Every parent worries that something awful could happen to a child. Most of us are able to keep our fears in check.
We stop holding our toddler's hand so she can walk across the room on her own, even though we know she could fall.
We allow our second-grader to ride his bike to a friend's, even though he has to cross a street.
We give our newly licensed driver the keys to the car, even though we know he could get into an accident.
Granting our children age-appropriate doses of independence (ideally, after preparation) is the only way they can become competent, confident, responsible human beings. But some of us are better at it than others. Those who have the hardest time tend to have only one child.
''All parents feel [this fear] to some degree, but when you have only one, you think, 'I have to protect this kid. It's everything to me,"' says Carolyn White, editor of ''Only Child" magazine (onlychild.com) and author of a new book, ''The Seven Common Sins of Parenting an Only Child" (Josey-Bass).
She calls it the sin of overprotection.
''It's an issue more for parents of only children because they have the time and resources to overprotect," says educational psychologist Toni Falbo of the University of Texas at Austin, a leading researcher on only children. Reasoning, ''I've only got the one, I can afford it/I've got the time," parents with one child often overprotect in ways that insulate a child from real-world experiences.
It can happen for the best of reasons.
With fewer distractions in the family, the bond between one child and his or her parents tends to be stronger and tighter than in bigger families. ''It's a real mutual admiration society," says Austin psychologist Carl E. Pickhardt, author of ''Keys to Parenting the Only Child" (Barron's). Because parents and child are so closely aligned, there's likely to be less day-to-day conflict and more shared values, he says.
That's the good news. Here's the bad: The closeness means a parent's criticism is likely to carry more sting (''I disappointed dad. Will he forgive me?"), which means a school-age child may take a setback too hard. In adolescence, it's typically harder for a teen to break away. And at almost every age, parents who treat a child as a pal make it more likely the child will compare herself to them (''If Mom can do that, so can I."), setting herself up for failure.
''I think [that's our] biggest problem," says Duxbury mother Wanda Goldbaum in an e-mail. Her son, Michael, is 16. ''We don't have other children with whom we can compare so we compare him to ourselves. We magnify and scrutinize negative behaviors, when in actuality these behaviors are relative to those of peers and age."
Mike Donohue of North Andover, whose only child, Michael, is a junior at Roger Williams College, says his son has benefited from far more ''perks" than his peers. ''You tend to go the extra mile when you have only one," he says.
White, herself the parent of one child, says she feels the fear that fuels overprotection no less deeply now that her daughter, Alexis, is 25. What's changed is that she owned up to it. ''You have to write it down and make a plan," she says: '' 'I am afraid something will happen to my child. How would I go on?' "
That's what she finally did. ''I decided I would honor my daughter by extending my parenting skills and becoming a Big Sister," she says. Until she made that plan, she had been unable to grant Alexis the independence she deserved. In middle school, for instance, while friends rode bikes to school, White drove her daughter.
''I was terrified she wouldn't stay on the sidewalk, that she'd get hit by a car," she says.
In hindsight, White is convinced this was a disservice to her daughter, one she classifies under the sin of overprotection. ''I prevented her from having some real-life, problem-solving experience: 'I have to wait for this car. I have to wait for the red light. Do I have my helmet?' "
It's easy to blur the line between attentiveness and indulgence, says social psychologist Susan Newman, author of ''Parenting an Only Child, The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only" (Broadway). Her suggestion is to pretend you have more than one.
''If you had four children, would only one always get to make the choice about what TV show to watch? Would the same one always get the extra serving of mashed potatoes? Just because there's only one child in the family doesn't mean there is only one person," Newman says.
Pickhardt says adolescence is often the hardest time: ''The only child doesn't want to throw negative feelings into the relationship, doesn't want the disapproval, doesn't want to upset the dynamic." As a result, adolescence can be delayed for as much as two years. When it hits, ''Parents . . . tend to find they have a much stronger person on their hands than they anticipated," he says. It stands to reason: The attachment was stronger to begin with, so it takes more effort to push against it.
Sometimes, the college years can be even harder, Pickhardt says. The only child knows she is the center of her parent's world, so a sense of obligation kicks in: ''If I leave, will my parents be OK? They've given so much to me, what do I owe them in return?" His recommendation is to talk together about these issues.
While the relationship with any teen will go better if parents are nonjudgmental, it's critical with an only teen. ''Your [opinions] are more powerful," even if they don't show it, Pickhardt says. ''To say things like, 'How could you be so stupid? We raised you to know better' -- those are crushing statements." Try this instead, he says: ''I guess you made a choice you regret."
If fear fuels parents' overprotection, do does pleasure.
''When you have only one, it's so easy to overlook things," says White. She doesn't hang up her clothes? I'll do it for her. She skips her chores? I have time, no big deal. Even when you do it out of kindness or love, a child may not translate it that way, thinking instead, ''I always need to be rescued"; ''I don't have to take responsibility. Dad will do it for me."
White is sure that's what led to a lack of self-confidence in her daughter.
''She didn't trust herself to make decisions because we always made them for her. Even in her early teens, she came to us all the time [asking], 'What do you think?' When I'd say, 'What do you think?' she didn't want to make her own choices. We ended up having to push her to take calculated risks."
It starts in really simple ways, too. If you had three children and one couldn't find her favorite pajamas, would you drop what you were doing and go look under her bed and in her closet, or would you send her to her room to look by herself?
''Parents of only children can be real suckers," says White.
Contact Barbara Meltz at firstname.lastname@example.org.