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Only Children’s Selfishness Isn’t Their Fault


“Will America be the first modern nation laid low by excessive self-esteem?” asks an article by Jennifer Graham on the rise of single-child households. It is a good, if overly dramatic, question. The article and its underlying research, however, look in the wrong place for the excessive self-esteem that might weaken the country. Single kids get the reputation for conceit, but excessive conceit is really the hallmark of their parents. And the damage they have been doing to America is already cresting.

Before continuing, a common-sense caution against general offense: these sorts of Boomer, Gen X, onlys, and first-borns examinations generalize. I know single children and parents of single children for whom “conceited” is not an appropriate description. But this article and the research upon which it comments are about general trends.

Only Children Are Just Temporarily Self-Absorbed

Often in big-think cultural analysis, we take a snapshot of an age and assume its elements remain consistent. In this case, we look at pampered to necessarily precocious children and assume their position in the center of family life will hold. It won’t. In a way, their position is quite cruel. They are treated as little princes and princesses, but really they are expected to serve their parents’ whim and desires.

When people with siblings think about what it would have been like to be an only child, we cannot simply wonder what it would have been like not to have a brother. We also need to wonder what it would have been like to have parents who chose not to have our brother because, unlike during most of human history, reproduction is now largely under our control.   (A new children’s book can illustrate both the general parental attitude and the blame-shifting to children—note from the summary that it is the three-year-old child who happily states that he doesn’t have a sister because then mommy and daddy would be too stressed.)

Excepting medical conditions and early infertility, single children typically come from more-than-one-kid-interferes-with-my-potential, Hirshman-style parents, fractured homes (by divorce or by choice), and couples who require Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) to achieve pregnancy, either because of waiting to attempt pregnancy or having a same-sex partner. Painting with a very broad brush, these are the family arrangements that focus on adult desires.

Only Children Confront Child and Elder Care Alone

Even if the resulting child gets 200 percent of adult attention while young, he or she will eventually confront the reality that his parents expect more from him than mere maturation into a responsible and happy adult.

Suddenly, Millennials are supposed to get busy without birth control because Boomers need government benefits.

These children will find it hard to be self-absorbed when they eventually become sole caretakers for at least four grandparents and two parents. Factor in splits, and only children can feel responsible for even more elders. It is already starting. Take, for example, a recent Washington Post headline: “Bad News for Older Folks: Millennials are having fewer babies.” Now that Boomers, the actual indulged, pampered, and self-absorbed generation regardless of birth rank, have gotten older, our big-think analysis is about how to support them. Suddenly, Millennials are supposed to get busy without birth control because Boomers need government benefits.

But young parents shouldn’t expect elder help with that brood. While they are still active, many elders figure they have done their childcare time. They have better things to do than granny-nanny. If the elders are not still active when children come along, then the supposedly self-absorbed onlys get to care for their aging parents and young children at the same time, courtesy of 30 years of delayed childbearing advice.

Children Whose Parents Attempt to Control Them Since Conception

ART children confront the mirage of their conceit even earlier than the sandwich era. They often feel they were manufactured to conform to adults’ plans, without regard for their emotional well-being.

They often feel they were manufactured to conform to adults’ plans, without regard for their emotional well-being.

I came across a telling Dear Prudie column last fall. In the provocatively titled, “No Son of Mine,” Slate published a letter about a broken promise between two dads. They had mingled their sperm with the donor egg in the petri dish and had promised not to verify which man was the biological father of their resulting son.

But two years later, one did check and realized that neither man was the biological father. The dad-who-knew asked Prudie whether he should tell the other father and have to fess up that he had broken their pact.  Nowhere in the question, her answer, or the 200-plus comments I scrolled through before commenting, did I see anyone wonder what would happen when the boy wanted to know which man was his biological father. The child’s easily anticipated desires never occurred to them.

This failure to think of what the kids might think after babyhood is not a problem reserved for onlys. From an embellished story piece in The New York Times Magazine about the shock of adolescence.

Until adolescence, parents by and large control the family story. The children are the subject of this story, sure enough, the generators of its interest or charm, but they remain, as it were, characters, creatures derived from life who nonetheless have their being in the author’s head. A large part of parental authority is invested in the maintenance and upkeep of this story, its repetition, its continued iterations and adaptations. And it feels right to tell it, for what we are offering our children is a story of life in which they have been given a role. How true is it? It’s hard to tell. In a story there’s always someone who owns the truth: What matters is that character’s ability to serve it. But it is perhaps unwise to treasure this story too closely or believe in it too much, for at some point the growing child will pick it up and turn it over in his hands like some dispassionate reviewer composing a coldhearted analysis of an overhyped novel. The shock of critique is the first, faint sign of the coming conflict, though I wonder how much of what we call conflict is in fact our own deserved punishment for telling the story wrong, for twisting it with our own vanity or wishful thinking, for failing to honor the truth.

How did it never occur to her that children will eventually tell their own story? We did. Figuring out your story is part of growing up.

Once, children just happened, but now that they are planned, adults expect them to conform to the plan. Today’s children may be pampered, but they do not have the option to be self-centered for long because they have to worry about what their parents want. Even our epidemic of hovering over them is really about parental desire. If we don’t allow the kids to be independent, then they will always need us and we will always have control over them.

After Anger and Loneliness, Millennials Will Fix the Problem

Only children simply bear all of this alone. They do not have siblings to observe or query: “Mom said that to me yesterday. Am I crazy or is it that really out of character for her?” “No, sis, you aren’t overreacting. She never did that kind of thing before…”  Onlys are also relatively isolated from their peers as their parents often reveled in the precociousness of their child who preferred the company of adults.

I think self-absorption will work like family money. It will burn out in three generations.

Then—here is the cruelest bit—since many did receive 200 percent of parent attention once upon a time, onlys make convenient scapegoats for their parents’ conceit. If they refuse the slander, then they are just ungrateful for all the care and attention their parents gave them. What, after all, can we expect from a conceited, only child?

The self-centeredness that might lay America low isn’t in the kids, but in their parents. Thankfully, it has almost run its course.

I think self-absorption will work like family money. It will burn out in three generations. “Live for the moment” and “focus on your own wants, needs, and desires”—the prevailing attitudes since the Sixties revolutions—our parents did it, we followed and did it, but Millennials can’t do it. We have implicitly programmed them to put their elders in front of themselves, and they have too many elders depending upon them to balk en masse.

They might resent this. Many will model their lives and raise their own children not to be the self-centered, live-for-the-moment types. Witness the trend Graham mentioned, of onlys having larger families.

Thus, because they don’t want to treat their children as they were treated, and because their children will watch their parents care for their grandparents, often while the grandparents complain they aren’t doing it well enough, self-absorption as a widespread trait will die after three generations. Nobody will want to perpetuate the anger or the loneliness we will soon witness.