoon too.
Another good way to reinforce your bonds is through touch and physical affection. “If your household is healthy and well, encourage caregivers and parents to provide hugs,” Mario Lippy, a clinical psychologist and director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services explains to The Washington Post. We are definitely big huggers at my house. But the hugging and cuddles have definitely ramped up in the past few weeks.
Look, none of this quarantine stuff is easy for anyone. But only children aren’t at a disadvantage simply because they don’t have siblings. It’s easy for us parents to worry extra because their social safety nets are gone. But kids are resilient, and if we show them we’re in this together, they’ll come out of this okay.