March 28, 1990 12:00 PM

They’re as precocious as Van Cliburn, as devoted to Mom as Elvis Presley, as self-confident as Frank Sinatra, as imaginative as John Updike, as private as Al Pacino, as plucky as Tammy Wynette. They are only children, and like those sibling-free celebs, they are paragons of independence and achievement. Get ready, America, there are going to be more of these solos. During the ’90s—either by choice or by faltering fertility—one out of four families will have just one child, as compared with only one in 10 in the ’50s.

Parents—mesmerized by the myths that these so-called gourmet babies tend to be self-righteous and grabby—are anxious not to blow their one swipe at immortality and are thus prone to clutch. How can we brace for this brave new breed? Is there any way to bring them up sane and unspoiled?

Perhaps the most common error, say child-rearing experts, is living as a trio (or, for single parents, a joined-at-the-hip duo) instead of as parents and child. “Don’t make him the center of your lives, or he’ll grow up really self-centered,” advises Sacramento-based educator STEPHEN GLENN. “From time to time, go off for the weekend, leaving him in a family with other children, so he’ll have to negotiate for space.” Glenn’s Developing Capable People course claims nearly 5 million grads. (For info, call 800-456-7770.) Though only children tolerate exposure to fancy French restaurants and other adult pursuits better than kids with sibs, New Hampshire child psychologist JACK AGATI urges parents to lug the lil darlings to burger joints, too. “Remember they are children,” he says. “Keep life appropriate for the age.”

Parents should also go easy on doing the kid’s homework with him, dropping off forgotten backpacks at school and arranging a date for the prom. “It’s easy when you have one child to do too much,” says Glenn. “The child gets dependent and develops a sense of irresponsibility for his own life.” All children, but particularly onlys, says Glenn, need to be “talked with, not at.” Parents may tend to draw a hard line—or no line at all. “Strictness produces rebellion, and permissiveness produces manipulation,” warns Glenn. “Learn the art of being firm, set reasonable limits and follow up with respect and dignity.” Agati adds that onlys of school age shouldn’t be pushed into yet more social interaction after 3 P.M. “These kids are used to alone time; they need it.”

The parents of onlys should give themselves a break, too. “A lot of parents get tremendous performance anxiety,” says Glenn. “The whole ball game is right there in that one child. Take the long view: Don’t add up your scorecard until the kid is 26 years old.”

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