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I've seen it, the fearful look of dread as we walk into a restaurant. Oh, at church it’s usually fine, but go to a store or fast food joint and suddenly all eyes are on us. We dare... to have more than two kids!
It sounds silly on the outset, but we are a nation that has developed over the course of the last twenty to thirty years or so a reaction of drawing back from large families. To put that in perspective, according to George Gao in his May 2015 article for the Pew Research Center, half of Americans believe two kids is enough. The number of families with 3 or more children peaked in the mid-1980s at 60% acceptance and has steadily dropped below 13% since then. Why?
Actually, the answer is simpler than you might think. Larger families cost more and require more work. What are the two chief concerns Americans face, the two resources we never have enough of? We lack time and money. Big families require larger chunks of both if you are going to raise them right.
As I said, when we march our brood into a restaurant or Walmart or even some churches we get stares like we brought in a three ring circus, lions and all.
The top comment I get, and it never fails is "Looks like you have your hands full." Usually this is said while I am holding a toddler in one arm while a preschooler is racing their sibling, but still trying to obey the "Hold my hand..." instruction, thus giving me the appearance of an unbalanced scarecrow on the precipice of falling over.
The comment once bothered me. Yeah they keep my wife and I busy, but my kids aren't a chore or a burden. Then I pulled back and looked at it objectively, and I came to a realization.
Before I share that realization, let me share probably the worst comment we hear, "That's too many kids." Folks, if you want to piss off the parents of large families fast, say that. The reaction of the parent is immediately on the defense, not for our life choices but in defense of our kids themselves. "Really, too many? Who should go back? Which one should not be here in your opinion?"
Now that second comment still bothers me but I realized something, the same thing I realized about the first comment. Both are "half a sentence."
The full sentences go thusly;
"They look like a handful, I couldn't deal with it."
"That's too many kids, I couldn't deal with it."
These aren't commentaries on us, but rather realizations about themselves. I know this because I have never heard this from parents with families of equal size. This goes back into money and time and the best example is my daughter trying to race her brother while still holding my hand.
When you invest the money to give them everything they need, need not want, and you invest the time into their lives, that attention shows in how they handle being in public. That’s when we start hearing these two phrases, and the people saying them are hardly ever aware they've said anything at all.
Writer Julie Borg tackled this issue in a January 2016 post on world.wng.org under their “Family and Society” section in her article “Are large families harmful to children?” Ultimately, the answer is that large families are no more or less harmful than small families to the upbringing of children. It all lies with where the parent’s priorities are. Everything comes down to not the size of the family or the money available but rather how the parents handle their responsibilities. She writes:
“Introverted children are likely to feel more connected in a smaller family. In a larger family, they are apt to feel like no one listens to them and the family environment may seem chaotic and overwhelming. Introverted children are more apt to dislike the noise and commotion of a large family while more outgoing, relational children might love having more siblings to play with and more activity going on.”
We have one introverted child in our large family, so are we doing a disservice to him by having so many kids? Well, no. My wife and I are well aware of his needs and accommodate him to the best of our abilities. On one hand you want to respect the needs of, for instance, an introverted child, allowing them time to themselves in quiet. At the same time however you need to bring that child into the family dynamic, making sure they have a voice and understand that they are still a part of the household as a whole.
I won’t say it’s a juggling act, or that is a matter of who takes priority. We have four kids and all four kids are a priority at the same time. No one should get the bulk of attention unless a special need arises that calls for it, like a medical emergency. In that instance a little explanation can go a long way. So do you push off the needs of three to attend the needs of one? No, you bring them in on what’s going on and what I’ve found from my own observation, there is enough of a connection between all four that if one is down for the count the other three will be right in line to see to their needs… without prompting from us parents. That, I think, comes from prioritizing everyone and making sure everyone knows we are all in this together.
One thing that I’ve seen parents of large families do that doesn’t pan out so well is they will make the older children in charge of younger children. Our 13 year old is not a co-parent. He’s not a live in baby-sitter. He’s one of the kids and it’s important that they understand that no one sibling has authority over the rest. Some families with a wider mix of ages forget that while yes, they are teenagers and should be given more responsibilities, that they are still kids too.
Large families work best when parents respect the roles in the family. Parents should be parents and kids should be kids, but this applies to any family dynamic regardless of size. If it’s just one parent and one child, the dynamic should not be upset during the child rearing phase of life. That just creates a whole host of problems and you end up with a resentful adult who hates the idea of family altogether.
So yes a large family may be out of fashion for the "me first, my time my money" mentality of America but just because something isn't popular, doesn't mean it’s not a good thing.
Thanks for reading.