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When it comes to family, one size does not fit all

Seth Christensen, barely 3, doesn't need to look far for mom or dad when he wants something. Kristan Warnick and her husband, Blair Christensen, both therapists, have arranged their work schedules so one of them is nearly always with their only child.

If there's a worry, it's that he might get too much of them and not enough of other people, especially children. So they schedule play dates with neighborhood kids and young relatives, the dual purpose both to make sure he'll fit well in a larger world and he'll know he's not the center of the universe, said Warnick, 45.

It's a completely different issue 40 miles to the south in Saratoga Springs, Utah, where Kyle and Emily Widdison's children live amid what he describes as mostly happy, controlled bedlam in a home where violin practice, homework and playtime may occur simultaneously in different parts of the house. Punctuated, of course, by occasional spats and hurt feelings, because a big family lives there.

Over a three-month period, the Widdison's young brood grew from four to eight kids as Emily, now 33, gave birth to their fifth and they adopted three children they’d been fostering. The kids' ages ranges from 2 to 12.

Both sets of parents consider what family size means to their children — and how they might optimize what they do as parents to ensure their kids can grow up to be well-adjusted, successful adults.

The impact of family size has been studied many times, often across cultures. Who doesn't know about the small families in Scandinavia or China's one-child approach to population? A new study from University of Houston researchers found that as additional children are born into a family, the prospects seem to dim for the earlier-born kids, who don't do as well academically or behaviorally.

But even those who conduct the research or work directly with families say family-size studies don't always reach the same conclusions about what best serves children and their futures.

Professionally, Warnick has seen both singletons who long for more company and children with lots of siblings who sometimes pine to be soloists in what feels like a full-blown choir. Experts say family size — big or small — confers benefits and poses specific challenges to children, whose parents must sort through what each child needs and may not get, then try to provide it.

“We all have holes in our foundation. None of us has got perfect everything, so we can do things to work on it and change paths if needed,” said Warnick, who believes that even at very young ages children may feel insignificant or, conversely, entitled.

Parents with many children and parents with few children can learn from each other, said C. Andrew Zuppann, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Houston. "It's a very economic viewpoint to say people know what's best for themselves and for their family. What we're trying to document is there is this important tradeoff — that it may be worth it, but it's so important to know."

Sorting it out

Asked to name the ideal number of children for a family, more than half of both men and women said two, while more than a quarter set the number at three, according to the recent American Family Survey for the Deseret News and the Brigham Young University Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

Not quite 10 percent selected four children as ideal, while the number selecting five to seven or more children, combined, equaled 3 percent. Those with lower incomes were slightly more likely to prefer either no children or four or more children, compared to those with more income. Regular church attendees were slightly more likely to favor larger families compared to those who don’t attend church.

Family size and what kids need to thrive is “more complicated than it might seem,” said Kay Hymowitz, senior fellow at Manhattan Institute and contributing editor to City Journal. “It does very much depend on the culture in which you’re raising kids.”

She said what kids need and parents provide changes as the world changes. “Right now, with the very competitive global economy and a very meritocratic society, kids need certain kinds of skills that wouldn’t have made much difference 50 or 100 years ago.”

Family size may matter more now, Hymowitz said, because “the kind of intensive parenting that comes with this new economy is much harder to do the more kids there are. Having said that, I think it’s possible to do with any number of kids.”

She said it’s harder in large families to provide “concerted cultivation,” which she described as “a very focused, learning-centered way of child rearing.” It is not about the ABCs, she emphasized, but the “whole panoply of things parents do” to figure out what their child needs, personal strengths and weaknesses and what skills are suited best to each one’s talents.

Challenges abound. Parents who do very well with that concerted cultivation often flop helping kids develop social skills. Children may not learn to share or to manage certain conflicts — skills more naturally acquired in larger families.

“I don’t want to pretend the very learning-centered education and child rearing we see today among middle-class parents in particular is ideal and that it doesn’t pose dangers." said Hymowitz. "But it does hold the best promise for children who are going to succeed in this very difficult economy.”

Conflicting studies

A lot of research shows having more kids is detrimental, said Alex Jensen, an assistant professor in the School of Family Life at BYU. But it’s also clear, he adds, that lone children suffer, too. “Having sibling relationships gives kids lots of opportunities for learning cooperation, for conflict resolution, for dealing with different personalities and attitudes.”

Whether big or small families “win” in studies depends on what’s measured. For instance, an Ohio State University-led study found children with siblings played and related better with classmates in kindergarten, compared to singletons. They were friendlier and better at expressing feelings and empathy.

When that study was published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, co-author Douglas Downey also highlighted his own previous research showing kids in smaller families have better academic achievement because as families grow, parents’ time and economic resources are stretched thinner.

“When you combine the research, what we’ve found is that larger families can have both positive and negative impacts on children,” he said in a written statement.

In a more recent study, reported in the Deseret News in 2014, Downey said children who grew up in large families were less apt to divorce, compared to an only child. Each additional sibling — up to seven — lowered the risk of divorce by 2 percent.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has a list of pluses and minuses of small vs. big families that outlines what works — and what can be broken in either size family if parents are not proactive. They note kids in small families get more individual attention and do better academically. The financial cost is lower and it’s easier for both parents to pursue a career if they want. They cite fewer conflicts, because there are fewer siblings to argue with.

But those upsides come with downsides. “When all the expectations, hopes, and fears are focused on just one child, parents easily can become overprotective and indulgent without even realizing it. The child may have fewer opportunities to meet other children or to develop a sense of independence. She may be pushed to overachieve, and she may receive so much doting attention that she becomes selfish.”

Again, different measures, different results. This January, Houston's Zuppann and his coauthors, using data that followed families for 26 years, reported in a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research that for each additional child born, an older sibling was likely to show lower cognitive abilities and more behavioral problems. Reading and math scores dropped for girls; boys had more behavior problems.

What changed? Not affection, home safety and overall household resources, Zuppann said. But the amount of time parents had for each child did. “We find time is an important factor that changes when you have an additional child,” he said. The change in family size impacted older children; for the youngest child, there's no possible before-and-after comparison.

Zuppann emphasized the study said nothing about happiness.

“It’s possible children are happier in smaller or larger families. I can’t speak to that," he said. "In a sense, that’s the question looming over all of this."

Not all alike

As the saying goes, history is not destiny, either. While there's some consensus that large families tend to be poorer, less educated and more disadvantaged compared to small ones, there are widely acknowledged cultural and religious groups that are exceptions. Zuppann points to Downey's finding that Mormons, for example, seem to have larger families without detriment to the kids. Zuppann explained that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints "can have very large families but also be relatively higher income as well as (have) much higher education levels."

The question, for Jensen, is “What are those groups doing? My opinion is it comes down to social support.” Mormons have a network of adults who interact with children, serving as counselors and teachers in various ways. Other churches or groups likely provide the same benefits, he noted. “Make sure your kids have other mentors in their lives you can trust, who have their interests at heart,” he said.

Kyle Widdison doesn't wonder if his family size is right for his children. Widdison, 35, was one of three kids and sometimes felt lonely. Friends in large families had more options for activities and people with whom to do them.

“With eight kids, there are certainly fights and chaos and all that, but you can rarely be at our house without something happening. And if you want to do something, you can shop around for someone to do it with," he joked.

Navigating relationships in large families, he added, is surprisingly similar to what he sees as a need in the workplace. He is watching his kids develop the ability to resolve conflicts, to compromise and negotiate, and he's sure those life skills will serve them well when they are adults.

Primed to thrive

Experts agree there’s no perfect-size family. As Hymowitz put it, “the demands are different.” So are steps to get the best of both worlds. Children's needs can be met in any size family as long as parents are aware of the challenges and committed to overcoming them.

She said parents can capture advantages that would not automatically occur because of family size. Observe "alternative ways of thinking about child rearing and try to incorporate some of the skills you might not naturally come to.”

Warnick emphasized that just being in the same place as a child is not the same as really being with that child. Lots of parents are distracted by their own emotional issues, addictions, even workaholism and do not give their children their focus.

The APA said expectations for all children must be realistic and each needs many adult mentors, as well as opportunities to explore and develop independence.

Jensen's not convinced there's a sure-fire recipe for helping all children thrive. “I don’t know if it’s one-on-one time. I don’t know if it’s they just need to feel loved. … It probably depends on the kid. That’s where having more kids becomes hard, because the best parents are thoughtful about what each individual child needs, not just treating them as a group.”

Some kids, he said, may do better in small groups; some might need individual attention.

He tells parents to pay attention to resources, from time to money and the things it buys. “If you have 10 kids, but can only afford one computer and they all have to do homework on it, they are not getting that resource,” said Jensen. He said extracurricular activities, buying clothes and family recreation "become a little more challenging when you have more kids.”

He recently completed research in which many kids whose older siblings have left home complained they’re getting too much attention — and scrutiny. That’s one advantage in bigger families, he said. “I am big on kids playing outside and exploring, having a chance to do things on their own without parental supervision right on top of them. With more kids, you have to learn to be OK with that. I think that can be really healthy.”

The Widdisons are deliberate in carving out time with each kid. They also do “small group” time. They do chores alongside the kids. They help with homework individually. At age 12, each child gets a trip alone with mom and dad. He coaches some of their sports teams. The kids often trade in stars they earn doing chores for a lunch date with their mom.

Kyle said parents actually have lots of time over the day to be with a child if they look for it. “The challenge is to be more present with each of the children when they’re there,” he said. “I try to be there when it’s family time. I can adjust my schedule (he co-founded a construction company), work a couple of hours before they wake up and be there in the morning. I haven’t missed breakfast or dinner in years. You have to take advantage of all the opportunities that exist naturally.”

Added Emily, “This is the time to put in the elbow grease work so they can have the time they need.”

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco