The ideal number of kids in a family: Four (at a minimum)

By Timothy P. Carney, in

Timothy P. Carney is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs To Be.”

“How do you do it?”

As parents of an unusually large brood, my wife and I get that question a lot. Sometimes I respond by bragging about my mass-produced breakfast sandwiches and zoo-trip techniques.

But if I’m honest, there are two truer answers to “How do you do it?” One is that we don’t do a lot of things: travel sports, twee Saturday morning arts and crafts, Disney World.

The other is that the “you” who makes Sunday morning breakfast, assembles Ikea furniture and walks the first-grader to school is our older kids. The best way to make parenting and childhood happier and less stressful is to have more kids, not fewer of them.

I grew up with three older brothers, and my wife is the fourth of eight (and so we met in the middle and have six kids). What we learned from our childhood families, and what the social science affirms, is that many of the supposed demands of modern parenthood are really just the demands of a misguided culture.

It’s typical to describe shrinking families as progress. “With fewer children to support,” Brookings Institution scholar Isabel Sawhill once wrote, “parents and society can both invest more in each child, helping them to climb the ladder and become productive citizens in their adult years.”

Economists have a charming name for this approach: the quantity-quality trade-off. I chuckle that my wife and I (and our parents before us) obviously chose the “quantity” option. But I also know this framing is a lie.

There’s nothing high-qualityabout the intensive parenting that is typical in today’s middle and upper-middle classes. Racing your kid from school to tutoring session to a travel tournament robs them of crucial elements of childhood: independence, self-determination and some salutary boredom. This rat race might increase your kids’ odds of an Ivy League acceptance or a Division I scholarship, but it almost certainly deprives them of some of the habits, experiences and virtues that make happy adults.

Studies show that more parental control yields more anxiety and depression. Children who have more independent play not only have a lot of fun but also get to develop “capacities for coping with life’s inevitable stressors.”

Letting children off the leash is good for them and for parents, but our culture tells parents to tighten the collar on the false belief that we can control our children’s outcomes.

A large clan disabuses parents of the illusion of control. Those of us with larger families mostly know that we cannot micromanage our kids’ lives, and so we don’t try — and everyone ends up happier. In 2018, when “Today” commissioned a survey of 7,000 U.S. mothers, it found that while mothers of three were more stressed than moms of one or two, mothers of four were less stressed.

In larger families, independent play doesn’t need to mean a choice between loneliness or the frantic scramble for a play date. Bored kids with multiple siblings have live-in playmates with whom to play make-believe or front-yard Wiffle ball.

The long-term impact of such built-in company is borne out in a Norwegian study of 114,500 children that found that those in larger households had better mental health. And there’s nothing better for socializing kids than giving them roommates with whom to play, argue, plot, fight and make up. “Siblings smooth our rough edges,” as psychologist and mother of 13 Anne Perrottet puts it.

The biggest difference, though, isn’t about parenting practices but about philosophy.

Smaller households, where the parents adhere to the quality-over-quantity mind-set, tend to become child-centric. In the best circumstances, this teaches the children to focus all their energies on self-improvement to maximize individual success.

The best large-family model is neither child-centric nor parent-centric but family-centric. Everyone has roles to play in pursuit of a common good. Children in this model still have the freedom and independence to decide who they want to be but aren’t crafting their life scripts on a blank page: They’re establishing their identities in relation to their parents, siblings and cousins.

A larger family is less exhausting for parents not because everyone minds their own business but because parents aren’t trying to quarterback the entire family. In a large family, parents foster a family culture, and that culture — perpetuated by everyone in the family — does the work day in and day out.

Of course, this isn’t easy. The early years, with four little kids, could be maddening on occasion. But still, many of my wife’s favorite memories come from this time.

On an unseasonably cool July day 10 years ago, we left the windows open so that we could hear our four children playing in the backyard.

My wife, Katie, and I sat in the living room and didn’t talk much. Our hearts too occupied with the sounds floating past the curtains: laughter, delighted screams, childhood voices conjuring up imaginary worlds. It’s hard to describe the joy of witnessing your children freely loving one another’s company. They were ages 8 and younger, but in that moment, we felt like we had succeeded as parents.

I wanted to go out and join them because it sounded like they were having so much fun. I didn’t, because I knew I had to give these four the gift of independence — and because I had to stay inside with Katie, who was at that moment in labor with Baby No. 5.

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