No Child Left Behind: Can Having a Big Family Harm Your Children?

March 5, 2012  |  
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If you’re familiar with the Duggar family who stars on the TLC show, 19 Kids and Counting, you already know that Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar are parents to 19 children and the show follows their trials, tribulations and adventures as a large family.  In a recent interview with the staff of TODAY Moms, Michelle revealed that even in light of her recent miscarriage, she wouldn’t rule out having more children.Viewers and fans across the country grieved with the family who lost a child to a miscarriage in Michelle’s 18th week of pregnancy, who commented in the interview, “I would do it again.”

Bigger is better when it comes to building a family, or at least the media would have you believe lately as shows like Jon and Kate Plus Eight and 19 Kids and Counting saw ratings soar through the roof in recent years.  Even Nadya Suleman, better known as “Octomom” experienced a temporary burst of fame when she covered tabloids everywhere after giving birth to octuplets in January of 2009.

Large families are nothing new to the African-American culture, and even in many Latin cultures a strong emphasis is placed on building large, strong united families.  But could having many children be doing more harm than good to the family unit?   Nadya Suleman faced public disapproval when it was revealed that she was actually mother to fourteen children including her octuplets.  That disapproval turned to outrage when rumors ran rampant that she was unemployed and using public assistance to care for her children.  And although The Duggars provide for their family without the help of government assistance, they still find themselves dealing with many judgmental opinions.  Even in the difficult time following Michelle’s miscarriage, many had no remorse and lashed out with comments that included, “Her body is finally worn out.” “Something probably would have been wrong with the baby anyway.”  Some even blamed Michelle for other women’s frustration that faced difficulties conceiving.

It brings to light an unfortunately troubling fact: For some reason people still feel entitled to tell women what to do with their uteruses.  Like anything, there are pros and cons that are associated with any size family, but the topic of larger families seems to ignite some heated controversy.  Let’s explore some popular opinions:

1.  Children don’t receive as much individualized attention when they have to compete with siblings.

It can be a struggle for two parents let alone a single parent to divide their attention equally among many children, and parents in large families may need to make an extra effort to make sure each child feels their parents are available to address their individual needs and concerns.  It’s important to make children understand that they are a part of something bigger, but you should also make sure that each child is recognized as an individual by setting aside special time for them and catering to their interests.

2.  Older children miss out on childhood since they have to share parenting responsibilities.

I was always raised that as a family we were expected to cooperate and maintain the home and look out for one another.  You didn’t wash dishes because it was your chore and you would get a new video game, you did it because you lived in the house.  If someone needed you to pitch in and help because another family member wouldn’t be able to, then you stepped up without expecting anything in return. Having your children hold some responsibility for one another’s safety and well-being should be a given in any family small or large.  It’s your duty as a brother or sister, but at the end of the day they should be reassured that they are children and not parents.

The Duggars raise their children using a buddy system: An older sibling is assigned to a younger sibling and assists in their primary care. According to Michelle, “they help them with their little phonics lessons and games during the day and help them practice their music lessons. They will play with them or help them pick out the color of their outfit that day and just all of those types of things.”

Whether you have ten kids or two, if your teen is babysitting and changing diapers to the point where they can’t enjoy their life socially or it’s interfering with schoolwork, then you need to step up as a parent.  YOU decided to have children, and it’s not fair to give any teen parental responsibilities prematurely, especially if you don’t want them to have adult privileges as well.

3. More children cost more money, meaning that luxuries will have to be sacrificed.

Finances can go either way depending on how much you’re able to provide.  In larger families where resources may not flow as freely, children learn to appreciate the value of money and don’t focus as much on material items since it’s likely that they won’t be “spoiled.”  At the same time, if parents don’t know how to properly budget money and bribe their children with special treats and gifts for things that they are SUPPOSED to be doing, then the only difference is having one spoiled or a gang of greedy children who don’t appreciate hard work and values.  Luxuries should be treated as rewards and not as a normal recognition of any type of behavior, good or bad.  Also, what exactly a “luxury” is may change with each family.

If finances are an issue, it doesn’t make much sense to continue to have children that you are unable to support.  By placing such a tremendous strain on the family financially, you may be essentially taking food out of one child’s mouth to feed another.

4.  It can be difficult as a parent to build strong relationships with many different personalities.

Ask any parent and they will probably never admit to having a “favorite” child, and honestly most parents truly do love all of their children equally.  But loving your children isn’t the same as meshing with them; at the end of the day we’re all human and some children will have personality traits that compliment a certain parent better than the other. In a large family there’s a lot of different personalities that not only have to find a way to connect with you as a parent, but each other as well.  This may take a little trial and error and a whole lot of creativity.

5.  Children from larger families learn to easily handle sharing, compromising and cooperation.

Sharing and cooperation is a skill that all children should learn, but this doesn’t mean if you don’t give your little one lots of siblings they’ll grow up to be a selfish spoiled brat. Compromise is something that can be learned in school or even with just mom, dad and other close relatives.

6.  Children from large families never have to worry about being lonely.

As a child I can remember going through a phase that I’m sure all children experience: wanting a little brother or sister.  Sleepovers with cousins were the best thing ever at the time and the idea of getting to have one every night is what initiated the “Conceive Again Campaign” that I ran on parents for about a year.  That younger sibling never came to be, but the truth is at its best a large family is like having live-in friends.  You never need to worry about making friends or having a playmate because you could always find one in a room nearby.  As children get older though, they may long for a sense of privacy and a space to call their own and this can be frustrating especially if there are age gaps and children find themselves in two different developmental stages but sharing a room.  It’s also important for children to make friends outside of the family; it’s healthy for family members to form relationships outside of people who sort of have an obligation to love and protect them.  Lastly, it also may be a struggle for children from large families to learn how to entertain themselves and enjoy their own company.

7.  Having many children is stressful and traumatic on a women’s reproductive system.

According to Dr. Jeffrey Richardson, an obstetrician who’s practiced out of California for 30 years, the health risks of pregnancy dramatically increases after four pregnancies and all pregnancies should be spaced out by at least 18 months.  Many women who have a large number of children don’t usually space out pregnancies far enough and this places them at a higher risk for pre-term labor, premature birth, miscarriage and higher incidences of C-section.  Note that although the female body is designed to have many children, too many pregnancies, pregnancy in women over age 35 and births too close together all increase the risk of maternal death.  The lesson?  Every woman’s body has a limit and not respecting that limit places both you and your children’s health at risk.

8.  One word: Cousins!

As an adult with only one sibling, as I think about the type of life my child will have I wonder the effects that possibly not having many cousins will have. A small number of extended relatives doesn’t mean your child will one day face old age alone in a cellar with cats, it just means that you may have to make an extra effort to build and connect to “honorary” family members.  Don’t front like you didn’t ever have a play cousin or fake sister.

9.  Two words: Social Security

Historically women had more children because mortality rates were high meaning if you had ten kids, there was a good chance at least four of them would live into adulthood and be able to care for you in your golden years.  Many cultures still abide by this reasoning, and in a world where Social Security is quickly becoming a myth of the past for most, many parents can only hope that they will have one or two kids who can support them in their older years when they are unable to work. Should your retirement be the only reason you decide to pro-create?  No, but there is a sense of comfort in knowing that if one child is unable to support you for whatever reason, you have two or three more that could.

Were you raised in a large family?  What were some of the pros and cons?

Toya Sharee is a community health educator and parenting education coordinator who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee.

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