Your sense of the ideal family size is probably based in your own upbringing, and often depends on whether your family arrangement worked well for you or not. For instance, if you were happy being raised in a large family, like Jeannie Ralston, writing for Parenting.com, you might want to furnish your kids with an upbringing just like your own. On the other hand, if your childhood in a large family involved a lot of sibling rivalry and frazzled parents, you might want to pare it down a bit. Or, if you were an only child and dreamed of a sibling, you might be determined to have at least two children. (Or, you might not: plenty of only children are perfectly happy with the arrangement.)
Of course, your particular preference in terms of family size isn’t the only factor that will ultimately determine how many kids you wind up having: for starters, you and your partner have to be on the same page, because there’s no way to compromise (if you want 2 kids and they want 3, one or the other of you is going to lose that argument). Second of all, kids are incredibly expensive: according to the Department of Agriculture, in 2011, it cost a middle-class family over $286,000 to raise a child from birth to age 17, and it’s probably even more now. Finally, women are having children later and later in life, and that can put a cap on how many children you can have if and when fertility issues kick in.
There are pros and cons to every family size, and the correct answer to “how many kids should I have?” is going to differ for every family. So let’s go through some of the advantages and disadvantages of some of the most common arrangements.
Pros: More families than ever are having only children – Psychology Today refers to it as The New Traditional Family. This isn’t always intentional, due to the factors mentioned above, but it does mean that a lot of the annoying myths about only children being maladjusted or spoiled are slowly drifting away. And they really are just myths: only children score just as well as kids with siblings on tests exploring character traits, they are not more self-involved, and the occasional solitude doesn’t mean they’re lonelier (although it may mean that they’re better at entertaining themselves).
Onlies benefit from the full attention and income of their parents as they grow up, and since the main interaction in their life is with adults, they may also be adorably precocious.
Cons: Although the myths about onlies have been thoroughly debunked, well-meaning relatives and friends may still nag you about how your child “needs” a sibling. Parents of one also tend to have a laser focus on that one child, holding high expectations of achievement and a greater fear of accidents or illness. Be careful not to “bubble wrap” your kid!
Also: while this is a terribly grim point to make, do you really want your kid to face taking care of you when you’re elderly on her own?
Pros: Two kids is the “normal” family size in America: according to Pew Research, as the number of children per family has steadily dropped, almost half of Americans now say that two is ideal. The only way you’re going to catch any flak is if you have two girls or two boys – someone is bound to ask you whether you’re trying for a third. Feel free to ignore them.
Parents of two also appreciate how the older child may take on a caretaker role, or at the very least, is going to pitch in to keep the younger child entertained. That built-in playmate factor goes a long way. And if you have a good relationship with that sibling as an adult? Speaking from experience, that is absolutely priceless.
Having a second child also takes away some of the temptation to overprotect either child. If you thought the bit about caring for you when you’re elderly was grim: in one study, a substantial percentage of parents said their main motivation in having a second child was “Not to be left childless in the case of death of only child.”
Cons: Some parents maintain that the jump from one child to two is even more stressful than the jump from zero to one. This seems to be mostly an issue of having two kids at very needy ages at the same time: a newborn needs to be rocked and changed constantly, while a toddler is constantly jockeying for your attention.
Also: if you have two kids, they will fight. It’s normal, and seems to be pretty universal: I’ve seen a lot of articles about how to prevent sibling rivalry, but not a single one where someone claims that they never fought with their siblings. It’s not the end of the world, and it may teach your kids about conflict resolution and sharing, but it’s not pleasant.
Pros: You are now a baby expert: as mom of three Laura writes at Short-Winded Blog, “I can nurse a baby, change a diaper, or teach a baby to sleep like nothing.” The tasks that seemed so monumental with your first child? You’re totally chill about them now.
You also may be giving an inadvertent gift to your middle child: they may not appreciate getting less attention while they’re children, but that also may also force them to be more creative and independent, giving them a leg up in adulthood. Did you know that 52% of American presidents were middle children? If you’re aiming for the White House, have three kids!
Cons: You are now outnumbered by your children, and you may find that two of the kids gang up on the third. Gina at Scary Mommy described her experience of being the third child with twin brothers as follows:
“This is something that still remains fresh in my mind. My brothers got along very well. And then there was me. The only girl. If one of them lied to my parents and told them I was the one that broke the planter, they had each other’s back in the treachery. In fights, one brother sided with the other, against me.”
You may also need to purchase a minivan, although we’re total advocates for the extra space and convenience. If you’re really determined to avoid the minivan, though, Diono and Clek both offer car seats that can fit three across.
Logistics can also be wild: try getting out of the house with three small children! Some of the baby gear that lasted for two won’t last for three. And the logistical problems will transform as they get older, since they may not all go to the same day care or the same school.
4 AND MORE CHILDREN
Pros: Mike Sellers, a seasoned dad on Quora, describes 4 and 6 as “stable numbers”: he writes, “Several different pairings between the kids are possible for playing, reading, etc. You’re an awesome, professional parent by now, and 4 doesn’t make you any more tired than 3… not much throws you anymore. The older kids can help out. And the per-kid expenses go down each time.”
The kids are also going to pick up all sorts of beneficial social skills from the constant negotiation for resources and attention, and no single child is going to be carrying all parental expectations.
Plus, on a totally frivolous note: if you really enjoy picking out names, you get to do it again! And again! And again!
And while some people will be judgmental about your family size (ignore them!) or rude about the presence of your boisterous brood in the local family restaurant, others will believe that you’re an expert, never to be challenged with regards to parenting. You may not feel like an expert – in the matter of fact, you may feel like you’re losing your mind on a daily basis – but at least other people will be impressed.
Cons: One parent is almost certainly going to have to stay home and take care of the kids. It’s usually the mom, but not always: it may be Dad, or if you’re lucky, you can hire a really great nanny or two. There’s also a lot of noise, and while hand-me-downs do cut costs, there are still more expenses (there is no such thing as hand-me-down food). Oh god, and what if one of them gets sick and then all of them do? And you are DEFINITELY outnumbered. And there’s no skipping the purchase of a van this time around.
But obviously these are only some of the factors to weigh when considering family size, and I bet you have plenty of other reasons you can share about why your family arrangement is just right for you. Tell us about it in the comments!