There’s no optimal family size

Special to The TribuneOctober 29, 2013 


What’s the optimal family size? Do kids do best in a Waltonesque environment, with scads of siblings to romp and squabble with? Or is it better to have Mom and Dad all to themselves, to absorb the emotional and financial resources both parents have to offer?

The definitive answer is: It depends.

Large families confer a whole mini-van full of benefits. We hear how children with brothers and sisters get along better at school and resolve conflicts more easily than their single-kid classmates. They’re also more likely to participate in responsibilities around the house and share in the care of younger sibs.

The number of children in a family also predicts the happiness of the couple raising them. According to the Marital Generosity Survey conducted in 2010- 2011, couples with four or more children were happier than those with one, two or three. Couples with no children reported being about as happy as those with the largest broods.

At the same time, the typical household is shrinking. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in “America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2010” that family size declined to 2.59 in 2010 from 2.62 in 2000. The number of families with only one child has doubled to nearly 20 percent.

The 1950s trend away from large families is unlikely to change. More women are delaying childbearing until their 30s and are combining careers and motherhood. Many are facing problems with infertility. Other couples are concerned about the high cost of raising children, not to mention the social pressure to stop at two.

So smaller families are the norm. And youngsters from these downsized clans are doing just fine. Research by Donna Bobbit-Zeher, a sociologist at Ohio State University in Columbus, shows that adolescents make the same number of friends, whether they have siblings or not. As a group, only-child students have slightly higher IQs and tend to do better at school.

“People are having smaller families, and more children are growing up without siblings,” Bobbit-Zeher says.

There’s no need for parents to worry about their social development.

Kids grow into adulthood no matter how many bunk beds line the room. There’s no magic one-size-fits-all number. More important are the personalities, preferences and assets of the parents. If they want and can afford an entire ball team, go for it! If one is plenty, that’s perfect, too.

The key is to cherish and be actively involved with all your youngsters. The rest will take its course.


For smaller families:

Don’t hover. You want your kids to be happy. You’ll do anything to make their lives stress-free. Unfortunately, over-involvement creates dependence and sends the message, “You can’t do this without me.” Back off. Let them try to solve problems themselves before you intervene.

Assign and oversee chores. Sure, it’s usually easier to do the tasks yourself. But kids need to learn basic life skills and to feel they’re part of the team. Make them pitch in. Better yet, do the chores together.

Avoid being overly cautious. You obviously want to keep your kids safe. But there’s a fine line between fear and prudence. Don’t overreact to a few bumps and bruises. It’s how kids learn and grow.

For larger families:

Find one-on-one time with each child. Kids in large families need to feel special. Schedule a regular datenight with Dad. Or go out to lunch with your teen so you can hear what’s on her mind.

Don’t use older sibs as caretakers. It’s fine to enlist older children now and again, but they’re not unpaid labor. And you want them to participate in their own activities.

Take care of yourself. You’re busy from morning until night tending your large brood. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, to care for everybody but you. Set aside regular time to exercise and have fun with friends. If there’s not a moment to spare, you’re trying to do too much.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit

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