Of rivalries and revelries

Last Updated 28 August 2015, 20:01 IST

As sisters get ready to adorn their brothers’ wrists with rakhis today, Jisha Krishnan wonders if the growing tribe of ‘only kids’ is missing out on all the bonding and valuable life lessons.

Being an only child is a disease in itself.
- G Stanley Hall

The year was 1896. G Stanley Hall, considered the founder of child and educational psychology, was working on a research paper titled Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children. Of the 1,045 cases in the study, 46 were only children. “The only child in a family is therefore very likely to be peculiar and exceptional,” he wrote.

Being an only child was considered to be unnatural. There was safety, security and social sanction in numbers. More than a century down the line, despite hundreds of scientific studies that confirm otherwise, we continue to be wary of the only child. They are self-centred, shy, sensitive; they have imaginary friends, they don’t have much by way of social interaction. All this because they have no siblings.

And on a day like Raksha Bandhan, an occasion to celebrate the brother-sister bond, it’s but natural to feel sorry for the increasing tribe of single children in our country. For they are the unfortunate ones born to “selfish” parents, who refuse(d) to gift them a baby brother/sister of their own. Like the fancy, three-legged ottoman in the living room, a family of three may seem fine – attractive even – but can they make for a complete picture? Can the ottoman really substitute for the comfort and stability of a conventional sofa? The answers are as diverse as the people you pose the question to.

The more the merrier

Yashoda P has fond memories of her childhood. Of walking to school barefoot in the company of her seven older siblings, being the “favourite child of the family”, jostling for space on the mat laid out on the floor at bedtime. “Of course, there were many occasions when I absolutely hated my brothers and sisters. They used to bully me, make me do their share of the housework…but all in all, it was fun. And in retrospect, I think it prepared me for life,” says the octogenarian, who has been a single parent to her son, after losing her husband at a young age.

Though she has never tied a rakhi to her brothers – those days it wasn’t such a popular practice in South India – Yashoda does wonder if her son missed out on some of the essential stuff. “Children need company. Growing up in a full house –
parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings, cousins – is the best experience. Nothing beats that,” she maintains.

If it weren’t for the modern-day constrictions of time, energy and money, Sunil Gaikwad agrees that it’s a great idea “to have a bunch of kids”. The Gaikwads have three children and when the news of the third was out, Sunil recalls, how the general reactions ranged from shocked to amused. “Just because I already had a son, people thought that there was no reason to have another child,” he says.

Sunil obviously didn’t think so. And today when he sees his two daughters and son forging bonds for a lifetime, he’s convinced that they made the right decision. “I grew up in a joint family, while my wife was an only child,” he shares. “We both were on the same page about this. We want our children to be there for each other, long after we have gone.”

Two’s company
Hum do, hamare do – the popular family planning mantra of independent India –continues to be our ideal of a complete family. Father, mother, son, daughter make for a happy picture. 

Somewhere in the 70s and 80s, Indian families began to realise the wisdom in having two children. Having a brood of kids was no longer a feasible option, given the increasing cost of living, rapid urbanisation and rise of nuclear families. “Two was manageable. And the child at least got some company,” says an acquaintance, who claims she was “forced to have the second child.”

“I wasn’t too keen to go through the whole process of childbirth again. But the social pressure was enormous. We had to give in,” she avers. But today, when she sees her children growing up together, watching out for each other, she believes the decision was a good one. “Though right now it’s my daughter who’s more of the protector than my son, they are happy to play the traditional brother-sister role for Raksha Bandhan,” she adds.

And in families where the children happen to be of the same sex, there’s
always the “pleasure” of sharing the same clothes, experiences, aspirations. And there’s always room for healthy – and often unhealthy – comparisons. According to Jeffrey Kluger, the author of The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds among Brothers and Sisters Reveal about Us, “it is essentially, very broadly, true that firstborns will be the most successful. They will be the ones who earn the most. They will be the ones who are most loyal to the family, most driven to achieve in traditional ways.” One can only imagine how much fun it would be for anyone to follow in those footsteps!

There are, perhaps, more parents opting to have only one child today than in any other time in history. But that doesn’t make it any easier. Well-meaning folks continue to counsel the parents on how they should reconsider their decision for the sake of the little one, while the kid is often unfairly judged for being an only child. That explains why he is so aloof! No wonder she is such a spoilt brat! We are quick to draw conclusions.

The fact that she grew up in a single-child household, Manasa S contends, does not make her any less human. “I am not any more self-centred or lonely than the average person on the street,” she says. It’s a thought that finds resonance in a lot of studies that have been done on the subject. G Stanley Hall’s infamous statement is no longer regarded as a sound scientific observation on single children.

Besides, times are changing. With both parents working, most infants and
toddlers are in daycares, at least in the cities. “So the argument that they are
deprived of engaging company doesn’t hold any water today,” points out Sachin Joshi, father of a six-year-old.

Also, given that “they’re living in a home in which they’re outnumbered by adults two-to-one”, as the author Jeffrey Kluger puts it, most single kids do very well in the life skills department. And as far as having a sibling is concerned, most tend to gather “de facto siblings” around them. “My daughter ties rakhi to her cousin as well as our neighbour’s son. To her, they are brothers for all practical purposes,” says Sachin.
So, happy Raksha Bandhan!

(Published 28 August 2015, 14:16 IST)

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