Big families are great for lots of things: intense games of kickball, for instance, or full-ensemble living room productions of Cats. But a new study suggests the one thing they aren’t good for is the kids who make them up.
According to a study done by economists for the National Bureau of Economic Research, kids who are born into large families experience a decrease in everything from cognitive abilities to parental investment and an increase in things like behavioral issues. The authors of the paper call this the “quantity-quality” trade-off and build on a previous study back in 2010.
The study looked at the eldest child of large families and kept track of how that child fared as each subsequent child was born, and the results are very sad graphs that show those kids get the short end of the education stick, receiving on average 0.13 fewer years of overall education. Eldest girls saw their math and science scores decrease, while eldest boys experienced an increase of behavioral issues.
Basically? In America, a small family makes for a happier family, at least on paper.
In practice, though, this is exactly what the researchers say it is: a trade-off. If you have your very own regulation dodgeball team, it won’t do you much good to worry. You’re in good company among your fellow parents, who will tell you what you probably already know: You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
This study suggests that older kids of large families are unhappy, and they’re probably right (at least sometimes), just like you could dig up a study done on only children or two-sibling households or triplets that would find that those kids are unhappy too. All our kids are unhappy; you just have to pick what kind of unhappy you would like them to be.
Ask only children what they want most in the world, and many of them will tell you “another sibling.” Ask a set of siblings what they want most in the world, and the answer would similarly be “for my brother or sister to fall off the face of the planet.”
The grass is always greener.
The fact is, parenting is a balancing act. Your kids could benefit from more parental involvement, but make sure it’s not too much, or they could end up incapable of caring for themselves. They need discipline, but just the right kind, or you could veer into emotionally damaging territory. We want our kids to eat healthy foods, but we also have to let them have a treat once in a while, or they could end up with unhealthy eating habits anyway. We need them to take school seriously so they’ll succeed later in life, but if we don’t let them blow it off once in a while, they might not succeed after all.
The only thing any parent knows for sure is that we all share a common bond: messing up our kids unintentionally. You will drop the ball on something. What that something is changes and evolves so fast that you’ll never stay ahead of the curve, and even if you do everything exactly right, you’ll find out it was wrong when new evidence to the contrary emerges 15 years from now.
There is only one absolutely foolproof way to ensure you won’t have unhappy, unhealthy kids, and that’s to not have any at all.
Since it might be a little too late for some of us, it’s a much better idea to accept what you can’t change, and that’s that we’re all doing it wrong somehow. Instead of becoming indignant or discouraged when information like this comes out, the only thing you can do is take a deep breath and say:
“I accept that today I will inflict some kind of damage on my kid, but I promise to make it the least amount of damage possible.”
There’s no such thing as the World’s Greatest Mom, but there are plenty of us here in the middle with our giant families and lonely only children and hyper-competitive siblings, striving to be the World’s OKest.