I’m currently reading the autobiography of Condoleezza Rice, Extraordinary, Ordinary People. I am especially taken with Rice’s detailed, and generally positive, experience of being an only child. Rarely is this narrative pursued in popular culture, and the popular narrative surrounding the stereotypes of only children are those observed by children with siblings. We are expected to be spoiled, bossy, selfish, entitled, and every other adjective that comes with an assumption of undivided attention. Unfortunately, these stereotypes also come from middle- to upper- class, White narratives. The experience of being an only child among communities of color can be drastically different. Furthermore, these entitled expectations also assume weak parenting, when in reality, having only one child can often foster a stronger parenting style with a singular focus. Television does not describe the life of only children; the single exception I can think of is Two and a Half Men on CBS, and again, from an upper class White perspective.
Rice talks about her position in the house as the only child. To some degree, she was spoiled in the fact that she was the “president of the house” resulting from yearly elections wherein she would always count on her mother’s vote. However, with this title came adult-level involvement in discussions and decisions. “Perhaps as an only child I was driven to be more like the adults with whom I spent so much time.” This is a sentiment that my advisor has also expressed, that only children may develop faster due to their increased interactions with adults (and subsequent decrease in interactions with children).
Rice also talks about her relationship with school and her parents’ role in her education. As an only child, her parents were focused on her, and dedicated to ensuring that she was the best she could be at any endeavor. This included having the time to shuttle her to a variety of tutors, lessons, and other extracurricular activity, as well as being a presence in her every day studies, discussing report cards and overall progress.
Several of the stories she recounts struck a chord, especially her mother’s attempt to start her in first grade at the tender age of 3. As a small child, she despised it and stood up to her parents. Instead they enrolled her kindergarten and attempted first grade again at 4 (the age at which I enrolled in first grade). The board of education would not hear of enrolling a 4 year old in first grade, but her mother found a loop hole: first grade at home, and test into second grade at age 5. It worked. After this, her role as a younger student is not discussed at length, but I have recently been talking with a friend of mine who is considering enrolling her young girl in school a little early. As I look back, there was really nothing to it. I was teased for being the youngest in my class, but this was a constant and relatively inconsequential. I was never the smallest in my grade, and my mother’s hyper vigilance with my home based education kept me in the top of my classes. Growing up, everyone is teased for something; I was teased for being the youngest. This is still a regular joke among my friends up to and including college; “Happy birthday! Are you 21 yet?”