Life is different for a newborn in a large family.  I feel rather ridiculous applying the label "large" to a family of five, but even three siblings is sufficient to give a baby quite a different experience from most American babies.  The first- and even second-born can easily become the focus of a great deal of parental attention and anxiety—which can be both a blessing and a curse. The third child, however, breaches the one-to-one parent/child ratio.  Many parents of one or two children choose to encourage their kids to be competent and independent at an early age, but once a third child enters the family, that's no longer a choice, but a necessity.

There's a lively discussion currently going on at Free-Range Kids about children who have too much done for them, and I was struck by the following comment:

[A]t my daughter’s school...the lockers for the special-needs preschool kids are right across from the NT [neurotypical, i.e. "normal"] second-graders. While the preschoolers' parents and [teaching assistants] diligently work with our kids to remind them of how to take off boots, jackets, put mittens in pockets themselves, there’s another group of moms doing all this stuff for their much-older children while they stand there like lumps of wax, arms out expectantly. It’s amazing to me that we have higher expectations of our three-year-old kids with special needs (mostly autism) than many mothers of second-graders do.

I’m hoping that one of these days, one of those mothers will glance over towards us and maybe wonder why we’re working so hard to teach our kids to be independent and decide that maybe it’s time for her children to do the same. To me, it looks like they’re working just as hard to handicap their NT kids as we are to teach our autistic kids to learn basic skills.

My first reaction—though it was not mentioned in all the long discussion—was, "these can only be children from small families."  No one else has time to help a non-handicapped seven-year-old put on his coat.

It leads me to wonder just what other unintended consequences there may be of the present practice—at least in North America, Europe, and China—of severely restricting family size.  I don't have time to give it much thought right now, but I'm open to suggestions.

Not only are children of larger families forced to be more independent, but for good or ill their immune systems get a greater challenge.  The advice given by some pediatricians to keep newborns at home and to keep most visitors away during the critical first two months becomes difficult with the second child and laughable after that.  We had hoped Baby Joy would delay her entrance long enough for us all to get over our colds, but she thought otherwise and plunged right into the viral soup.  Will this endanger her?  Or will it make her stronger?

The advantages of small families have been made clear:  more family resources available per child—or at least the potential for it—from money to parental time and attention.  The question that has not been sufficiently examined is, What are the disadvantages?  (Besides a terrific drain on the workforce and the Social Security system, that is.  I'm thinking mostly of the cost/benefit for the children themselves.)  Do small families produce children who are bright but selfish?  Do children from large families fare better socially but lag behind intellectually?  Are children who grow up with many siblings generally more, or less, robust than those from small families?  (Assuming environments that are similar otherwise, of course.)  Those are only some of what I consider to be fairly obvious questions; if they have been studied, I've missed the news reports about them.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, February 27, 2011 at 5:43 am | Edit
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