It's Thursday night. Having just settled on the couch after a long day of wiping noses, counters and bottoms, feeding small humans, and cleaning up or tripping over their toys, you're feeling maxed-out and wondering how you made it through the day.
You're desperate for some downtime—catching up on Netflix is in order— but then there it is… the tiny, plaintive, "Mom-my?" from down the hall. You try to pretend you didn't hear it, and with a small prayer, you hope that little feet will patter in the other direction and leave you to your bliss. "Ma-ma….?"
Nope. Not gonna happen.
Up off the couch and down the hall you go to determine which of your two kids is in need, only to find them both standing in their doorway, saucer eyes watching for you in the dark. "Sweetie?" you muster. Giggles accompany, "We wuv you, mom mom mom mama mam!!" followed by squeaks and shrieks as they run and jump into their beds on either side of the room.
It's that last burst of joy and energy that has begged to be spent. You comply with a chase and a tickle, and you think, this. This is bliss. 😊
Another round of good-night kisses and kiddos all snuggled in, you find your way back to your partner on the couch, only to restart that conversation that never seems to end, "Should we have another?"
Some families are complete with one child, and some with two or three. For others, it can be four, which seems like a lot, yet some families feel compelled to add more.
The decision to have fewer or more kids is as individual as each family—there's no "one-size-fits-all." And there's plenty of research to support whichever side of the equation you happen to be on.
Is less more?
When deciding whether to have more children, parents must consider: Will their bank balance, careers, lifestyle and relationship be able to take the strain? Limited time and money, the high cost of childcare, student loans, and lost income and opportunities from an interrupted career can all take a toll.
And large families can be stressful. Extra noise in the home and needing to sharing clothes, books, toys and rooms can negatively impact kids if their individual needs are not met. But mostly, studies indicate the biggest effect comes in the from of less attention from mom and dad, which is critical to a child's development.
In the study, The Quantity-Quality Trade-off and the Formation of Cognitive and Non-cognitive Skills, data was drawn from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics database that has surveyed more than 12,000 young men and women between the ages of 14 and 22 over the past 39 years. Questions like, "How often do you read stories to your child?" and, "How many times in the past week have you shown your child physical affection?" helped to provide insight into who got more resources from their parents: singletons or kids with siblings.
In the study, researchers found that having additional children reduces parental investment—defined as resources (money, books and other material goods), time spent with children, affection, and the location and safety of the home environment—with kids of larger families ending up with less education and earnings as adults.
"A lot of what happens in early childhood has lasting impacts," says Chinhui Juhn, lead researcher and Professor of Economics at the University of Houston. "In many respects, this matters more than a lot of things that happen later in (a child's) life."
But it's not all bad news. A growing body of research indicates that children with siblings tend to be healthier, happier and more well-rounded.
Some say a large family is one of the best things you can possibly be a part of. Influenced by the writings of Swedish researcher Therese Wallin, journalist and father of six, Colin Brazier, wrote Sticking Up For Siblings: Who's Deciding the Size of Britain's Families? to ensure that those who would like to have more children are aware of the advantages.
Brazier states, "Siblings have been shown to be a protective influence against three of the great epidemics of modern life: obesity, allergies and depression."
There are many reasons why kids with more siblings are less likely to be obese than those without from comparable socioeconomic backgrounds. From smaller meal portions to greater calories burned, children with more sibs tend to reach motor milestones, like walking and running, sooner than those without older sibs to emulate.
Siblings naturally create opportunities for more physical activity. One U.S. study even purports that with each extra brother or sister, a child will be, on average, 14% less obese.
And it's been shown that children with more siblings are generally less susceptible to allergies because the germs they share at a young age boost their immune systems. In fact, a second-born child is 20% less likely to develop eczema than an eldest or only-child, and 50% for a fourth-born child. Additionally, several epidemiological studies have revealed that the protective effects of siblings are even better for hayfever and more serious autoimmune conditions, like multiple sclerosis and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. This immunological protection can only be partially replicated when young children share germs with non-siblings on playdates or at daycare.
Happiness is sewn into the fabric of large families.
A large family is like a built-in community, with shared experiences providing the glue that keeps siblings connected over a lifetime. Unconditional love and support from many siblings can make kids less prone in life to mental health problems brought on by family crises, like marital divorce or parental death. And the benefits can carry into old age.
During middle and old age, indicators of well-being—mood, health, morale, stress, depression, loneliness, life satisfaction—are tied to how one feels about their siblings. In one Swedish study, satisfaction with sibling contact in one's 80s was closely correlated with health and positive mood— even more than was satisfaction with friendships or relationships with adult children. And loneliness was eased for older people who enjoyed a supportive relationship with their siblings.
In the book,The Sibling Effect, Jeffrey Kluger states, "Sibling bonds (are) the longest-lasting relationships we have in our lives. Nobody affects us as deeply as our brothers and sisters—not parents, not children, not friends. From the time we—and they—are born, our siblings are our collaborators and co-conspirators, our role models...they teach us how to resolve conflicts and how to conduct friendships and when to walk away. Our siblings are the only people we know who truly qualify as partners for life."
From greater empathy to learning to take turns and share, sibs make each other more likely to be well-rounded. Boys who have sisters learn the dignity of women and how to treat them with respect as they consider how they would like their own sisters to be treated. And sibs with lots of brothers and sisters have to figure out ways to stand out to be different.
With less parental supervision, kids have the freedom to explore their own path, making them more creative, according to a study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The limitations that can come with a large family may be mitigated by parents intentionally employing the benefits of a small one.
Though children in small families may have fewer sibs to bounce around with and learn from, some of the upside is that they have more individual time with their parents and more resources afforded to them. According to some researchers, these advantages result in more schooling and slightly higher test scores, enabling them to achieve more academically and occupationally than kids from large families.
In a 1988 study, Ohio State University professor and Stanford Fellow Douglas Downey found that by controlling for parental resources—meaning conscientiously spending time, giving affection, and providing a community for their children—parents can greatly reduce the negative correlation between the number of siblings and their respective outcomes.
This finding is echoed in Judith Blake's 1989 study, Family Size and Achievement, where she concludes that, indeed, highly educated parents of multiple children tended to still provide above-average parental resources to their kids, resulting in better outcomes for them.
"One reason for this pattern," Downey suggests, "may be that a child in this type of community has a larger group of adults nearby who have an interest in the child's well-being—aunts, uncles, older cousins, grandparents, and other adults—and this feature buffers the (resource) dilution process occurring within the nuclear family."
To sum it up, many studies indicate there is not necessarily a trade-off between the quantity of kids and the so-called "quality" of those kids. By distributing resources like time and attention to their many children as they would if they had fewer, it is possible for parents to minimize the impact of fewer resources on a child's well being.
The research shows that by developing and maintaining a nurturing connection with each child, parents can mitigate other potential hardships and their lifetime ramifications.
So, how can a parent of many parent like a family of few?
- Be organized. Make lists. Plan ahead. Be flexible. By doing so, you make room for those moments that allow you to connect with each child.
- Spend some alone time with each child every day. Even if it is just running errands or letting the older ones stay up later, one-on-one time counts. And be sure kids have time with Dad.
- Don't burden older kids with too much little-kid responsibility. Everyone has their chores, but relegate them to the normal stuff. And if the older ones babysit the younger ones, pay them to show respect for their individuality and to avoid resentment.
- Be creative with space. Share bedrooms and move non-bathroom activities out.
- Buy in bulk and be choosy with what you purchase. Define what's really necessary and keep in mind the value of hand-me-downs.
- Keep it simple—from the lists to the chores to your home—and don't fret a mess. Hugs and laughter are more important.
- Build your village. Enrich your brood with alloparents.
- And be sure to make time to keep the love fires burning with your partner so you can stay warm long after the kids are gone. 😉
Ultimately, how we parent our children—no matter the number—extends beyond the parameters of family. As world-renowned economist, Gary Becker, said, "(T)he people of the world are our greatest resources." So, with diligence, love and attention, we can fulfill our responsibility to bring up our little charges to realize their full potential and very important roles in the world.