Something Sgt. Mom, over at Chicago Boyz, posted today make me think about the vital roles that larger families play in the development of children, and how they assist in the maturation process.

She posted about the experiences of children in the Baby Boom, when it was the norm to raise Free-Range Children, who managed their own neighborhood relationships, without excessive parental interference. Such children grew into adults who were, largely, able to handle their own life without leaning on their parents long after reaching the age of adulthood.

That type of childhood is largely facilitated by the presence of older and younger siblings, both in the child’s immediate family, as well as the parent’s. The spread of family members fills in the gaps between parent and child, and allows people other than parents – who have a vested, familial interest in the outcome of conflicts – to occasionally assist with guidance and mediation.

Yes, brothers and sisters can demonstrate physical aggression, hostility, and just plain meanness on occasion. They can also be led to show compassion, help teach some of life’s hard lessons, and protect family members from bullying. I wonder if at least some of the rise in bullying is because the bullies no longer fear retribution from outraged family members. Brothers and sisters will often know what’s happening at school before either the parents or the school staff get a whiff of trouble. Back in the day, many bullies were deterred by the thought that they would have to face that older sibling, should they bully the wrong kid.

Larger families are often believed to be unaffordable. This is wrong for several reasons:

  • The initial cost is large, but for subsequent children, the infrastructure is present. No need to buy most of the furniture new for the next kid, such as strollers, car seat, crib, etc. For many families, the biggest initial cost is the loss of a second paycheck, That cost will not increase with additional kids.
  • Once the commitment to managing on one paycheck is made, purchases such as homes and cars are viewed with an eye to how affordable they are for the chosen lifestyle. For that reason, it’s important for families not to lock in a lifestyle that requires two paychecks. From the start, they should commit to living on one paycheck (as soon as possible – sometimes, prior debt must be cleared first).
  • College is one big expense that is often brought up. This negates the tuition reduction that comes with more family dependents. It also puts more pressure on the graduate to choose his/her college, and major, with an eye to the best bang for the buck. That’s a feature, not a bug, as kids SHOULD learn that budgets are necessary.
  • Seeing the example of parents working as a team for maximum family good is a wonderful model for life. That team experience comes years before sports participation, and has a greater impact on their character.
  • Budgeting, a necessity for nearly all larger families, allows kids to learn about the value of prioritizing needs over wants. It might also prod some of the older kids to get a part-time job – that experience alone is priceless. Better a paid job that a make-work “internship” – the lessons a REAL job teaches are beyond compare.

In today’s neighborhoods, the larger family is often a magnet for the “lonely onlies”. The solo child gets swept in the melee, and gains an understanding of how more-or-less equals – the kids – learn to bargain, discuss, disagree, and make up. What they learn in that smaller arena will serve them well in career and life.


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