Recently, I’ve been having discussions about having a big family. I come from a family with three kids (which some think is big these days), and the idea of seven or more children is largely foreign to me. Often, we think that families with many children struggle to raise kids who will become successful adults. My experience of kids with large families, however, is that the kids tend to be more successful emotionally, relationally, and intellectually than many of their peers. This may seem odd, but I’d like to explain some possible reasons for this phenomenon here.
A professor once told me that my generation is at a great disadvantage when it comes to relationships. His generation was largely raised in large families, and he’s realized that his generation was able to acquire a variety of life skills that are generally unavailable to kids growing up today. Our disadvantage, he said, came from how small families tend to be today. Growing up in a large family, the older children learn how to raise children, to interact closely with others, and how to be both dependent and independent.
Raising children. One young woman (we’ll call her Julie) comes from a family of seven. She’s twenty-three years old, and she’s dating a guy (we’ll call him Tom) who is an only child. Friends from college are visiting them, and the friends have a one-year-old baby. Julie is talking about the visit, and she tells Tom, “Now, when they come, because of the baby, we won’t be able to go out or do anything after about 10:30.” Tom asks her, “Why not?” Yes, this was a real-life exchange. To Julie, this is something that’s just obvious. For Tom, this is something that’s hard to grasp.
Julie came from a family of seven, with the oldest being 26 and the youngest being 5. Julie is the second oldest, and she’s always had small children in the house. Unlike most college students, she graduated high school knowing how to change diapers, feed kids, play with them, and, generally, how to raise them. Living with small children, she developed the habits necessary to take care of kids. So when she gets married and decides to have her own children, she’s already had a lifetime of experience. Her peers (including Tom), however, start from scratch. The first child is a “practice run,” the “guinea pig.” But Julie has already had the practice, and she doesn’t need the guinea pig. She can help a seven-year-old with math homework, she can play with an eleven-year-old boy, and she can dress a thirteen-year-old girl.
Interacting with others. College roommates can be a bit unnerving at times. For many students, their college roommates will be the first people they have ever shared a room with. But the commitment is only annual and can be broken for a variety of reasons. If two roommates don’t get along enough, one can move out or transfer.
Marriage is a bit more complicated. When most people marry, they assume that they will have a lifelong commitment. But the couple gets married while they like each other, and every couple struggles when, one day, they don’t get along like they used to. More marriages today fail than succeed, partly because people can’t figure out how to live with people that they don’t always get along with.
Having siblings can teach you this skill. When you’re in a large family, you don’t have a choice about who you life or eat or room with. So you have to learn to make room for other people who can be quite different from you. You can’t change roommates when you’re having a fight or a period where you don’t get along. Your only option is to get past your disagreements, and good parents help their children with this. When you live in a big family, you can’t just ignore or run away from your disagreements or arguments or fights. You have to learn how to confront them and get past them. While roommates and friend groups can easily change, children can’t get a divorce from their brothers and sisters. At times, siblings can even provide reinforcement when their parents’ marriage fails. One study even found that, when parents divorce, siblings are likely to take over parental roles and to provide support lost from a broken marriage. So, even if a marriage fails, siblings are likely to help each other succeed.
Dependence and independence. We all know a “helicopter mom.” It’s the mother with one or two kids, the mother that needs to be involved in every aspect of every aspect of that child’s life, the mother who repainted her son’s third grade solar system project to make Earth look more accurate. My mom was on an online forum for parents from my brother’s college. One mom was complaining about the food in the cafeteria and about how she “had to” bring her son and his girlfriend Taco Bell every day for lunch. That’s a helicopter mom.
One of my friends (I’ll call her Stacy) had a helicopter mom. She actually had helicopter parents. They always knew what was going on with her, and they kept very tight reigns on her life. Then she went to college. She got a tattoo, a few extra piercings, and a boyfriend. Then she moved in with the boyfriend and cut off her relationship with her parents. Stacy’s situation is common for children of helicopter parents. When she left home, she wanted all the freedom and independence that she never had, so she did everything she was never allowed to do.
For other children of helicopter parents, they allow themselves to be perpetually taken care of. Another friend (we’ll call him Greg) was the single child of two parents who desperately wanted him to succeed. So they pushed him in middle school and high school, leaving little room for self-motivation. Now he lives at home and takes a couple of classes at the local junior college, with no immediate plans for full-time enrollment or employment.
Part of the human experience are both the need for others and the need to care for others. At various times, especially when we are very old and very young (or very sick), we will be almost entirely dependent on others. At other times, especially when those we love are very old or very young or very sick, we will have others almost entirely dependent upon us. So being able to care for others and being willing to be cared for by others are very fundamental human capacities.
The skills related to raising children and to interacting with others can also aid with these two capacities. Large families rely on each other. Two people are not enough to run a large household, so everyone is expected to contribute. A professor (we’ll call him Dr. Carlson) recently had me and eleven other people over to his house for Sunday dinner. Every Sunday, Dr. Carlson has his kids and their kids over for Sunday dinner. His family is still somewhat young, and I think that the children and grandchildren total to about 17. When I was at this dinner, I was amazed at how normal everything was. All of the family helped. All contributed. There was no arguing, no yelling, no stressing out. They laughed. When someone asked for help, they got the help they needed. They had to rely on each other for help, and they had to be willing to help each other. This was what was needed to run the household, and the whole family knew it.
These are just some of the benefits for the children. I’ve seen real benefits for the parents too, but perhaps I’ll write about those in another post.