Ask BBB

Q:Help! My four-year-old has started asking when we are going to give her a sister or a brother. At this point, my husband and I are not planning on having more kids. How do I break the news to her without breaking her heart?

In days past, the expression for a single child in a family, “only child,” had a slightly negative flavor. It was as if families were supposed to have more than one child if they were able.

Culture supported that profile of a family. Children’s books presented Mommy, Daddy, two kids and a puppy. Television and movies, too, presented that family view.

Times have changed. Nowadays, it is not at all uncommon for parents to choose to have one child and no more. First and final. It is a choice and not a happenstance. There is nothing negative about it; it’s just a different family configuration.

Fortunately, we are slowly beginning to see in media and in literature, all different kinds of families portrayed: Mommy, Daddy and a cat; Daddy, Daddy and two children; Mommy and one son; Daddy, two sons and Grandma. Configurations abound.

But your four-year-old daughter has likely been exposed to more families of the former brand—with siblings—than the more current reality. Likely, at the age of four years, her nursery school friends’ families are starting to grow. So, she is expecting to have a sibling, too.

Not only is your daughter experiencing her friends getting brothers and sisters, but so are you. Your choice brings added responsibility of helping her to know and come to terms with her reality.

Based on your question, you know that this reality will be disappointing to your daughter, or at least, different than what she was expecting. No parent wants to “break her child’s heart.” It is so difficult to see your child be unhappy, especially when you feel you are the cause. This isn’t the first time, and I promise you, it won’t be the last.

In crafting your conversation, you need to know a few things. First of all, this discussion will be on-going. You will likely revisit it over and over again, as your little girl processes and grows to accept your decision.

Do not be surprised if she brings it up occasionally for years and years. “I always wanted to have a little sister.” Or “Why can’t I have a little brother?” Part of life is learning to accept disappointment, and this may be a big one for her … or not.

Thereafter, your conversations about being a one-child family (or any other BIG topic) should always begin with acknowledgment of the child’s feelings. The child needs to feel heard and to know that you understand her feelings.

I believe you are asking me for a script for talking to your daughter. Please know that what I am offering is a starting point for you. Here is an important caveat: Parents tend to say too much. Doing so undermines your child’s ability to process what you are saying. Less really is more. You can add to your story later on, if it becomes necessary.

“You have asked Mommy and Daddy to give you a baby brother or sister. We know this is something that you really want. But our family has only one child. YOU are exactly the child who we wanted. And we are so happy to have you. Daddy and I are not going to have another child. We are exactly the family we want with you, Daddy and me.”

Just know that your daughter will say, “But WHY???” Do not take the bait! Do not begin to explain your reasons to her. Usually when children ask “Why?” in response to something disappointing they have been told, they are simply protesting.

Your response to her Why? therefore, should start with, “I know you really wanted to have a sister. Having just you was Mommy and Daddy’s decision.” No need to go over your reasons until she is considerably older … or ever.

Finally, in support of the many parents who choose to have just one child, I share this with you. My husband, Ray, is an only child. That was his parents’ choice way back, 70-something years ago. He is the most emotionally well-adjusted man I have ever met. And yes, he always wanted a sibling.

BBB is a child development and behavior specialist in Pacific Palisades. She can be reached through her website, betsybrownbraun.com.