One and only: The perks and pitfalls of being an only child

Siti Azerah, Ahmad Hafizie and their only child, Muhammad Aisy Rifqie. — SITI AZERAH MOHD YASIN

CULTURALLY, being the only child comes with its own set of perceptions, primary among which are that the child is spoilt, doesn’t know how to interact in a group setting and may not be resilient to navigate life.

Austrian doctor and psychotherapist Alfred Adler, who founded the school of individual psychology, called an only child a “miracle baby”; because of the complete attention he or she receives from both parents. The Alderian theory also suggests that this exclusivity may lead to these children being spoiled, just like the youngest child.

Clinical psychologist and lecturer Dr Pamilia Lourdunathan says being the only child may inadvertently lead to a “somewhat indulgent upbringing” by parents.

“Since they don’t need to share parental focus with other siblings, only children may encounter challenges in sharing attention and possessions as they grow older,” she adds.

However, because they grow up surrounded by adults (but without siblings), only children often exhibit maturity beyond their years. In most cases, they talk and behave like little adults.

Given that the country’s fertility rate is currently at its lowest – 1.6 children per woman aged between 15 and 49 years old – there will be more families with only one child and these children will have many peers who share the same family set-up.

But wanting another sibling has never been an issue for 11-year-old Muhammad Aisy Rifqie Ahmad Hafizie, the only child to Siti Azerah Mohd Yasin, 38, and Ahmad Hafizie Abd Aziz, 38. In fact, one of his biggest fears is having one.

“I don’t want a brother or a sister. I just love the way my family is,” says the Year Five pupil who loves Mathematics and English.

Sibling dynamics may come with its pros and cons, but it is absent in families with only one child. — 123rf.comSibling dynamics may come with its pros and cons, but it is absent in families with only one child. —

Fear of the inevitable

However, his parents, Siti Azerah and Ahmad Hafizie admit that they worry for their only child. “I constantly worry about leaving him all alone. What will happen to him when we are not around? Will he be okay?” says Siti Azerah who comes from a big family of nine siblings.

Last year, the couple had to leave their son at his grandmother’s house in Terengganu for two months when they performed their Haj. “It was the hardest decision for us and the saddest moment for our family because we had never been apart before,” says the educational psychology lecturer.

Even though she knew that he was in good and safe hands, Siti Azerah says she couldn’t stop worrying and thinking about him.

“Our constant fear was what if anything happened to him. When he was little, he would have seizures whenever he had high fever. That fear of going through those experiences still lingers,” says Ahmad Hafizie, who is a Maths teacher.

Etienne Cheong, 28, admits that as the only child, he is the centre of his parents’ attention and he fears the day that he would lose his loved ones.

“I fear losing my family members, especially my parents. This is probably the hardest subject for me to express or think about because I have not experienced it,” says the IT administrator from Selangor.

As the only child to CL Cheong and SL Hoo, both in their 50s, Cheong says the thought of losing his parents has a big impact on him.

“The older generations in my family are the people I am closest to the most, and knowing that they will eventually move on frightens me ever since I was little. I know the loss will definitely leave a deep, irreparable void in me,” he adds.

As “little adults”, Pamilia says it is normal for only children to assume responsibilities and display mature behaviours earlier than their peers, especially when it comes to bonding with their parents.

“The parent-child relationship highlights the evolutionary significance of parents as a secure base for their offspring,” Pamilia says, citing a theory by British psychiatrist Dr John Bowlby. “And this bond is the strongest in only children.”

This closeness, she adds, provides a solid source of emotional comfort. It allows the children to explore the outside world with the confidence that there is a warm and caring home they can always return to.

“With undivided focus, only children develop a strong emotional bond with their parents, and this fosters a sense of security and positive self-image,” she adds.

Being the only child also has other advantages. “Only children have some striking personality traits like perfectionism, diligence, leadership qualities and conscientiousness,” she says.

When he was younger, Cheong used to think a sibling is someone he could enjoy life with. — ETIENNE CHEONGWhen he was younger, Cheong used to think a sibling is someone he could enjoy life with. — ETIENNE CHEONG

Joy of solitude

It goes without saying that being the only child in the family comes with a long list of privileges. “True, the biggest joy is being the highlight of my family and getting everything for myself, without the need to share them with others,” says Aisy Rifqie.

However, he is also quick to point out that the no-sharing policy goes beyond that. “This includes house chores too. My parents have no one else to ask for help but me. It feels tiring sometimes, but I love to help my mother in the kitchen,” he adds.

They may not have many hands at home to help with house chores, but both Siti Azerah and Ahmad Hafizie say they enjoy a more comfortable financial standing with only one child.

“It is our biggest joy so far,” says Ahmad Hafizie, “and it is a bliss to prepare almost everything for him, from Hari Raya to school suppplies.”

Cheong says being the only child in the family shapes him into who he is today, someone with a lone wolf personality – independent and solitary. But he also agrees that life as an only child has its good and bad sides.

“But it is never easy. My life is a series of challenging and constant adaptation that teaches me to learn and experience life on my own and reflect on my advantages and disadvantages as a person to be more independent,” he adds.

Being an only child, Cheong says, helps him to openly observe and experience a subject through different perspectives.

“It allows me to distance myself just enough to avoid too much interaction but still maintain closeness to experience and learn about a topic,” he adds.

Thanks to all the focus and attention given to them, Pamilia says only children live in an environment that encourages them to have well-rounded personality. “This helps increase their self-confidence and self-worth, while training them to be independent,” she adds.

Pamilia says only children often behave like little adults. — PAMILIA LOURDUNATHANPamilia says only children often behave like little adults. — PAMILIA LOURDUNATHAN

Filling the absence

Seven years ago, Siti Azerah went though an ectopic pregnancy when she was six weeks into her second pregnancy. It resulted in her right fallopian tube removed. Despite the number of futile medical treatments, the couple has never stopped praying and hoping to conceive again.

“Do I wish for Aisy to have many siblings like I do? Yes, of course. I love being in a big family with all the chaos, laughter and tears, and I want him to experience that too,” says Siti Azerah, who is the eldest in her family.

“For now, the only thing we can do for Aisy to experience a big family is by taking him back to our hometown regularly, where he plays a big brother role to his younger cousins,” says Ahmad Hafizie.

At school, the couple encourages their son to make friends and participate in events and at home, they get him a pet cat, Mico, to care for and play with. “But I am okay. I love my life and I’m happy to be alone,” Aisy Rifqie says.

Cheong says he understands Aisy Rifqie’s parents’ concerns. “But to be honest, I can’t remember that my parents ever needed to compensate for my lack of siblings. I guess they were all right with having just one child in their family,” he adds.

However, he confesses that when he was younger, he was a needy child who thought a sibling would be someone he could enjoy life with.

“That was my opinion then but I moved on as I got older, making a lot of friends along the way. Some are even like brothers and sisters to me,” Cheong says.

While the absence of sibling rivalry can contribute to a more peaceful and harmonious family environment, Pamilia says it does not go without an impact on the only child’s overall well-being.

“It has a strong effect, both good and bad, on the child’s sense of identity and self-esteem, social skills, academic achievement and cognitive development,” she adds.

Pamilia says there are some strategies that parents can do to ensure that their only children get what other children with siblings get.

“It’s crucial for parents to offer reassurance to alleviate any pressure the children might feel in failing to meet parental expectations,” she adds.

She also suggests building a strong social support system that includes same-age cousins and close friends, with whom the children can participate in study groups or extra curricular activities outside of school.

“These will help foster their social skills and familiarise them with the dynamics of peer interaction to help them understand that while they are the only children at home, they also live in a society where they need to be empathetic, considerate, cooperative and functional,” she concludes.

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