kids on pier

Are small families better for kids?

January 5, 2016

Are small families better for kids? The Washington Post says “yes,” citing a new study by three economists who claim that

with every additional kid born, the other siblings are more likely to suffer from lower cognitive abilities and more behavioral issues, and have worse outcomes later in life.

As the mother of a tenth child — a child who started walking at seven months, could say four words at 8 months, and who can beat the pants off her older siblings on Just Dance (as long as “It’s Raining Men”) — I have the luxury of sniggering at this article. I know that my older kids had a different experience from my younger kids, and that life changes for everyone when a baby is born . . . and that there is some good and some bad in their life because of our large family size.

That’s what life is like: some good and some bad. If we’re holding out for an experience that is 100% unmixed good, I suggest finding a comfy chair, because it’s going to be a long wait.

But what if you’re a young parent, just starting out, and you’re feeling unnerved? Should you consider limiting your family size based on the findings in this study?

Well, even my untrained brain can spot tons of red flags in this article. Please note that I’m only responding to the article’s presentation of the study, and not to the study itself. The media notoriously distorts scientific findings beyond recognition; but it’s the article that’s getting all the media attention, and people are responding to it, so I will, too.

I’ll just skim my way down the article, and make comments as I go.

The study was done by economists, but it’s being presented as a reliable measure of quality of life. Economists also did a study that, as it was reported, implied that it doesn’t really matter if you put kids in car seats. This is not because economists are liars or monsters, but because economists see the world like economists, ask the kind of questions that economists ask, and draw the kind of conclusions that economists draw. They are looking, in short, at numbers, and assuming that if you connect those dots, you’ll get a picture that looks like actual life. Which it does not.

The article says:

The paper builds on older research that claims that families face a trade-off between the quantity of kids they have and the “quality” of each kid — an awkward term that refers to things like how much education the child receives, whether they are employed when they grow up, and whether they end up with a criminal record. The research also supports now-popular ideas about early childhood development, that the time and resources that parents devote to young kids have lifelong impacts.

“How much education the child receives” — What does this mean? Graduating vs. not graduating high school? College vs. no college? Or does it mean “Small families have the time and money for Gymboree class and taking violin lessons, but big families just spend time bouncing off each other in the living room and singing songs”?

Also, is more education an unqualified positive? I want my kids to go to college and grad school if that’s what they’re called to; but I won’t consider them doomed if they opt out and end up happy and successful anyway. Families with a few children are probably more likely aggressively focus on their children “doing it right” with college and prestigious careers; families with more kids are probably more likely to realize that there are plenty of ways to be happy and successful. So the lower push to “succeed” may be a result of larger family size, but that may not be a bad thing.

“Whether they are employed when they grow up” — Is employment an unqualified positive? I know women (and some men) who are eminently employable, but they’ve decided to be stay-at-home parents for the time being. In this study, parents like that would be called “less successful” compared to someone who’s employed in a menial, unpleasant job.

“Time and resources that parents devote to young kids have lifelong impacts” — Does it compare time and resources that come directly from parents to time and resources that come from older siblings, or does it assume that a busy parent = a neglected kid (i.e., only parents can provide what kids need)? The article mentions “how often parents read to children or help them with their homework.” When I had few kids, I read to them once or twice a day. Now that I have many literate kids, I read out loud most days, and the older kids also read out loud once or twice a day, sometimes while I’m still sleeping in the morning, or after we’ve put them to bed. The same goes for homework: the older kids get a kick out of showing off their prowess. Parents aren’t the only source of “time and resources.”

They also measured “the resources (including money, books, clothes, etc.) [the parents] devoted to each child.”  Well, I will admit that I don’t buy an entire new library or an entire new wardrobe for every child. They pass clothes down, and they share books. Guilty as charged.

When the article compares small families with large families, who is included in the “large family” category? “Large families” includes families like mine, with two married, monogamous, well-educated, stable, committed parents who have similar goals for childrearing.
It also includes single parents.
It also includes blended families.
It also includes families with many siblings and many different fathers.
Some of these “large families” may mean there are four or more parents involved, who may or may not agree on how to raise children, and where kids may be suffering from the demanding effects of having to split time between households, or having to deal with the divorce or living with kids they’re not related to, or having only one parent.
The only thing all these families have in common is lots of children, but the actual home life may vary widely and significantly.

Does it include families who have adopted several kids with special needs? Many large families I know are large because they include biological and adopted children; and many of the adopted children have been added to the family specifically because they have special needs. Are these kids showing up as “not succeeding” due to family size, when they may not even have been alive if they hadn’t been adopted in a family that is happy to have plenty of kids under one roof?

Some of the bad effects the study uncovered are truly worrisome: more teen pregnancy, more criminal behavior.

Here comes my biggest question of all: does the study or the article confuse correlation with causation?

There may indeed be a link between large families and worrisome outcomes for children.  But is the large size causing the worrisome outcome, or is it just that certain types of parents tend to both have lots of children and raise their children in a less-optimal way?

People with lower socio-economic standards tend to have more children, and those parents tend to raise kids with more problems, because duh. If those same less-well-educated parents had few children, would those few children  suffer the same disadvantages?

Correlation does not equal causation. This phrase ought to be engraved on the keyboard of every writer who reports on any study of any kind. It’s so basic, yet so often ignored.

Here’s the funny thing: On the same day that the “kids from large families are doomed” article started popping up on my Facebook feed, Facebook suggested I check out a “memory,” an article I posted several years ago on this date. It was a Slate article: It’s Better to Be Raised By a Single Mom: Kids Get That Magical Quality: Grit.

It’s a personal essay by a single mom, who argues that, while it’s true her kids have many disadvantages because they have no dad in the home, they are actually going to come out ahead because of those disadvantages. They learn, she says, teamwork, independence, the value of a dollar, the value of work, and “the power of the negative example.” She says:

We are surrounded by huge homes and the other accouterments of wealth. Kids here, and in similar bubbles of affluence, find gift-wrapped cars in the driveway when they turn 16, as well as one of the greatest predictors of success: support. In the recently published How Children Succeed, author Paul Tough argues that rich kids get the encouragement and poor ones get the grit, and he claims that one without the other gets no one very far … I would maintain that children with a single parent get the winning combination.

Really, all she’s saying is that she’s been dealt a crap hand, and she’s tried hard to turn it into something good. And I’m not going to argue with her. That’s a great way to approach parenting, and one which every single parent can imitate in one way or another.

The fascinating part was that the essay was published in response to a study that said that children of single parents fared worse than children of married couples — and Slate magazine was soliciting “testimonies on why being raised by a single mother, or being a single mother, has its benefits and might even be better than having both parents around.”

At the time, I was irritated. “Humph,” I thought. “As soon as science says something that the progressives don’t like, they make this naked bid for emotional testimony and call that a rebuttal. Shameful.” But now I think that it was actually a reasonable response. The truth is, statistics almost never give us a clear, accurate, and comprehensive picture of what real life is like, but personal stories can give us a better idea of what is possible, or of what is likely, or at least of how complicated life can be.

It’s not just that there are exceptions to whatever rule a study seems to show; it’s that people aren’t numbers, and there is no such thing as following a magic formula that will guarantee the outcome you want in life.

As anyone with eyes can see, there are ways you can increase your odds of raising happy, successful kids (building and maintaining a stable marriage, for instance); but there’s no secret formula to guarantee that your kids will turn out well, and anyone who says there is is probably trying to sell a book to help for their own kids’ therapy and child support.

So don’t sweat the studies. Use your common sense, listen to the advice and follow the example of people who seem wise and experienced, and don’t let the latest social media headlines fool you into thinking they know something you don’t.

In conclusion, here is Corrie, surrounded by the siblings she’s dragging down:

Shh, don’t tell them they’re doomed! They think she’s just what we needed at our house.