Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Large families, older siblings, and vocabulary

There are many articles (though I use the term loosely as they belong more on the Op Ed page) about the disadvantages of growing up in a large family. Some of them are so critical you would almost think it was a form of child abuse to selfishly have more than one or two children. Since most of them are so far from reality and written with obvious bias, I just ignore them.

Sometimes, though, one comes across my path that I just can't leave alone. Such was the one I happened upon today from Reuters titled, "Sibling Relationships Tied to Children's Vocabulary Skills". It's not that the whole article was bad. They did try to point out something positive about large families, though in a 'with friends like these...' back-handed sort of way. The gist of the article is this. Parents obviously have less time to spend with younger children of a large family and thus their vocabularies suffer based on standardized tests. But, if those young children have older siblings who are engaged and interact appropriately with them, then all is not lost and the younger children might score better on tests. What caught my interest the most was the amazing ability to take what I think is one of the strengths of a large family and turn it inside out and make it sound marginally positive at best.

First let's tackle the whole idea of parents not having as much time for the youngest children in a family. Now, I am not so naive as to think every large family out there is a paragon of family unity and excellent parenting. Just because parents have many children does not mean they are excellent parents, but on the other hand, just because parents have one or two children does not make them excellent parents, either. Family size does not determine ones ability to parent... going either way.

Though I know it is difficult of people with smaller families to imagine, but I do have time for all of my children. I make a point of it. I love my children and enjoy spending time with them. It may not always be individual time, but since when is that a requirement? (Oh, and just because it is a familiar complaint, my older children do NOT raise my younger ones. J. and I do. The older children may help out, but we are responsible for raising all of our children. Can you tell how tired I get of this statement?) In fact, if you were to ask my children, I'm pretty sure every single one would tell you that they are quite content with the amount of parental attention that they have. When I mention how much more attention I could give them if there were fewer in the family, some of them actually quiver with horror. Children don't necessarily want or need 100% full time parental attention.

One last comment of this point, just to show the blind spot in this thinking. Mothers of large families are often vilified for not giving their children all the attention those children need and deserve, despite the fact that most if us are home with our children all day. Yet, those parents who work full-time and spend 40 hours a week away from their children are not the recipients of quite the same accusations. I'm not trying to contribute the Mommy Wars, just pointing out the disparity in the tone of the articles that are published. And yes, I'm also quite aware that working mothers are the recipients of just as much vitriol. My point is, it gets tiring hearing others condemn your family choices out of hand.

But what I want to get to is the idea that children who come later in the birth order are somehow intellectually stunted. This is where real life experience can shed some light on this phenomenon. Living with children who are numbers 9 and 10 in the birth order gives me some experience with this. Yes, G. and L. are very different from M., my first born, but I don't think their vocabularies are that much different. (G. and L. probably do not have quite the extensive technical amphibian and reptile vocabulary that M. did, but that is a function of interest not parental input.) What is really different about the three of them is their desire to please. M., being a first-born was interested in pleasing her parents, plus she was surrounded by adults all day (and both J. and I are first born, ourselves) and thus her way of looking at the world was colored in a certain way. G. and L., not being first borns, are wired quite differently. They are not quite so interested in pleasing, well, anyone. They have been surrounded by doting parents and older siblings all their life and their mindset isn't so much to please as to be pleased. (I'm not saying this is good or bad, but it is certainly how it is.) They also have had a variety of behaviors to observe and these were not all of the adult variety. It makes for a much more carefree child.

What it boils down to is, if we could make M. and G. and L. all the same age at the same time and gave them a test, M. would care and G. and L. would not. There have been numerous studies done showing that the amount a child cares about the results of a test affects how well they do, regardless of native intelligence. (I can't find the actual test results right now, otherwise I would share the documentation with you.) G. and L. would not do as well on the test. I guarantee it. Remember I watch them do school-type work everyday. They are very bright, but motivated by other things. I also happen to know that their vocabularies are very large, unless someone is asking them a question and they don't feel like answering it. In that case, they would look like mutes, though L. might make some grunting noises for you. Trust me, they excel at parental embarrassment. Can you tell I don't put much stock in the results of whatever tests they are using to determine the intelligence of younger siblings?

The recipe for raising a child with a large vocabulary and an inquisitive mind is the same regardless of family size. First, turn off the screens and actually talk with the child. Use real words. Discuss ideas. Ask for opinions. Do not belittle what the child has to say. Second, read to them. A lot. Read lots of different types of books. Read everyday. Let them see you reading. Make it important. Third, eat a meal together. We discuss many things as a family over dinner. It is where a child first learns the art of conversation. It is where a child learns a sense of family and it provides a strong foundation for facing the world. Knowing there is a set family dinner time provides a sense of security that can be gained no other way. Fourth, model what you desire to see in your child. Learn something new. Be interested in the world. Share your discoveries.

These are things that any parent can regardless of family size. But I do have a bias. I think those younger siblings that most people fear are so neglected have something most of us do not. Not only do they have their parents, they also have older brothers and sisters who care for them just as much. Instead of missing out on things because there are so many children, they gain something. They gain more love, more care, more security. Because ultimately, the biggest problem with the theory that large families cause the younger children to miss out is the mistaken idea that love is a limited commodity; they are operating from a position of scarcity. But love is not limited. The more you employ the use of it, the more you have. It can't be used up.

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