In the National Marriage Project’s exhaustive 2011 “State of Our Unions” report, a sidebar among the analyses and graphs draws attention to a subset social scientists tend to ignore in their ubiquitous research on marriage and parenting: big families. Noted researcher Alan Hawkins explains the dearth in blunt terms: “There’s not a lot of research on large families these days because they are few in number, assumed to be highly religious, and thus, well, weird.” But W. Bradford Wilcox and Elizabeth Marquardt tease out of the report some curious counterintuitive data, especially when considered against studies that suggest that having children lowers happiness. Their analysis of the data finds that parents of big families with four or more children tend to be happier and more fulfilled than those with fewer.
The National Marriage Project attributes this unexpected conclusion to that weird faith orientation of mothers and fathers with many children. Their stronger religiosity means they’re more prone to possess a deep sense of meaning and purpose in life, and more likely to benefit from a large church-oriented network of family and friends than parents of smaller families. As the church-going mother of eight children, I do not take issue with these claims. But twenty-one years of large family parenting have offered reasons of my own why lots of kids is, in some strange way, easier than one or two—and few of my reasons relate to sainthood.
This realization began dawning on me quite a few years ago when I was editing biographies of young violinists for my daughter’s performing group program, several of which were overdue. After sending out a gentle reminder to the late moms, one emailed back with a sense of outrage I still tremble at on reminiscence, something like: “How dare you group my daughter in a list of irresponsible girls when I’m certain her biography must have been one of the first ones in! That we would be publicly listed as undependable and un-conscientious truly shames me!” “Whoa,” I thought, with genuine relief, “I’m glad it takes a lot more than an email reminder to publicly humiliate me.”
That very week, I’d been to a parent-teacher conference in which an entire term’s assignments in several classes were missing, attended a regional wrestling championship in which my son suddenly found himself pinned in an ill-seeded run-off match to the final, heard from neighbors whose delicate plants had been crushed by our basketballs landing over the fence, and witnessed my youngest child play a faux piano on another child’s head during a church children’s program.
So an enforced humility should not be underestimated as a benefit of multiple children. You find yourself eminently able to cope with public humiliation without losing sleep. In fact, you view the embarrassment as a normal component of child-rearing since you gave up on raising trophy children after the first two kids and, over the years, gradually accepted the fact that your children aren’t here to make you look good.
But other benefits to having lots of kids exist as well, prime among them the effects of “sibling abundance.” There is always someone to build Legos with and always a ready partner to fight with in the back seat when road trips get long, not to mention tutor for math tests and offer consolation in social rejection. This takes a lot of pressure off Mom and Dad, who by virtue of being outnumbered, cannot play with everyone, helicopter everyone, or afford multiple teams and activities per child. We also have to eat dinner together because even frozen burritos are expensive when multiplied by x amount of kids, and agree with economist Bryan Caplan’s assertion in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids that “parents overcharge themselves” with obsessive oversight, expenditures, and anxiety.
In that book, Caplan contends that instead of creating fewer kids and more work, today’s parents should consider having more children and doing less work, since all the obsessive oversight, his analysis of the research finds, doesn’t make any difference. But I can’t pretend big families don’t equate hefty amounts of manual, mental, emotional, and spiritual labor—it’s just that in multi-children economies of scale, all that work creates a loaves-and-fishes effect. You’ve already accumulated the multiplication flash cards, Suzuki cello CDs, and American Girl doll paraphernalia. Let the stuff benefit a few others. You’ve also amassed a diversity of knowledge that includes which science projects don’t require a week of fomenting in the kitchen sink and how to calm an adolescent whose entire life has seemingly imploded. After going through infancy, childhood, puberty, and even young adulthood with a few kids, you’re capable of rapidly assessing even complex situations and finding solutions from the hindsight of experience.
Not that small families can’t share in some of these experiences, just that big families get it in spades. Along with the spades of laundry, infighting, and clutter come the spades of varied interests of the sports-crazed kids or the politically, musically, or socially obsessed ones—and with those interests come the mentors, coaches, music teachers, and church-oriented network of youth leaders to which the National Marriage Project attributes high happiness levels in big families. My purpose differs from Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids in that I’m not trying to talk people content with small into going bigger, but I do hope that the big will count their chaotic and numerous blessings. I also hope that the small will chill out a little, and realize that God is the ultimate parent in charge. Even when we mess up, his grace more than compensates by bringing in the people, experiences, and opportunities a struggling child needs. All families, of course, can tap into that grace. But maybe big families need, and ask for, more of it.
Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer specializing in family and religious issues and lives in Salt Lake City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.