Taking sides: The more the merrier
Big family, more fun
by Liz Breslin
I'm one of four siblings. Mum always said she loved us so much she'd be happy to keep going until she Had a soccer team. Dad had other ideas. He says, "I thought, hippy style, we'd just replace ourselves - then we found out that some relatives weren't going to have children so we selfLessly replaced them too. 'Tis fun in the breeding but hell in the feeding'." Thanks, Dad.
My childhood was hectic. I learned to talk loud, eat fast (especially if I wanted any seconds), and get up early if I wanted the cream from the top of the milk for my Weetbix. There was always someone to do dress-ups with, always someone to have a punch-up against (the long-running battle of the Bucketheads versus the TuffLeheads was legendary) and always someone else to look out for or up to in the playground. We shared bedrooms, story times and clothes. Resources may have been short but Mum's love was, and is, boundless for us all. And I wouldn't have it any other way, even though she usually runs through all four of her offsprings' names before she remembers which one of us she's actually talking to.
But fast-forward 30 years and only one of the families at our local school has four kids - the trend around here is a perfect pair or an only lonely. Yeah, I know it's terribly politically incorrect to call them that, but really, how fun is breakfast when you're four and it's not a battle or a race?
Having one offspring, or none at all, is apparently the environmentally responsible thing, but some western societies are breeding, or rather not breeding, themselves out of existence in this way. How do we know? Statisticians gather birth, immigration and mortality rates to come up with a total fertility rate of a country. In most parts of the western world, 10 women would have to have 21 children between them for the populations to effectively replace themselves. In some parts of Europe those 10 women are having as few as 13 kids between them. And that's a serious sub-replacement rate. The Guardian Weekly recently ran an article about Germany's need to find "an economic solution to the timebomb of the 1.3 fertility rate".
Here in New Zealand we're bucking that trend, although we're nowhere near the Baby Boomer rates, when 43 kids would have been born to those 10 women. According to a 2009 report in The New Zealand Herald, our current birth rates show 10 women are now having 22 babies. So we're replacing ourselves. Just.
Young women, according to Mansoor Khawaja, principal demographer at Statistics NZ, appear to be refusing to follow their mothers' decisions to have few children later in life.
"It's very interesting that every generation reverses the pattern of their mothers. They go back to their grandmothers," Mansoor Khawaja is quoted saying.
And good on them too, I say. It's all very well thinking you're going to lavish all your love and attention on your only child, give them all the opportunities you never had and ensure their early lives are enchanting. But what happens when you get old and that one child has to support you alone? That'll be a major problem for China with its 4:2:1 family structure going on. Four grandparents, two parents and one Little Emperor.
The generation of "Little Emperors" created by the controversial One Child Policy and doted on by their families will grow up to face the harsh economic reality of supporting their parents. And these singular brats (whether Chinese or homegrown) are hardly well-equipped for this shift in responsibilities. As Lori Reese points out in her much-quoted article in Time International, "Though many of these precocious kids can recite the English alphabet or read newspapers in traditional Chinese characters by the time they're 10, their parents often still perform basic tasks for them: fixing their hair, tying their shoes, wiping their bottoms." There's no danger of this when growing up in a larger family: my sister-in-law has a great photo of her and my husband sitting in the bathroom. He's on the loo and she's sitting next to him in order to oversee his toilet training. Big families are useful that way - more kids mean more help around the house. A bonus for parents!
And kids also benefit from being part of larger families - learning from each other's mistakes, asserting their opinions and preferences and finding co-operative strategies that will set them in good stead whatever they do in life. Yes, I know that apparently first-borns and only children are, according to Birth Order Believers, likely to be world rulers and high achievers. But come on! A classroom, an office space or a committee full of leaders would be a nightmare. We owe it to our kids to allow them to develop effective socialisation skills and a sense of empathy with their peers. Just like we did in the Battle of the Bucketheads versus the Tuffleheads.
But let's widen it up even further. Family's not just about the kids. Whether you call it whakapapa or genealogy, there are important histories to maintain. Do you really want to leave the burden of your family finances, stories and spokesmanship to one child? Look what's happening to traditional family structures. Where once the power lay with the older generation, who had a number of young offspring and followers, now the trend is for the old to bow to the young. How will they handle that pressure?
It's an interesting point of tension that what is supposedly best for our planet is so at odds with our primal urges. Of course, the size of your family can come down as much to practicalities as preferences. But let's not just bleat, "One kid gooood - three kids baaaaad". Love and learning can expand along with your family. Enjoy the ride.
Liz Breslin is a freelance writer based in Hawea Flat, Otago. Her short stories, poetry and articles, including a series of opinion pieces called "Mum's the Word", have been published in New Zealand and overseas. She has also written a play called Losing Faith: A Tale of PND, exploring the issues of postnatal depression through the constraints of coffee group culture. She is the mother of twins, Dylan James and Lauren Marie, aged seven.
One child policy
by Laura Williamson
"He'll be spoiled."
"He'll be lonely."
"You don't want him to be an only child!"
The last one is my favourite. I hear it a lot. It is always said as if the words "only child" fall somewhere between "brat" and "recidivist criminal" on the social misfit scale. There is something about "only" that implies criticism. It suggests "merely", as if to be a sole child is substandard, a lesser form of childhood, a family unfulfilled.
Before I had my son Liam, I hadn't thought of it this way. An only child myself, I never wanted a big family and it never occurred to me to have one; nor did it occur to me that a lack of brothers and sisters was unusual, much less wrong. Yet people comment on Liam's status, often in front of him, as if it were some sort of affliction.
If it is an affliction, it's one that's on the rise. As women wait until later to start their families, and return to work sooner and in higher numbers, they are having fewer children. A quarter of American women have only one child, a figure that has more than doubled in 20 years. In Portugal, 31% of women in their late thirties have a single offspring. My own family is typical of this. My great grandfather was one of 18, my father one of five, and my son will be one. Is Liam really worse off than his predecessors?
My dad doesn't think so. He raised me as an only child, and says he worried about my singleton status. But when he had a second family 20 years later, this time with two kids, he changed his mind.
"I realised you benefited from the unfiltered contact with adults. Parents with lots of children tend to isolate them because they're noisy and exhausting. You joined in on adult conversation, with all of its different perspectives."
I agree. I don't remember being lonely as a child. I remember being enthralled, surrounded by fascinating people who could explain astronomy to me in one breath, mythology the next and who never talked down to me just because I was little.
Plenty has been written about how birth order affects personality and achievement. Famously, a high percentage of astronauts and Nobel Prize winners have been first-borns. One theory is that the first child has his or her parents' undivided attention and simply gets spoken to more often.
So it goes with singletons. According to The American Journal of Sociology, "In academic areas, only children have the advantage". As explained on the Family Education website, "The extra time only children spend interacting with adults frequently gives them a leg-up academically and socially … only children are often star performers at school."
In fact, the only real drawback only children may face is the misperception that their lack of siblings is a drawback. Judith Blake, author of Family Size and Achievement, found a high number of people surveyed thought only children were disadvantaged. When asked why, a majority cited some sort of personality defect, including being "self-centred, domineering, anxious, quarrelsome, spoiled or overprotected".
Yet there is no evidence that this is so. So why the stigma? It may be historic. G. Stanley Hall, the father of child psychology, called being an only child "a disease" in 1896. Certainly, back in Hall's day, having one child was not ideal. Infant mortality was high and offspring were an asset, extra hands, say, on the farm. A lone child hinted at a problem: infertility or marital strife.
Times change, though, and now the practical reasons for having a house full of kids are few. In fact, siblings can cause more than a few problems. "Understanding Society", a University of Essex survey, found that, far from being the lonely, vindictive geeks of stereotype, only children are happier than their siblinged peers.
"Quarrelling siblings increase stress for parents and some [parents] just give up intervening or intervene inconsistently, leaving the field wide open for the bully sibling," wrote one researcher. Brothers and sisters, it seems, can be pretty mean.
Sure, you say, but that passes, and you don't really value your siblings until you become an adult - a sibling is a companion for life. Maybe. But maybe not. As my friend Jen, complaining of family pressure to have a second child, said: "They keep saying Sara needs a sibling or she'll be lonely when she's an adult. But I hate my sister!"
Will Liam feel lonely later on? Will we, his ageing parents, become a burden he will have to bear on his own? Who knows? Maybe I'll live to be 112 and he'll have to take out a second mortgage to pay for my diet of mashed peas and angina medication. Or maybe I'll be run over crossing the street tomorrow. There are no guarantees.
For now, he seems to be doing fine. Sure, sometimes he doesn't want to share. Just like every kid I know. Sure, sometimes he interrupts, but so do his little friends, all of whom have siblings. If anything, he monopolises my time less, because he gets on with playing on his own, inventing his own games, his own worlds, without the need for my, or anyone's, intervention.
And when we do play together, something wonderful happens. It's not Liam who acts like an adult to fit in with me, but me who acts like a child. I clamber into the sandpit with him, dig ditches, plough roads and make truck noises, up to my elbows in muck. All the good things a sibling might do. I even let him boss me around a bit, just for fun. And that can only be good for both of us.
Laura Williamson is a Wanaka-based freelance writer and editor who has been published in newspapers here and overseas over the past 15 years. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child magazine, she writes a regular column for Spoke, a New Zealand cycling publication, she is the Wanaka correspondent for QT Magazine and has written for the Otago Daily Times. Her son Liam is now six.