An Only Child’s Only Childhood

By Marc Gilson 

You’re about to read an article from my series, “A Vintage Upbringing.” These pieces are stories distilled from my own experiences growing up in Portland, Oregon with my rather unconventional but loving family, including my mom, grandmother, grandfather, and a half-dozen cats and dogs. They’re snapshots of my own experience of the 1970s and 80s when I was in school. I don’t know that my experiences as a kid in the 70s were any more or less “typical” than anyone else’s. But I do hope these stories appeal especially to others of my generation – the latch key kids, Generation X.

I’m an “only child.” Such a sad and lonely term isn’t it? And yes, sometimes it is sad and lonely being an only child. But being an “only” also has its perks. I don’t remember the first time I heard that term, “only,” but it’s never been one I’ve warmed up to much. It brings to mind too many stereotypes: Only children are spoiled, selfish, antisocial. Only children tend to have higher IQs and make good leaders. While some are positive and others negative, they are, at best, generalizations.

I blame psychologists for some of this. I also blame China. Let me explain.

Alfred Adler, renowned psychologist and part of the famous “Vienna Psychoanalytic Society,” was the first to consider the role of birth order where personality development was concerned. He decided that firstborn children were more likely to be “problem children,” and that only children were especially likely to be very spoiled. And G. Stanley Hall, eminent psychologist of the early 20th century actually said that being an only child is “a disease in itself.”

In addition to Al and Stan, other researchers have deemed only children to be aggressive, bossy, antisocial, and petulant. But it’s not true, dammit! And I’m ordering you to take that comment back right now, or I’ll slap you and never speak to you again!

As for China, here is a nation that has battled the challenge of overpopulation for generations. In 1978, the Chinese government instituted the “one child per family” policy as a means of reducing the drain on resources simply by reducing family size. Although the policy officially applies to less than 40% of the population, the obvious result has been surplus of only children; children who, according popular belief are often so spoiled they’re referred to as “little emperors.”

I’m sure that in some cases, the “problematic-spoiled brat-emperor, likely-to-get-into-a-bar-fight-bossy-jerk,” label fits some only children to a T. But the fact of the matter is that even though being an only child might come with its own unique troubles, more recent research indicates that many of the only child stereotypes are more myth than fact. Social psychologist Susan Newman says, “There have been hundreds and hundreds of research studies that show that only children are no different from their peers.”

In my experience, Newman’s right. I’ve never been able to spot another only child in a crowd, and I wouldn’t know what to look for if I wanted to. Onlies don’t have any secret clubs (and if they do, they need contact me!). We don’t have special handshakes or wear our socks inside out. We don’t even get badges! Onlies do have their own website though: www.onlychild.com . And there are plenty of famous only children, like:

Frank Sinatra

Robin Williams

Kareem Abdul Jabbar

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Cary Grant

Lauren Bacall

Mahatma Gandhi

Cole Porter

Leonardo da Vinci

John Lennon

Joe Montana

…so I think I’m in some pretty good company. And that company is growing. Only 20 years ago, less than 10% of children under the age of ten were onlies. Today, nearly 25% of households with children have just one.

Now that I’m in my 40s and almost an adult, I thought I’d write down a few thoughts on the subject as it pertains to me (Yes, it’s all about me and my petulance. Get your own blog).

Before going any further, a little more non-fascinating autobiographical background might be pertinent. As with many only children, it wasn’t necessarily planned that way. My mother and father divorced when I was about three years old. I have no real memory of this event. It wasn’t a terribly bitter divorce, although I know that it was a very difficult time for them both as they loved each other, but couldn’t make it work. It’s a real blessing to me that they both still do love each other, and I don’t recall them ever uttering a harsh word toward each other in my presence. Loving someone and being able to maintain a marriage are two very different circumstances, as I myself would learn in my own marriage and divorce. As with most situations, there were many factors leading up to my parent’s divorce, but it really boiled down to the usual “irreconcilable differences.” So, one rainy Oregon day, mom packed her things, including her baby (a hell of a cute one, too) and left to live with her parents, my grandparents. And that was how I would grow up: mom and me living with my grandparents, and me seeing dad on an occasional basis for fishing trips and baseball games.

My childhood had its ups and downs, but was pretty good overall. I’d give it a solid 8. Some people have remarkable childhoods, often for some terribly traumatic reasons. Mine had its “moments,” but I have to say that I was, for the most part, a pretty happy kid. Sometimes a little shy and frequently uncomfortable, yes, but I wasn’t forced to live in the cellar (we didn’t have a cellar anyway), was not beaten, ignored, or yelled at. My mom and grandparents certainly weren’t perfect and never claimed to be, but I was fortunate in that I grew up in a loving, comfortable, and very supportive environment. In spite of tough times, we all stuck together in a spirit of love and connection. It was an unconventional family, but it worked, and it often seemed a preferable situation to that of some of my friends with “normal” families: a mother and father, with 2.5 children. Have you ever seen a .5 child?

There are some good things about being an only child. One of the perks is that you don’t have to share your stuff with any nosy, grabby brothers or sisters. There are no sibling rivalries or competition. Nobody runs off with your stuff, nobody pesters you when all you want to do is sit and watch some Bugs Bunny cartoons over a nice cold glass of chocolate milk, and there’s no fighting over toys or candy. You pretty much get to reign over your room and stuff according to your own desires (with consulting assistance from mom, in my case).

The downside is that you have trouble finding playmates. Adults generally make terrible playmates. They really do. The adults in my family certainly tried to engage me on a playmate level. But these were three adults, two of them close to being senior citizens, all working full time. When they made it home from a long day at work, they were disinclined to want to wrestle, or make car noises while helping me put mileage on my Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars.

So, when you’re on your own, you make your own fun. And like any kid, I found ways of entertaining myself with books and toys, or I just ran around in yard a lot and pretended I was Captain Kirk stranded on an alien planet unsettlingly reminiscent of Earth, circa 1975, and wondering when the hell Scotty would have the transporter fixed so I could get back to the Enterprise.

I tend to think that only children have to rely even more heavily on their imaginations than their sibling-abled peers. That sounds like a nice thing, but it has a dark side. In my case, I used to be scared of things that weren’t there. I would go into my room at night, flip on all the lights, and check everywhere – under the bed, in my closet, behind the door – to make sure that no trolls or Sasquatches were lying in wait for me. Yeah, I was one of those weird kids who believed that there were monsters around every corner. This was when I was very little, of course. I almost never worry about that kind of thing anymore.

Later in life I would discover that some children invent imaginary friends. Only children do this a lot and for obvious reasons, including monster reconnaissance. To this day, I kick myself for not thinking of that on my own. It’s brilliant! Why didn’t anyone clue me in? You’re small, alone, and terrified of things that aren’t there (but maybe are there). What better ally to have than an invisible friend to handle the bodyguard duties? I would have come up with a damn good imaginary friend. Maybe something like a Transformer, in the guise of my school book bag, that could transform into an indestructible, 14 foot-tall missile-toting badass capable of dispatching any half-sentient ghoul (or bully) upon my command.

But I never had an imaginary friend. I guess my imagination got as far as conjuring up something terrifying, and then basically took a coffee break and left me to face the invisible evil hoards on my own. Thanks a lot, imagination!

There are logistical issues to consider too, when you’re an “only”, especially where toys are concerned. If someone gives you a game for Christmas, you look on the box to see how many players it requires, and the worst thing you can see is this: “For 4 to 8 players.” For that matter, most board games are out. Try playing Monopoly or Connect Four by yourself. It’s fun for about six seconds. I liked playing Battleship, and I always seemed to win, and lose. Only children don’t usually play with walkie talkies because, well, it’s all walkie, no talkie. Frisbee? Is there anything more pathetic than a lone kid with a Frisbee? Foosball? Hungry, Hungry Hippos? Badminton? Gimme a break. And don’t even bring up the Twister incident.

I was once given a baseball glove and a solid rubber baseball, which I would throw against the side of the house and catch on the rebound. I would spend hours doing that – THUNK – against the house, catch, throw, THUNK. Playing catch with the house. After weeks of this, I was strongly encouraged by my grandfather, who sat on the other side of the wall, to use soft Nerf balls instead. Come to think of it, I still don’t know how I lost that rubber baseball.

The advantage of Nerf toys is that you can play with anything labeled “Nerf” indoors. Or so it was advertised. This is very important if you live in a climate like Oregon’s, where if you want to play outside you get to choose between playing in the rain and mud, or during the sunny, dry season, which was usually on July 12th. But the truth of the matter is that even a soft squishy Nerf ball, when thrown with sufficient force and insufficient aim, is capable of breaking knick-knacks, or in one instance, one of my mother’s bells from her crystal bell collection. Nerf stuff is cool, but just because it’s made of orange foam rubber doesn’t mean it can’t get you into trouble. Word to the wise: waking up adults early on a Saturday morning with a barrage of Nerf darts in the face doesn’t make you the most popular kid in the house, even if you’re the only kid in the house.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of toys for an only child to play with. I had an Etch-A-Sketch, LiteBright, Magic 8 Ball (which continues to guide many of my major life decisions), and as I mentioned in a previous post, I had lots of action figures.

And then there was Simon. That UFO-shaped battery powered thing with the four colored buttons that would beep and light up in difference sequences and you had to memorize the sequences, and…ah heck, you know what I mean. I was a butt-kicking Simon player. I got really, really good at it. I fantasized about entering into some sort of World Simon Championship. I tried to get people to play with me, to the point of taunting them DeNiro-style. “You talkin to me? Are you. Talking. To me? Yeah ok, meet me behind the school at 3 o’clock. Bring Simon. And some extra batteries.” Nobody ever agreed to the duel because they were clearly terrified of my Simon skills.

But the real salvation of an only child in the late 70s was video games.

In about 1979 I received an Atari 2600 for Christmas and my life hasn’t been the same since. Once attached to an old black and white television in the family room, I entered into that most intimate and sacred of teenage relationships: a boy and his game console. I’m sure my mother had no idea what she had just done when she gave me that thing. All she knew was that I was around 12 years old when I got it, and about 33 when she next saw me. I don’t remember all the games I had, but enough to stay busy for hours, if not days at a time.

Of course by today’s standards these were the Tinker Toys of the video game genre. Pitfall, Frogger, Chopper Command, in all their blocky, pixilated glory! Today, my son, also an avid gamer (and an only child too), watches in amazement when I “go old school” on him and play Galaga, Asteroids, or Ms. Pac Man. He thinks it’s funny. It must be the equivalent of watching some old-timer rolling a big hoop down the street with a stick. Nevertheless, I routinely kick his teenaged butt at Galaga.

Even before my love affair with the Atari began, my next-door neighbors and boyhood friends, Scott and Chris, were gifted with a Pong console from Sears. Pong, in case you were born yesterday, is a two-dimensional game in which each player has a “paddle” (a white rectangular block) you control with a knob to keep a little white square-shaped thing (the “ball”) from getting by you. It was beautiful, monochrome, zen-like simplicity. Or it was tennis for morons. It all depends on your perspective. Whatever the case, we played the hell out of it. Of course, as an only child, it was a blast to be able to play against Scott and Chris. But even better for an only child, Pong allowed you to play against the computer, thus eliminating the need for a human opponent. So when I finally scored my own Pong game, I would disappear into a trance-like state for hours in the dim light of the television.

While video games dominated my attention as a kid, I also still played with “regular” toys. In 1980, a Hungarian named Erno Rubik first invented, then managed to get Ideal Toys to sell, a little something he rather unoriginally called “Rubik’s Cube.” Of course I had to have one. Only children are supposed to be amazingly patient. That’s another stereotype I managed to burst. After screwing around trying to solve the Rubik’s Cube for about an hour, I became more interested in how it was actually put together. I didn’t see how each of the rows of little blocks could move independently of one another. So I took it apart and learned the magical secrets of its engineering. It really is kind of interesting. But alas, like Humpty Dumpty, you can’t put a Rubik’s Cube back together again once it’s in pieces. Such was my own “solution” to Rubik’s Cube.

Being an only child (or any child) isn’t all fun and games, of course. New social situations caused me great anxiety. On the first day of 1st grade, I was dropped off at school by my dad. My mother couldn’t bear to do the deed, so dad stepped in and managed to dislodge me from his car, and send me, with my Gunsmoke lunchbox and sweaty palms, into Mrs. Howard’s 1st grade classroom for the first time. I was there early, and there were only a couple of other kids around. I felt utterly alone and afraid. It was all very foreign to me. It smelled funny and the lights were too bright. Nothing about it felt right. I felt like a five year old Woody Allen, wringing my hands and worried sick. Standing in the middle of the room while other kids began to arrive, I started to cry, and I saw from the window that dad’s car was gone. I was on my own.

But then something happened that would eventually prove to be a milestone of social salvation for me. Some skinny kid sitting on the floor in the corner of the room noticed me standing there, teary-eyed. He waved to me and said matter-of-factly, “Hey. You want to play army men?” His name was Carlon, and he would become one of my best friends throughout most of my school years.

Playing army men certainly seemed preferable to spending my first day of school hunched-over, red-eyed, and snot-nosed in the middle of the room. My tears quickly dried, as Carlon and I reenacted a battle involving many explosions with the little green army men flying around the room. Eventually, class began, I found a seat next to Carlon, and I knew I’d be alright.

Carlon was, in one sense, just like me, and in another, completely different. Whereas I was an only child, Carlon came from a family with 14 brothers and sisters. In spite of that, or maybe because of it, we bonded like brothers. My life as an only child might have seemed like a curiosity to him, and I occasionally listened in amazement as he talked about his own home life; he and two other brothers sharing a common room in the basement. Neither of us came from families with money, but with 14 kids to clothe and feed, I’m not sure how his parents managed to do it; lots of hand-me-downs and leftovers, I suppose.

So from 1st grade through senior year of high school, Carlon and I – the kid with a Leviticus-sized family and the only child, – went through the indescribable drama and insanity of growing up in the 70s and 80s together. We listened to Black Sabbath and Kiss. We went through heartache and despair at the hands of some girls, while occasionally competing for the affections of others who too often failed to acknowledged our presence. We rebelled against the authorities of our private school by skipping class and running off to the 7-11 to play Asteroids, or by inventing our own swearwords that didn’t actually get us into trouble if overheard by adults. We defied school policy by letting our hair grow over the tops of our collars, and then took to folding our collars down even lower to allow for longer hair. We read the underground classic teenage literature of the day: Mad Magazine and Rolling Stone, and we analyzed the quality of the stereo equipment ads only found within the glossy and taboo pages of Playboy. I’m not sure how we managed to avoid getting into much trouble, but we somehow emerged from our schooling mostly unscathed, and relatively happy. Today, Carlon and I meet for a beer or two a couple times a year and catch up on our respective ups and downs.

Being an only child isn’t always easy, at least it wasn’t for me. But the older I get, the more I realize the value of my upbringing. I learned about self-reliance and how to enjoy my own company when no one else could be there with me. And I learned the importance of finding a true friend in the world. I also learned a lot about the adult world at an early age. If there’s an accurate stereotype about only children, it’s that they’re likely to be keen observers of human nature, and I remember being hungry to understand how the adult world worked. I’m still working on that. But I figured out pretty early on that adults weren’t perfect. In spite of the views of some of my friends, nor were they irreparably flawed embodiments of evil. They were really just older kids, with responsibilities I couldn’t completely comprehend. They had beautiful dreams, not all of which would come true. They had dark problems, not all of which they would completely resolve. While I spent childhood dreaming of becoming an adult, when I could earn money and buy my own toys and stay up as late as I wanted, I now spend much of my adulthood missing those days of cartoon-watching, trick-or-treating, first-kissing, semi-innocence. The freedoms you long for are never the freedoms you have, I suppose.

There is no right or wrong way of being an only child, or any child. You don’t need a label to know who you are, whether you’re a kid or a grownup. And I tend to think that a happy adult life depends on connecting with something decidedly un-adult and maybe even a little immature. That’s why I hope I can always maintain contact with that funny, shy, creative, lonely, mischievous, curious child inside. I hope you can too.

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