What Social Distancing Has Been Like For Only Children

Parents who have one kid at home say it's easier in many ways, and way harder in others.
Quarantining is different for families with one child at home than it is for families with multiple kids.
fizkes via Getty Images
Quarantining is different for families with one child at home than it is for families with multiple kids.

Since mid-March, Sara Foos, 38, has been at home with her husband and their 6-year-old daughter, Leah. From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day, the parents take turns overseeing Leah’s remote kindergarten schoolwork and her biweekly class Zoom calls, and playing with her outside so she can get her “wiggles” out.

Often, though, Leah is on her own.

“My husband and I try to make ourselves available to her, but more often than not, we both have appointments at the same time,” said Foos. “That leaves her to fend for herself, and I know she gets bored and lonely.”

Leah has said several times that she wants a sister or brother, unaware that her parents lost a baby in the fall of 2018.

“She just wants to go outside and play and use that very active imagination of hers,” Foos said. “And it gets old to her, doing that all alone.”

Parenting during the pandemic has been a universal challenge. More than 50 million American kids were abruptly yanked from school, and parents haven’t had a moment to themselves since. Similarly, most kids haven’t seen a fellow non-adult in two-plus months — and they’re clinging to anyone they do have. We’re all going a little nuts.

For parents of only children, quarantine or social distancing (or whatever your preferred terminology is for being cooped up together for months on end) has come with a unique set of challenges and benefits.

Less school work to organize and fewer mouths to constantly stuff with snacks ... check! Constant requests from a bored and lonely kiddo to pleeeease join their two-player game ... also check! For the growing number of parents with just one child at home — as for all parents— the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard and complicated, and sometimes wonderful, with no clear end in sight.

“My daughter is incredibly lonely. She misses her teachers and her friends, which I’m sure most school-aged kids do, but being an only child adds another layer of difficulty.”

- Katie Goncalves, 32

For Nicole Bomasuto, 45, who has a 7-year-old son and emphasized that she is a single mom by choice, one of the primary (and most obvious) advantages of having just one kid at home is that she doesn’t need to manage more than one schedule on top of her own.

“I only have one — one kid, one school schedule, one kid’s emotion to manage and care for,” said Bomasuto. “Being an only child means Sam already knew how to entertain himself and was used to being without other kids at home.”

“Having only one schedule to deal with is such a blessing,” echoed Katie Goncalves, a 32-year-old mom of a 4-year-old girl. “I can’t imagine having to juggle more than one kid’s school, entertainment, naps, and physical needs right now.”

She and her husband have even been able to eke out some time for themselves when they’re both home. With only one kid, they’re able to “tag in” (and out) when they need.

But parents say their only children are also dealing with a level of isolation and disconnection that feels different — and perhaps more intense — than those who have siblings at home.

“My daughter is incredibly lonely. She misses her teachers and her friends, which I’m sure most school-aged kids do, but being an only child adds another layer of difficulty,” said Goncalves, whose daughter has not seen another child — except for her 1-year-old neighbor, whom she waves to through the window — until last week.

At that point, their home state of Michigan gave the green light for residents to gather in groups of 10 or less, so Goncalves and her husband invited another family over for a bit.

“She was the happiest I’ve seen her in months, getting to play with the boys and talk with other kids,” she said. “We’re going to continue to plan one-on-one playdates with her friends as the summer goes on.”

A parenting challenge for those with only kids at home — again, as for all parents — will be deciding what level of social interaction they’re comfortable with their kids having this summer, particularly in the absence of concrete, uniform guidelines from the government and public health groups. On the one hand, there is the risk associated with COVID-19. But many kids are hurting emotionally. They’re clingy and they’re lonely.

Yet as the pandemic wears on, many parents are also discovering that their kids are more resilient than they realized. Research does suggest that only children may be particularly flexible and tend to have especially strong bonds with their parents. So yes, they’re missing being with other kids. But ― like other children ― they can get through it.

Foos worried that her daughter, Leah, would be distraught when they had to cancel her 6th birthday party at a local trampoline park and instead had a virtual party with her grandparents. But despite the fact that she hasn’t really seen another child recently, Leah took it in stride.

“She said, ‘That’s OK, Mommy. I didn’t want my friends to get sick. I had fun with Mommy and Daddy, and it was the best day ever,’” Foos recalled. “That single moment has most definitely been the highlight of these last two months.”

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