When her son refused to play with his friend’s sister, his mum was embarrassed. But should she be worried?
Recently, I went to visit friends for the day with my seven-year-old son, Joe. They also have a seven-year-old, Harry, whom Joe was excited about seeing, and a four-year-old daughter, Cleo. Joe was somewhat less excited about seeing her. As the visit grew closer, I grew tense. Would Joe behave and include Cleo? Or would we have a repeat performance of other times when we’d been to see friends with younger children and he’d change from an affectionate, happy-go-lucky little boy to an attention-seeking needy one in minutes?
Joe is an only child. At home and with his friends he is popular, sociable and affectionate. However, over the past few years, seeing friends with younger children has become an issue for me because of Joe’s behaviour: not playing nicely, creating a fuss when I give that child attention and saying things like, “You like them more than me.”
Sitting with Joe in the car beforehand, I gave him the usual pep-talk. “Be nice. She’s only 4. I know you can do it and Mummy will be really cross if you don’t.”
He nodded seriously. “And will I get to go to the zoo if I do?” We agreed this would be the reward. Within minutes, however, the lovely seven-year-old of that morning had become a completely different child, climbing all over me and shouting when I gave Cleo attention.
My friend made light of it but I felt he’d let me down. There has been much in the media about how only children are happier and, statistically, households with a single child now make up 46 per cent of families. But I can’t help thinking that the world is still essentially a sibling one. In Joe’s class of 30, for example, there is only one other only child. So how can I help mine to thrive and survive, to practise the skills he doesn’t get the chance to at home? Do I even have reason to worry?
Sue Kite, an educational psychologist, says: “It could be argued that having a sibling allows a child to rehearse a variety of social and conflict-resolution skills such as expressing feelings, negotiating, sharing and tolerance . . . and for an only child, there may not be as many opportunities to do this.”
She goes on to say that many factors are at play, such as the child’s temperament and attachment to key carers, but it does seem Joe misses out and I wonder how this is affecting him.
Dr Bernice Sorensen, a psychotherapist with a special interest in only children and author of Only-Child Experience and Adulthood, is an only child herself.
“When a child does not have chances to relate to other, younger children, it can have devastating effects when they try, and get it wrong,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘You’re my friend, not your sibling. Why do they have to come?’ It made me feel alienated.”
I tell her I spend my life explaining to Joe, “That’s Harry’s little sister and he loves her.” Am I asking too much?
“Sibling loyalty is hard to understand when it’s out of your experience,” Dr Sorensen says. “You can fight with your sibling but when the chips are down, you will be there for each other. It’s primal love. An only child does not understand that. To them, the younger sibling is just an appendage.”
Then there’s the matter of sibling rivalry. Understanding Society, a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and run by the Institute for Social and Economic Research, claims that having younger siblings in the house is associated with lower levels of satisfaction and that only children are happier because they don’t have to deal with sibling rivalry. Dr Sorensen contests this, claiming this rivalry actually helps a child. She says: “In a home where there is more than one child, those children have to fight for toys, fight to be heard and for their parents’ attention. They learn that life does not always go your way — the reality of the social world.”
I do sometimes worry that Joe’s life is cushy. The house is (relatively) calm and I have lots of time with him. This makes him happy at home; the problem arises when he has to share me.
Ruth Reinstein, a child psychologist, says that having to share attention is harder for an only child to grasp: “There is no competition. If they want to play a game with you, it’s too easy to get your attention. If you are a sibling, however, you quickly learn there is a trade-off of negotiation. You learn how to do it and, because there is no way out, in the end you get over it. But the only child has not learnt to get over it.”
This rings true. No matter how many times I say to Joe that of course I don’t like him or her more, he still finds the attention-sharing thing hard. However, talking to other parents of only children, it seems I am not alone.
Louise Ah-Tou, 48, a make-up artist, has an only child, Minnie, who is 4. “For a while I wasn’t even allowed to say that a puppy was cute; she’d say, ‘Please don’t, Mummy. It makes me sad.’ Her cousin, who is also an only child and three years older, used to throw herself on the floor crying when her mum, my sister-in-law, used to pick Minnie up.”
Only-child syndrome perhaps, but who’s to say their behaviour is any more challenging than sibling syndrome? When I put it to Fran Spear, who has two boys, aged 9 and 6, that I was envious of how lovely it must be for them to have a brother, she said, “It’s shocking sometimes how cruel they can be to one another. They will push and shove one another for toys and sometimes I wonder whether having a sibling teaches you as much about cruelty as sharing and negotiating.”
So much for sibling loyalty. Talking to Spear made me see how I had conveniently forgotten that I used to shut my younger sister in a cupboard.
According to Dr Sheila Redfern, a consultant clinical psychologist, this is all very normal. “Older children often find their younger siblings irritating or annoying as they are playing in a less cooperative, and more omnipotent, way than their older siblings. Concepts such as sharing, and particularly perspective taking, are less familiar to under-4s.”
Most of the time, I make a point of insisting that Joe include the younger ones but Reinstein says this is not always appropriate. “There is nothing worse than being told ‘Look after your little sister’ when you are 7 — it’s too much responsibility. Also, it’s a good idea for little ones to know they’re not equal and that older children are not always going to cater for the four-year-old.”
Also, says Dr Redfern, younger children are at a different developmental stage cognitively, and play differently at each stage of cognitive development.
“Between the ages of 3 and 4, children develop what psychologists call ‘theory of mind’, which means they become aware that other people have thoughts, wishes, desires and feelings that are different from theirs. Most children develop this skill at around 4½ but, before that, they are unable to fully appreciate another’s perspective. If a four-year-old is playing something they don’t want to play, they will say ‘Don’t want to play that’ and there might be conflict. A seven-year-old, however, will often join in games they don’t particularly like because they want to keep in their friendship group and because it makes the other person happy, but a younger child would not be able to appreciate such subtleties of social communication.”
Joe will play games he doesn’t want to with his peers, but not with younger kids. Perhaps his “theory of mind”, then, is less developed than that of friends with siblings.
The 1994 study Theory of Mind Is Contagious: You Catch It from Your Sibs examined the correlation between children’s theory of mind development and the number of siblings in the family and found having siblings aided the development of theory of mind.
However, later research contests this. In 1996 researchers working on the study Social Influences on False Belief Access: Specific Sibling Influences or General Apprenticeship? looked at children in Greek communities where the ratio of adults to children was high and found that it’s not having siblings that’s important in developing these skills, but social contact with lots of people.
Perhaps I should consider increasing Joe’s exposure to more people, including younger children, but what else?
“Make sure he understands he can’t always get your attention,” says Reinstein. “It’s important to articulate what you’re doing but don’t apologise. Say, ‘You’ve been a really good boy playing on your own and I will play soon but mummy is busy now’.”
Also, she says, it’s important to be specific about your expectations. So rather than “Be nice for Mummy, please,” try, “You have to include Cleo, to not say mean things and to let Mummy talk.”
Reinforcing his behaviour when it’s good is also vital, says Kite. “Notice times they do play nicely or are sensitive to siblings and praise them. Problem-solve and role-play too. Talk about what happened and how could you have dealt with it differently. Expand their understanding of different emotions such as by asking, ‘How did you feel when you were left out by older children’.”
Above all, Kite says, be realistic. “Children need understanding. They are ill-equipped with skills. It takes 18 years for us to become an adult. At 7 they are far from expert.”
What parents can do to help
Introduce plenty of opportunities for spending time with other children of all ages.
Increase the range of emotions the child understands. Ask: “How did you feel when you were the little one and the older ones were leaving you out?”
Talk to your child and problem-solve using role-play. How could you have dealt with that differently?
Get the message across at home that your child can’t always have your attention. Explain: “I’m busy now but I’ll play with you later.”
Talk about what’s acceptable from your child’s point of view too. So, it’s not acceptable for another child to ruin a game or break a toy, but it is acceptable for them to join in for a while.
Understand that there are times when it’s not appropriate for children of different ages to play together — for instance, if the seven-year-olds are constructing an intricate model out of Lego.
Be specific. Instead of just saying “play nicely”, set out your expectations.
Reinforce good behaviour. Say, “I noticed today how kind you were to that little girl”. It’s better to use reward as an incentive then take it away, than simply to “punish” bad behaviour.
Being envious of other children is a natural feeling. You can’t, and shouldn’t, take those feelings away, but you can help your child to manage them. And when your child says that you like another child more than you like them, say: “Of course I don’t, but she’s a nice little girl, and it’s important to be kind to everybody.”