The average size of families in Ireland is continuing to decline. Father of one Ken Phelan finds there are benefits to all types of family sizes.
If you took a stroll through any 1950s housing estate in Ireland, the streets were littered with children, bustling to and from in a cacophony of endless noise, their siblings teeming from front doors, windows and overflowing dustbins. Children were everywhere. Families of 10, 12, 14 or more were common, while a family of one child was simply unheard of.
How many is enough?
Parents, defeated and exhausted, could be forgiven for occasionally forgetting the names of so many offspring; indeed, if one or two extra children appeared for tea it would largely go unnoticed. As children rushed in and out, tripping over the unfortunate dog, mother ironed eight school uniforms and prepared eight school lunches. These, of course, were simple times, and despite undoubted hardship, happy times too. Contraceptives (and perhaps common sense) were unheard of, but moreover, Ireland was simply known as a country of large, Catholic families.
Modern-day Ireland is a little different; economic hardship, job instability and couples settling down relatively later in life has meant smaller families and couples re-assessing how they will provide for their children. Many couples who bought houses during the Celtic Tiger years now find themselves in negative equity with homes simply too small for larger families. For these couples, two children or even one child seems like a more sensible option. Of course, the Catholic church has less of a stranglehold on modern Ireland, and family planning thankfully now rests entirely within the control of the couples themselves.
According to the latest CSO figures (2011), the average size of families in Ireland is continuing to decline, but at a slower pace than previous years. The average number of children in Irish families at census was 1.38, down from 2.0 in 1991, while the number of one-child families increased by 13% at 339,596 families.
With one-child families in particular now appealing to a greater number of couples, what are the advantages and disadvantages of a one-child family and a larger, more traditional ‘Irish’ family?
Some would say that less is more. Parents report a stronger bond between parent and child that lasts throughout childhood and into adulthood. With one-child families, greater time, commitment, attention and resources can go towards the child; in times of economic hardship and uncertainty, resources, in particular, become paramount.
Myths surrounding only children have largely been discounted; the notion of spoiled, materialistic, unsociable and lonely
‘Little Emperors’ is a fabrication made perhaps by those who favour more than one child. True, the only child lacks siblings, and this is an issue worth noting, but once friends, nieces and nephews are available, this need not be a cause for concern.
According to psychologist Susan Newman, author of Parenting An Only Child, studies suggest that only-children have closer relationships with parents than peers, have higher IQs, better verbal skills and may excel at school because they tend to be read to more often. The key factor here is time; quality time with parent and child that may understandably be lacking in larger families. It can be quite difficult to sit down and read a bedtime story to six different children.
In terms of financial concerns, only-children would appear to be in a better position, since finances can be more easily directed towards raising and providing for the child – food, clothing, leisure activities and educational needs are all more manageable with one. Also, only-children provide much-needed space for couples to have dedicated time for themselves – an idea unheard of even a generation ago.
Sir Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Eleanor Roosevelt were all only-children. So too were Elvis Presley, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Anthony Hopkins. So you see, despite the naysayers, being an only child could lead to greatness and fame!
Leaving the idea of having ten or more children to the confines of Irish history, modern ‘traditional’ Irish families, i.e. two or more children, have their own advantages.
The first advantage of note is that of siblings. Siblings play an important role in the development of other siblings, in terms of relationship skills, conflict resolution and play. In fact, it is believed siblings learn more from each other than they do from parents.
Siblings also provide an invaluable service to parents – playmates and babysitters. While only-children may have to play on their own or with parents, having siblings provides playmates, while mum and dad will be quite happy to allow older children to babysit their younger siblings.
Having more than one child means that clothing, books, etc can be passed on to other siblings, unlike the one-child family, where clothes are worn a few months and discarded, and books are useless once bored of.
There is a unique bond found within traditional families; birthdays, Christmases, etc are events unto themselves, simply because of the sheer number involved. From the parents’ perspective, having more than one child means a greater number of children to look after you in old age. This may seem selfish, but nevertheless is a genuine concern. Also, having more than one means that when, God forbid, you pass on, your child is not left alone.
Finally, an obvious advantage is that many parents simply want more children. Even those who swore they would never have more become weak at the knees at the sight of a newborn baby; even the most resolute amongst us sometimes succumb to such broodiness. Mother nature, in her wisdom, conspires for us to breed.
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