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Family Life

Small Families

Is it OK for a child to grow up in a small family?

Most newly married couples today plan to have only one or two children, compared with three or more back in the early 1960s. The reasons for this shift include a trend toward later marriage, more emphasis on careers for women, more effective methods of contraception, and the rising cost of rearing and educating children.

There are some very clear benefits to having a small family;

  • Each child receives more parental attention and educational advantages, which generally raise her self-esteem.
  • Children in small families, especially first and only children, tend to have higher school and personal achievement levels than do children of larger families.
  • The financial costs of maintaining a household are lower.
  • It is easier for both parents to combine careers with family life.
  • The general stress level is lower because there often are fewer conflicts and less rivalry.

There are some trade-offs, especially in one-child families. When all the expectations, hopes, and fears are focused on just one child, parents easily can become overprotective and indulgent without even realizing it. The child may have fewer opportunities to meet other children or to develop a sense of independence. She may be pushed to overachieve, and she may receive so much doting attention that she becomes self-centered and undisciplined.

Tips For Small Families

  • If you have just one or two children, you may become overprotective and overly attentive. This may make your child reluctant to be separated from you, hindering the development of new relationships with peers. In fact, you may have that same difficulty. Here are tips to help you keep these feelings in the proper perspective as your child matures.
  • Make sure your expectations of your child are realistic for her age. Get to know other families with children the same age, and watch how these parents raise their children: when they're protective, and when they let go; how they discipline the children; how much responsibility they expect of them.
  • Maintain your own adult social life as a couple (or as an individual, if you are a single parent). Taking a few hours off from each other will help both you and your child develop your individual identities. The earlier you start this pattern of personal time (at least once a week, even during infancy), the easier it will be for you both to accept the increasing definition of personality that needs to occur as she grows older.
  • Let your child get to know other trusted grown-ups by having them babysit and by including the child in group activities with other families.
  • Give her plenty of opportunities to play with other children her age through play groups, nursery schools or other children's groups.

If you are worried about your child's health or development, get advice from your pediatrician as soon as possible. Don't let your anxieties build and don't limit your child with unnecessary concern.

The Benefits of Extended Families

Until the last few generations, most American families were two-parent ones; living nearby, perhaps even in the same house, were grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The women were primarily responsible for caring for the children and running the household while the men worked outside the home. In many ways, this formula worked well: There were plenty of adults to look after the children. There was a built-in support system and roles were clearly defined. The children benefited the most because they had so many close social contacts and received love from so many different directions.

The extended family is not as common in American society today. Due to career obligations, opportunities, and the desire to go to new places, fewer and fewer newly married couples choose to or can live near their parents or close relatives.

Without regular contact with relatives, parents and children need to create alternative support systems. A close friendship with another family, participation in a surrogate or foster grandparent program, or in Big Brothers or Sisters, can help replace the missing ties. For many families, religious congregational activities are a source of support and close friendships. Many other community programs such as youth and neighborhood activity centers also can fulfill these needs.

Even if your relatives are scattered, try to strengthen your child's sense of family by keeping in touch by phone and letters. Encourage your child to draw pictures for relatives, and to send his own letters when he learns to write. Exchange photographs and make them into a photo album that grows with your child. If you have a tape recorder or video camera, make tapes of your family as "audio/video letters" to bring you closer together.

The overall intent is to balance the intimate connections of a small nuclear family with continued meaningful contacts with loved ones outside the immediate family. The values fostered and nurtured through these family relationships will be important ones for the child to model and incorporate into his way of living when he grows up. Your family's modeling of these values reinforces their importance for the growing child.

Last Updated
Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5 (Copyright © 2009 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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