Friday, January 30, 2009

How do you parent in a really big family?

The internet is abuzz with news of the California mother of six who just gave birth to octuplets.

My sciatic nerve twinged a little bit just writing that.

Now, the birth raises a lot of questions about selective termination, infertility treatment, and the medical and moral issues surrounding mega-pregnancies, and the newly reported information about the woman's marital status (single) and employment status (not) raises several more, but over at's Child Caring blog, I'm sticking to the parenting part of the equation and asking: How does one manage with 14 kids, the oldest of whom is just 7 years old?

Most large families grow slowly, one child at a time, or maybe a set of twins. Even in a blended family, it's rare to suddently need eight new carseats all at once. The average US family has two kids, according to US census data, but just a generation ago a family with four kids wasn't considered all that "big," writes Meagan Francis, author of "Table for Eight: Raising a Large Family in a Small-Family World" and editor of

"In 1976 – the year before I was born – an American woman had a 36 percent chance of giving birth to four or more children in her lifetime, and about 60 percent of women had families of three children or more," she writes. "But according to the latest census, the number of women who can expect to have three or more has been cut to 29 percent, while those with four or more children has dwindled to 10 percent. And as the number of mothers having more than a couple of kids has dwindled, so has understanding of families that don’t fit the two-kid mold."

When society seems geared toward families of four (total), parenting a large family presents some unique challenges.

"Space -- where will everybody sleep? Is there enough room at the dining-room table?" Francis, who is expecting her fifth child, says. "Time -- how do I give each child the attention he deserves? But I've found that space issues are easy enough to work around -- as it turns out, most kids don't "need" the huge play areas and solo bedrooms we've become accustomed to giving them, and in some ways, parenting lots of kids is easier than one or two."

It's easy to imagine the cons, but there are pros to having a large family, too. "Big families may often be noisy and chaotic, but siblings also provide each other with built-in companions, meaning children in a big family may play more cohesively and crave less entertainment from Mom and Dad," Francis points out. "Of course, big families also mean that siblings may get in more trouble, and then cover up for each other."

"Parents of many children usually quickly determine that, if they're going to maintain a big household, every family member has to chip in, except the infants," she says. "Having regular chores encourages kids to develop responsibility and feel like competent team members, something many contemporary children don't get to experience."

How big is your family, and what challenges do you face with the number of children you already have?

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