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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The War on the War

Last night I ended up having a conversation with a good friend of mine about only children. Did you know that even today, they feel judged and ostracized for their parents' reproductive choices? It's not just "onlies." Children are judged all the time based on their parents. Are their parents too young? Are they too old? Were their parents married when they were born? Are they married now?

How any of these things have to do with the actual children involved, I'll never know. It's all part of the generalization culture in  which we immerse ourselves, usually unknowingly.

And whenever I end up attacking an article, my arguments always take on the same refrain. It's understandable that the people on the other side of these unfair judgments should be upset, but does that mean they should strike back, not at their aggressors, but at others in their same group?

Take this Salon article, for instance. In it, Mary Elizabeth Williams argues that only children are the subject of ridicule and false assumptions, contempt and judgment throughout their entire lives. I can't refute that. I wasn't an only child, nor do I have an only child, so I'll never know or understand where she is coming from, and I've no right to comment. I can only say that the statement surprised me. I never noticed only children getting the short stick while I was growing up. Until we were eight, my best friend was an only child. I bet she has some stories to tell, but I can assure you that she got made fun of more for being "rich" than anything else. Isn't that completely ridiculous? Let me expand: we were lucky enough to live in one of the wealthiest towns in the wealthiest state in the nation, growing up. And people were making fun of someone for their parents being able to provide a wealthy lifestyle for their child? Ask her today, she'll tell you...I've rarely seen her as ruffled even as an adult than when someone mentions her family's supposed wealth. (By the way, they're not Richie Rich rich. They were simply well off, comfortable, well bred human beings.)

Point being, children are judged for stupid details they don't have any control over all the time. As one of those groups, as an "only," you'd think Williams would be calling to the other groups in a positive effort to stop all this nonsense.

But no. Instead she hacks away at those other ostracized groups, showing how 'normal' only children are in comparison. She complains that no one ever calls the youngest in a family really immature. Yes, they do. I've heard that a million times. Certainly as many times as I've heard about "onlies" being spoiled. Ask my brother; he's the youngest. He'll tell you.

I'm the oldest (which wasn't mentioned in the article.) I can't tell you how many times I've heard that my bossy personality gave my sibling status away. Even from teachers and other authority figures. "Oh, you're the oldest. Yeah, that figures. No, in a good way!" Oh, okay.

More importantly, and the only reason I'm writing this response is that she called my kids dicks. Okay, not really, but she did say this:

"It’s one of the standard responses we “onlies” get — near strangers denigrating us because of our parents’ reproductive habits. Nobody ever says, “Youngest of four? So you’re really immature, right?” or “You’re a twin? Wow, you must be a total dick.”"

Color me surprised. I had no idea that twins were considered dicks. And since I'd never heard of that until now, and it's Williams purporting that twins are thought of in that manner, then the illogical conclusion is that Williams thinks my children are dicks. What the hell?

But, that's not what she said, so I accept my defensive overreaction and move on.

The main problem with this column is that it does exactly what it's fighting against. It takes anecdotes and singular experiences from the author's life and builds them up into sweeping generalizations that are simply not true.

"I love my two girls, and can’t imagine either of their lives without their touching sisterly bond. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to nod my head in quiet assent when some yahoo goes on about that “helicopter mom” of one who doesn’t “get it” about what parenting is really like, or how “entitled” her kid is. I’ve seen your children too, folks. They’re all pretty equally cranked up."

Helicopter moms come in all shapes and sizes and have any number of children. Children can be entitled whether there is one or twelve of them. So, other than this one instance, where whomever she's talking about really is being a jerk, are these types of judgments really strewn around just about parents of only children?

And why add in that last line about the other kids? Doesn't really fit with the tone or message, does it?

Interestingly, after spending many, many paragraphs stating that "onlies" are just like everyone else, Williams then says this:

"It’s true that we onlies are a different breed. My girlfriend with three sisters will never understand my horror around peeing in front of other people. It’s not an accident that I work in solitude."

Okay, so are you the same as everyone else, different but just as good as everyone else, or a totally different breed with quirks that even you attribute to the fact that you had no siblings growing up?

Because I have to be honest, I'd not have thought that things like peeing without other people around (although as a mom of toddlers that's a luxury I no longer have), and liking to work in solitude had anything to do with being an only child. Maybe some people from bigger families like those things too, for opposite reasons. Or maybe some only children like working in groups.

Lastly, this quote from her friend really irked me:

"Sharing? Do you know how much easier it is to share as an adult when you didn’t have to protect what’s yours as a little kid? …  It’s easier to give away a big slice of pie when you’ve had all that extra pie to yourself for so long.”

I hate to be a stickler, but I'd need to see some research on the actions of children versus the actions of their adult self to even remotely believe that holds water. Her theory about extra pie rubs me the wrong way. I just don't think that's true for everyone, or even the majority.

As my friend, an only child who liked the article said, "Why do we have to be judged based on how many siblings we have at all. Can't we just all agree that some people are shitty and others aren't?" Cassie, by the way, writes an excellent blog herself, found here at Mama Phrass.

Exactly right. Some people, for a variety of reasons, not just one, are just bad people, and others, for a variety of reasons, not just one, are good people.

So, why do the ones being judged by others always fight it by judging right back?


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  1. "It’s true that we onlies are a different breed. My girlfriend with three sisters will never understand my horror around peeing in front of other people. It’s not an accident that I work in solitude."

    I laughed so hard! I have three sisters and I have never, as long as I've been old enough to remember it, peed in front of them or anyone else (that includes my husband). I also like to work in solitude. Oh, wait, did I type "like"? I LOVE to work in solitude. My best job ever was working in the dusty attic of a museum and not having to speak to or see anyone for my five hour shift. That couldn't possibly be attributed to my personality though, right? :P

    1. * my children don't count as people in my above statement. Obviously, as a mom of three small kids, I pee in front of my children on a daily basis. ;)

    2. I realized even more than I had before that people judge you by your sibling-status/ birth order after my brother died in his mid-30's. Now when people ask about siblings the simple answer is that I am the middle of three sisters and people imagine that I lived in an all-girl house and was a typical middle child. Of course it's worse if I choose the complicated answer and the followup questions about what they do and whether they are married/ have kids force me to either mention my dead brother and deal with that bag of worms or lie.

    3. "She complains that no one ever calls the youngest in a family really immature."

      Nobody in my life has received this memo.

      I had a friend in college who was an only child. She would proclaim this proudly and say, "My parents and I are very close and I am blessed to have their full attention and support. Anybody who says otherwise is just jealous." In contrast, it sounds like that author has issues and it probably has nothing to do with being an only child.

  2. Will the labeling of only children never stop! The judgmental need to look at the research on only children to discover the single child stereotypes (started in 1896)have been refuted repeatedly. It's parenting, not the number of siblings a child has or doesn't have, that is key to development. Checkout my blog at Psychology Today, "Singletons," for the facts: Http:/
    Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of The Case for the Only Child



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