As the third of eleven children, I know what it’s like to be part of a big family. And as with most things, it’s not all good nor all bad. I can’t imagine giving up any one of my siblings. I care about them, and I am glad they were brought into existence. In fact, the sibling I am closest to is actually the last of the bunch, number eleven. Without him, I’m not sure I would have survived 2018, the absolute worst year of my life. In large part due to him, 2020 has been comparatively wonderful. There is no way I would want to go back in time and tell my parents that they really should have stopped after me, number three. No way!
Having said that, when I imagine what my life might have been like if there were only two or three of us, I feel like a lot of my life’s biggest struggles could have been either avoided or mitigated to some degree.
Every child has their own unique challenges and needs. They don’t all need the same rules or amount of personal attention. They don’t need hugs to the same degree of frequency. They don’t all need to be told that they are loved every day to feel that they are loved. Some can be left alone for long periods of time without harm. Others need constant social interaction from their parents.
When I raised my own two children, I recognized that treating them both in exactly the same way would be a mistake. So, I treated them differently. I learned how they each feel love, and I did what I could to make sure they both felt loved by me. I taught them to read, differently. I taught them arithmetic, differently. My son, though he does value fairness, was able to understand when I explained why the penalties for breaking rules could not be the same for both of them. Even the rules could not be exactly the same. They were two different people with different needs. Maybe schools and governments have to treat everyone the same, but a family shouldn’t have to. What was important to me was that each child felt loved in the way they needed and that their opportunities for individual growth and life success were maximized.
The more children there are though, the more difficult this approach becomes. I think that, out of necessity, most parents of large families use the much simpler strategy of treating every child the same. They try to show the children that they are being fair and that they love each child the same. At least, this is the approach my own parents seemed to employ. One positive benefit of this approach is that I never got the feeling that they were playing favorites.
Unfortunately, what all of this fairness also meant was that my own unique individual needs weren’t quite being met. For example, I was not a happy child, but my parents never took any real action to discover why I was struggling. On those occasions where I felt a need to talk to them about some concern, I often had to wait in line. I can remember multiple occasions where I simply gave up and went off to be by myself elsewhere.
Sure. My parents loved me…, but unless I did something drastic, I could never get the attention I needed. Among the things I tried when I was young were screaming at the top of my lungs, walking out and being gone for hours at a time, breaking walls, doors, and mirrors, getting F’s in classes, stealing, and even getting physically violent with siblings. I was awful, and I needed help. But did I get the help I needed? I got punishments. I got put in time out. I got extra chores. I lost privileges and access to things I enjoyed. They tried to control my behavior by meting out punishments. I don’t remember any time being spent to find out what was really wrong.
Of course, I didn’t know what was wrong either, but I was the kid. I was too young and inexperienced in life to understand my own psyche. I remember the phrase being often used in my house, “they just want attention,” whenever a child acted out. As if wanting or needing attention was a bad thing! In my mind, I was just an awful person, and all of the punishments and parental admonitions just supported that belief.
In middle school, things got especially bad. I heard about the possibility of homeschooling, and begged my mom to let me try. I needed something to change. My mom actually arranged a meeting with my principal to discuss the option, but he told my mom that I would just be running away from my problems. According to him, I needed to face them in order to overcome them. The logic doesn’t sound bad, and I don’t blame my mom for listening to him, but the choice was still wrong for me. Going home at that time wouldn’t have been running away from my problems. It would have been giving my mom a chance to figure out what the problems were, away from so many other distractions.
A year or two later, my mom let my younger sister stay home to be home-schooled while I attended my first year of high school. High school was a lot better than middle school though, and I started to have some hope for the future. The next year though, in my sophomore year of high school, my mom decided to home-school everyone at home. For the family as a whole, this might have been a good decision, but I’m not sure it’s what was best for me personally. As just one in a crowd, my parents never really understood my own personal individual needs.
The point of this post is not to criticize my parents though. I believe they did the best they could given the circumstances. If there had only been one or two of us, I’m sure they would have spent more time with me. They would have come to understand me more, and they would have been able to meet my needs better. If they weren’t able to understand what was going on with me or didn’t know how to help me, they would have had more money to spend on a child therapist or psychologist. Perhaps, I would not have had so many suicidal thoughts, a fact my parents never knew about me until I wrote it out in a blog post just a few years ago.
More recently, I have had some unpleasant interactions with my mom that I feel are caused, at least in part, by the sheer number of children she has. I believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has caused great harm to me and millions of others, and I have written much about this. Until recently, my mom refused to admit that this could be even a little bit true. She finally did acknowledge that the “attitudes of members and the policies of the church have caused [me] pain,” and that “perhaps if [she] had [gone through what I did, her] perspective would be different.”
This partial acknowledgement made me both happy and sad. I was happy that she was starting to see, just a little bit, what I’d been going through all of these years and how the church was a part of that. I was sad that it made no difference to her. Now, this may have nothing to do with the number of children she has, but I can see how it might. If I came to believe that one of my children had been hurt by the members and policies of an organization that I loved, and that that organization was continuing to hurt others without apology, I would want to rethink my relationship with that organization. Even if I couldn’t give it up, I would want to keep my relationship with it a lot more low-key.
However, if I had many similarly devoted children and grandchildren that looked up to me and would see if I wavered in my dedication to this organization, I might hesitate changing any of my behaviors. I think that my mother believes that the church helps and blesses the lives of her and almost all the rest of her family, and I am just one sad exception. In her mind, changing her attitude toward the church might help her relationship with me but hurt many others. She can’t afford that, regardless of how it might affect me.
To me, it seems pretty clear that numbers matter. What a parent will do for one child alone, they might not be willing to do for that same one child out of a great number. Imagine if all eleven of my mother’s children felt hurt by the church. Would all of her family-directed emails then be full of worshipful statements about the church? Would she then continue to exclaim her great joy that the church is true? Would it permeate all of her communication both public and private? No matter how much she believed the church to be true, even to the point of certainty, I think she would more carefully evaluate whether she needed to affirm that confidence at every step, destroying family relationships in the process.
And so, back to my original point, I think small families are best. When schools, governments, etc. have to treat all the same, regardless of personality differences, psychology, etc., parents should be able to do what’s right for the good of each individual. Parents, especially, should not have to choose between the good of many and the good of one child with unmet needs.