By Colin Brazier
The Daily Mail
After four years of research, the TV news presenter has proved what he instinctively thought was right: larger families are happier, healthier, better adjusted – and deeply discriminated against…
Edith likes the big swings. Agnes and Constance are devoted to the roundabout. Gwendolyn enjoys the slide.
Only Katharine is immune to the attractions of the local playground. At four months old, the walk there in the buggy is usually enough to induce a deep sleep.
Peering occasionally beyond my magazine, I am relaxed too. And, as such, I am in a growing minority.
Everywhere I look, it seems, there are parents solicitously hovering around an only child.
Some still have time to shoot me disapproving looks. I am clearly not engaging as a father. And what about my feral brood, hollering and scolding one another?
But look closely and you will see there is something else happening. Edith is helping Gwendolyn up the climbing-frame ladder. Agnes is cajoling Connie to speed up on the roundabout.
They are flying in the face of paranoid parenting. They are learning how to manage risk.
I like large families. My mother, a Yorkshirewoman, was one of nine, I was one of four and my wife Jo, a former foreign editor at Sky, one of three.
We have five daughters, but after the first was born we struggled to have more until Jo eventually became pregnant. Then, it was hard not to see pregnancy as anything other than a blessing.
But my interest in large families goes beyond the joy and challenge of being a parent.
I have become more and more convinced that parents, for little reason, are often frightened off having more than two children and that they should think again.
Last week, I put together what I’d learned in an article for the think tank Civitas about the social and economic benefits of large families.
Others have their worries as well. Entrepreneurs such as the former head of the, CBI Sir Digby Jones, say Britain’s youngsters are wrapped in cotton wool. We are not producing enough risk-takers to remain globally competitive.
Educationalists fret about a shortage of the social skills required by a successful knowledge-based economy.
I believe both demands can be met by well adjusted children whose hard edges have been softened by often abrasive contact with brothers, sisters or a mixture of both.
There is a mounting wealth of evidence to show that a child with siblings is happier, healthier and, in the long run, safer than a child of the same social background without them.
Which is good news for the children of the rich and poor. The well and badly off are still having large families. It is those on middle incomes – the coping classes – who have stopped.
Faced with the crushing costs of child-care, they forgo a second child to stay in work and pay the mortgage.
Inflation has a limited impact for those on benefits or trust funds, but for those in between the cost of living is more than just business jargon. The cost of a new life is too high.
Moving to a bigger home to accommodate a growing family becomes impossible. There are few more effective contraceptives than the housing market.
A good friend recently told me he would ‘stick on two’ children because he could not afford a people carrier. He explained there was no way his saloon car could fit three child seats.
The Government insists on them but now also proposes to tax your average
Ford Galaxy as a ‘gas guzzler’.
Little wonder the ‘baby gap’ – the widening gulf between the number of children Britons want and the number they actually have – is now put at 90,000 a year.
My second daughter, Agnes, was born on March 19, 2003. It was the night Washington began the ground war against Saddam.
While Jo was in a Brussels maternity unit, I was sitting in a Humvee with the first invading American troops as an embedded Sky TV reporter.
Broadcasting live outside Baghdad a month later, I remember listening in to a report about the rising cost of having a child. I made a note of it – £180,000. It struck me as a bogus figure then and, three children later, more so.
It ignores economies of scale – the handed-down toys and clothes, the shared baths and heating. These apparent privations are beneficial.
My children share bedrooms from necessity. But consider the side effects. Allergic conditions like asthma, eczema and hay fever are less chronic in bigger families.
Sharing a bedroom at an early stage seems to increase the number of infections caught from brothers or sisters and stimulates the immune system. The more siblings, the greater the resistance.
One study, of half a million Army conscripts, revealed that one in ten only-children developed asthma. In the largest families the figure was closer to one in 200.
In 2005, 27 children under the age of 14 died of asthma in Britain – a child is said to be admitted to hospital with the condition every 19 minutes.
Statistics also link big families to a reduced risk of serious diseases, including leukaemia, cancer and diabetes.
Are they also fitter? Parents might let children walk to school when there is safety in numbers.
Big families can also be an antidote to boredom. From hide-and-seek to tag, calorie-burning games are easier to sustain with more participants.
Older siblings, often grudgingly, act in loco parentis. Speak to someone who grew up in a big family and they will often say there was always someone there for them.
Siblings can be the surest confidants children have. More siblings bring a wider range of advice.
A 13-year-old girl with a first-time crush might ask very different questions of an older brother or sister than of her parents.
Sometimes the problem is more serious. Take bullying. The sympathetic ear of a sibling is not governed by rules of confidentiality that bind counsellors. A sibling can be a shoulder to cry on and a whistleblower – simultaneously.
Children with siblings cope with divorcing parents more positively. Whether it is the loss of a parent through relationship breakdown or death, bigger families offer a support network.
Those with siblings divorce less as adults. Some experts say that is because larger families encourage conflict resolution and discourage instant gratification, and because an understanding of the opposite sex is hard-wired into larger families with a mix of boys and girls.
This is common sense, is it not? As I dug into the data I became aware of how academia and the ‘parenting establishment’ ignore the obvious.
I would not want a return to the days when only-children were stigmatised. But many parenting experts are now as likely to question the wisdom of having a ‘middle child’ – the natural by-product of big families.
A US study of 20,000 children found that membership of the awkward squad often hinged on ‘sibship’ (sociologist-speak for family size).
Results, controlled for economic circumstances, showed that children from larger families got into fewer fights, made friends more quickly and kept more of them.
The report’s authors say their data makes ‘a compelling case for the position that children hone social and interpersonal skills through sibling interactions at home, and these skills then become useful outside’. Is it a coincidence that Britain’s best-paid communicator, Jonathan Ross, is one of six?
Some middle-class parents think they can bypass this, using ‘playdates’ to socialise children and extra activities to boost school results. But a reduction in quantity does not necessarily mean greater quality.
Another survey, of 22,000 French school-leavers, found exam performance improved with an additional sibling if the parent was ‘an educated professional’.
The children benefited from ‘trickle-down family know-how’. Research involving the entire population of Norway concluded: ‘The eldest child acts as a teacher for the younger children and learns how to organise information and present it.’
Studies show only-children underperforming those with a sibling, especially in maths. Singletons more often have divorced or absent parents but remain at a disadvantage even with those factors stripped away.
The power of the norm – call it fertility correctness – is highly seductive for parents who want to avoid decades of what one expert evocatively dubbed the ‘parenting emergency’.
We increasingly live in a world where all family sizes are of equal worth. Except they are not. Because larger families increasingly face ridicule and outright vilification.
In Britain, mothers are invested with ‘Superwoman’ status if they hold down a senior job and have several children.
The author Amanda Foreman, writing about her large family, said she was often made to feel ‘freakish’. Sticks and stones. But worse is to come.
Some environmentalists want extra taxes for any parent with more than two children to reduce carbon emissions. Bin taxes and water metering are the thin end of the wedge. They are environmental measures that penalise large families disproportionately.
Yet large families carefully husband resources. A four-person household uses half as much electricity per capita as a home for one.
The number of men living alone has tripled since 1971. The green gains of declining fertility in the West are more than offset by solitary living.
The tax and benefits system, while helping the poorest larger families, has left those on average earnings worse off. No matter how hard middle-income parents work, if they have a big family, private education is unattainable.
In the independent sector there is only modest discounting for multiple siblings even where largesse might be expected. Catholic schools offer only nominal incentives to
fee-paying parents whose large families are living proof of adherence to Vatican dogma.
In State education, recent changes to the ‘sibling rule’ are deeply troubling. Until now, a parent securing a place at a good school for one child expected younger siblings would automatically follow.
Now, some partially selective schools have ditched that principle. It is difficult to imagine a greater disincentive to having another child than a school run of several different stops each day.
Out of term time things do not improve. At theme parks a family ticket admits two adults and two children.
A similarly nuclear definition applies to family hotel rooms. In America and on the Continent, large families have banded together to lobby businesses and government to make life easier for broods producing a bumper crop of customers, workers and taxpayers for the next generation.
This has been the week, after all, when British pensioners finally outnumbered under-16s.
But in the UK, the State sends out a powerful signal as it reduces child benefit with each birth, the reverse of what happens in France. There, thousands of families each year win the Medaille de la Famille Francaise, with a bronze for four children, up to gold for eight or more.
Germany’s minister for families, mother-of-seven Ursula von der Leyen, has also woken up to the idea of rewarding bigger families.
In both countries, encouraging births remains an awkward subject. Napoleon and Hitler encouraged population growth for their own ends.
Neither country sends delegates to meetings of the European Large Families Confederation. But nor does Britain, with seemingly less cause.
There are plenty of charities in Britain protecting children’s rights; none advocates the right to a sibling.
My critics are not short of material. Many will take umbrage at a man telling women to have more children.
That is not my message. Not everyone can have or wants a big family. But many do and are thwarted.
Women once had no control over their family size and were condemned to lives of domestic drudgery. Now they are mistresses of their own fertility.
Parents who have a big family nowadays usually do so because they want one.
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