By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. For various reasons, many parents today are having only one child. Do you have any advice for parents of “only children,” especially regarding social/emotional development?

A. Whenever we answer a question on this topic, reader mail pours in from adult “only children,” most of whom reassure us that they’re just fine now and grateful for how they were raised.

However, the common assumption is that only children are at a disadvantage. For example, many people assumed that China’s “one-child policy” would lead to a generation of self-absorbed little tyrants. Such selfishness didn’t prevail, partly because of a customary respect for elders in China.

Countless factors affect a child’s development, including family size, birth order and gender. Only children don’t have the benefit of learning with siblings. But parents can take simple precautions to help their only children to become self-reliant, to understand others and to care about them.

From the beginning of life, babies learn to handle distress with self-soothing behavior like sucking on a fist or thumb. They imitate how their parents calm them. Over time, parents can wait a few moments to see if their baby starts to soothe herself on her own.

This strategy – leaving the child the chance to take care of herself when she is ready – can be continued as she grows. When she falls down, of course she needs a parent’s comfort. But if the fall isn’t serious, wait a moment to see if she can get herself up and going again on her own.

Parents of only children sometimes have a tendency to jump into situations like these that can offer the child a chance to learn self-reliance.

Discipline is critical for all children. Limits help only children understand that although they may feel like the center of the family, they are not the center of the world. Chores are important, too. They teach children to understand that in a family, when work is to be done, everyone helps, and everyone’s help is valued.

All parents will be glad they started family chores early, once it’s time for their children to head off to college. Senior year of high school is late to start learning how to do laundry, cook and take care of the trash. Waiting too long leads children to resent chores instead of thinking of them as normal – or just doing them automatically.

With just one child, parents may think it’s easier to do all the everyday chores themselves, but in the long run their child loses out.

Parents of only children should also seek out playmates for them – the sooner, the better. It used to be thought that, until age 2, children played alongside each other without really interacting: parallel play. But recent research has shown that even 7-month-olds pay attention to each other and respond to each other’s cries.

In play dates, young children learn how to share, take turns, compromise and negotiate. They learn about their own feelings and others’. And they learn to care. Siblings help each other grow in these ways, but an only child needs friends. Parents of only children with extended families nearby can also arrange play dates among the cousins.

These days, many children grow up without the experience of large families in which older and younger children grow up together. The mix of ages and responsibilities helps prepare children for parenthood.

Older children need a chance to take care of younger ones. High schools should offer child-development classes – with visits to a child care center – so that teenagers understand that parenthood is a big responsibility. Such classes could close a gap for only children, too.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Prior to his passing, Dr. Brazelton was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.