Monday 10 January 2011

What's It Like?

I have no brothers or sisters. It's something that has never been a big deal for me; I've rubbed along quite nicely for 30 odd years without giving it more than a moment's consideration. But...boy does it become a big deal when the subject arises in social situations, as it did for me this weekend just gone.

My wife dragged me along to a belated Christmas gathering, involving lots of small talk with people we rarely see. The conversation turned to troublesome siblings, then at one point in the discussion I was asked my thoughts on the matter. "I don't know, I don't have any [brothers or sisters]". These seven words had a dramatic effect; there was a sharp collective intake of breath, and within seconds I'd magically transformed myself from an acceptable member of the human race into a zoological freak.

"'re an only child? You kept that quiet" was one response. Obviously what I had said was the equivalent of a family secret so shaming that we've been desperate to keep it quiet only for the pesky drunken Uncle to blurt it all out at the most inappropriate moment.

I tried quickly to move the conversation along to another subject - unfortunately to no avail - because I knew what's coming next. The questions. Normally a mixture of the clumsy and downright rude; questions will be asked. I awaited the verbal equivalent of curiously prodding me with a stick with dread:
  • What's it like?

  • Don't you miss / wish having a brother or sister?

  • You must have been lonely?
and this one always always gets asked. Always:
  • I bet you were a spoiled brat?
Those questions above are the classics, but I've also had these:
  • What's wrong with your Mum and Dad?

  • You don't look like an only child.
And more rude ones besides.

The least offensive yet conversely the hardest question to answer is; "what's it like?" Stephen Fry addressed the perils of answering this ubiquitous question regarding his fame:
Is [fame] fun? Or, as student journalists always ask, what’s it like? ‘What’s it like working with Natalie Portman, what’s it like doing QI, what’s it like being famous?’ I don’t know what it is like. What is being English like? What is wearing a hat like? What’s eating Thai red curry like? I don’t believe that I can answer any question formulated that way.
Exactly how do you describe what it's like? To me being an only child is just normal. I don't know any different. I usually respond with; "what's it like having siblings?", it's the same question. I don't miss siblings as it's very difficult to miss what you've never had. I have occasionally wondered how different it may have been, out of interest, not to be an only child but it's never been more than a passing thought. I guess that those with siblings occasionally wonder the reverse.

The one that really needles though is "spoiled brat" and after many years of hearing that I have plenty of rather offensive one liner responses to that in my locker. Quite the contrary, my parents in common with other parents of only children strive to make sure that is not the case - they overcompensate. Similar to the football managers who treat their sons worse as a player, than the rest of the team.

I have two loving parents and had a happy childhood and I wouldn't change a thing. Ever. Growing up as an only child is neither better nor worse just different. The only major downfall I can see with being an only child is that you often get talked to like you're a petri dish experiment. I'm not. I'm just a bloke who happens not to have any siblings.


  1. I didn't know that only children got hassled like that.

    For my part, I am one of four and had similarly daft questions, like "Are your parents religious?" (no) and "What's it like?" (a bit crowded, but that's what we are used to).

  2. Thanks for your comment Mark, admittedly the 'problem' has become less frequent as I got older and it's still only an irritation more than anything else.

    Sorry though to hear that you get daft questions as well.

  3. I have three sisters. I occasionally get the "what's it like" question as I have no brothers and grew up in a predominantly female environment.