The Lessons of an Only Child

The Lessons of an Only Child

Editor’s note: This article first appeared on the Charlotte Mason Institute blog.

As I sit on the beach of a nearby lake on a sunny summer’s day, I watch my nine year old daughter wandering the shore and stopping to observe a dragonfly flitting about. She finds a little rock. She marvels at it for a moment and runs up to show it to me. I agree with her, this nearly cube-shaped rock is “really cool,” and she runs back down to the water’s edge. It is early morning and we are alone, save for some happily chirping birds and a pelican flying high overhead. “Would you like me to find something on the bottom of the lake?”, she hollers from the water. Like that dragonfly, she flits back and forth, checking in with me from time to time, while following her own curiosity.

My daughter is an only child, without siblings with which to explore, to learn or to bicker. As a mother of an only child, I often wonder how I can successfully spread this Charlotte Mason feast for her, without siblings to help in narration, in Shakespeare and in dancing.

At 11:20 am on Thursday, May 16, 1901, Mrs. Clement Parsons read her paper “The Education of an Only Child” at the P.N.E.U.’s Fifth Annual Conference. Mrs. Parsons has something to say to all parents, not solely to those with only children. She cautions that:

The parents of an only child do well to resist the temptation to have their child continually with them. To be continually with his parents is not for the child’s good—let alone the parents’! For one thing, there is the danger of his being shown and told everything and left to find out nothing. (Parsons, The Education of an Only Child, p. 616)

Actually, Charlotte Mason has taught me much about allowing a child to be alone, about giving a child the freedom not to be shown and told everything. In Mason writes that “Our deadly error is to suppose that we are his showman to the universe” (Mason, School Education, p. 188). Mason also warns us that nothing creates the incuria (or carelessness) of students like

the talky-talky of the teacher. … What [children] want is knowledge conveyed in literary form and the talk of the facile teacher leaves them cold. (Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education, pp. 52-53)

Parents of only children have to be ever-vigilant of this “talky-talky.” It is all too easy for parents, especially parents of only children, to allow or even help sustain this constant chatter and incessant rambling-on, even if it is interesting.

I began my parenting career as an entertaining and helicopter-like parent, especially during those toddler years. I am one no longer. Charlotte Mason has shown me that all children need time with their thoughts and to explore their ideas. They need the time and space to play imaginatively on their own, with the freedom to wander and to wonder. If parents of only children just check themselves, it might actually be easier for them to provide that quiet space for their child. Families with multiple children have to be far more intentional in creating those moments of solitude.

There are obvious advantages and disadvantages to every family situation. However, we can rest assured in knowing that God has given us this family, whatever its size. We could wonder “what if I had more children / less children,” “my life would be so much better / more interesting / easier / less hectic.” Instead, we ought to heed the words of Mrs. Parsons, when she spoke about the mother of Jesus:

“Mary… pondered all these things in her heart.” The divine mother did not fuss or interfere. That she could remonstrate we know, though it was with infinite gentleness. “Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.” It seems to me that we often place too little trust in the silent, forceful pressure of example, and expect too much from meddling and direct measures. We ought to try to be more like Mary, who prayed and stood aside, pondering all things in her heart, for it is with her that we find the ideal, invincible motherhood. (Parsons, pp. 620-621)

Parents of only children have to practice this (we might even call it “masterly inactivity”), just as do all Charlotte Mason parents. We need to meddle less and teach by example. We need to pray and stay aside, pondering the gift of each individual child in our hearts; trusting that God, in His omniscient love, has given this child to these parents and these parents to this child.

Mrs. Parsons suggests that one advantage of being an only child is that only children tend to make friends more quickly than those that are members of larger families. (Parsons, p. 617) Children with siblings have ready-made friends with them at home, while only children are compelled to seek friends outside of their family unit. Towards this end, she encourages parents of only children to “Utilise other people’s children.” (Parsons, p. 613) This is an utterly logical suggestion.

My daughter has five cousins whose company she enjoys. But they live 2500km away. Thankfully, God has granted her a wonderful group of friends who share her interests and with whom she is blessed to spend much time. It takes intentionality, especially today, when the neighbourhood children aren’t always easily visible or accessible. Living in a small town has made it easier to find like-minded parents, people who value their children’s free time and want them to just be children. Three years ago, a few of my mom friends and I started a local weekly outdoor playgroup. There we have met (and encouraged) parents who believe in reclaiming childhood and providing time and space for unstructured play and out-of-doors exploration for their children, parents who make an effort not to overschedule their children so that they can have free time just being children, spending time outside with their friends. It can be a challenge to find families like these, but it is such a blessing.

After our hour of solitude at the beach, a little group of those friends arrives and my daughter runs to greet them. She is a very social child, though she feels as comfortable alone as she does while surrounded by her dear friends. Not five minutes after their arrival, she has gathered half a dozen little ones around her, from the ages of five and under, and has led them to building a giant trench in the sand, stretching down to the water’s edge. Someone suggests pouring water down the trench and they gather buckets and run and fetch and pour the water, racing to the bottom to see it spilling into the lake. They are working together, freely exploring and investigating their ideas. Whether our child is alone or in a group, we need to provide both the time and the space for these kinds of things to happen; for children to be children; for children to explore God’s world and to enjoy the life God has granted them.

As I watch them, I am ever grateful to be a part of her journey, looking on and joining in the conversation when she directs her thoughts to me. This is one of the marvels of sharing in a Charlotte Mason education and in a Charlotte Mason life. We are blessed to live this life, no matter the size of our family.


Mason, Charlotte M. A Philosophy of Education. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. [Original work published 1925.]

Mason, Charlotte M. School Education. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. [Original work published 1905.]

Parsons, Mrs. Clement. “The Education of an Only Child.” The Parents’ Review Vol. 12, No. 8 (August 1901). 609-621.

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