Forget government propaganda: having a large family is actually good for you, says Ed West

Sticking Up For Siblings
by Colin Brazier
Civitas, £8

My wife recently gave birth, and the experience of having three children is not breezy-easy. As a fellow father-of-three explained to me: “Monday morning is the highlight of my week.” But I’ve still got some way to go to catch up with Colin Brazier, who has sired a brood of five daughters and a son, and now has produced this persuasive and informative pamphlet on the benefits of larger families.

The Sky News presenter points out that “dads who are caring for their infants have been found to have more of a calming hormone in their blood if they are fathers with two or more children, compared with men becoming fathers for the first time”. I could certainly do with more of that. Yet even during the darkest moments – with infant, toddler and baby, husband and wife all screaming – parents know that it’s worth it.

Many couples, however, still need to be persuaded; as many as 70 per cent of them feel they cannot afford a second child, and Brazier asks if they are being given reliable information about the costs of parenthood. We’ve all seen those newspaper articles about the expense of raising children, usually citing some absurd figure, even as high as £270,000. Brazier says these “studies” are far from neutral. They are used to promote insurance or savings products, and the social science of this area “has been more or less colonised by PR execs from the City”, rather than universities or independent think-tanks.

One mother of five on parenting site Mumsnet queried the £270,000 figure: “Finishing schools in Switzerland? Designer buggies? Children are expensive – they do have to eat – but not nearly as expensive as some make out.”

Brazier’s book is not a polemic calling for higher birth rates or warning of the future consequences of low fertility levels, (though he does speculate on the social effects of lots more assertive elder children and fewer middle child compromisers). Rather, it is aimed at helping parents who would like more children but are fearful of the strain. Perhaps they are influenced by their peers or unwilling to once again go through “the parenting emergency”.

In one generation the proportion of only children has risen from a fifth to a quarter of all babies. This reflects not just economic pressure but fashion, too, which has been shifting towards smaller families for some time. It all goes back to Arsène Dumont, a lawyer and sociologist, who after reading the French census in 1880 convinced French people that small families were needed in order to rise up the social scale. Then in the 1970s Polish-American Robert Zajonc wrote “Dumber by the Dozen” for Psychology Today, arguing that the more siblings children had the stupider they were as they spent more time with “pre-verbal” children. But, as Zajonc admitted and as later studies showed, this has little impact on more educated families.

The author laments: “The notion that siblings can contribute to the happiness and health of children, couples and society at large is seen, in so far as it is considered at all, as an anachronism.”

Yet there are lots of benefits of larger family size. The first is solidarity. A third of American adults name their siblings when asked: “Who is the one person you would call if you had an emergency in the night, needed to borrow $200 in an emergency, or were depressed and confused and needed advice?” Two thirds name at least one sibling as among their closest friends. There is also the help with looking after aged parents. Brazier notes that British research shows that “grown-up children with elderly parents to care for, on average, suffer less hardship if they have siblings”. Then there are the health benefits: children with siblings are more germ-resistant and less susceptible to allergies, while the odds for obesity decrease by 14 per cent with each additional sibling in the house.

So Brazier’s advice is: go for it. After all, it really does get easier, with “second-time mothers throughout mammal species” tending to have “lower levels of stress hormones than first-timers”. You would not think so if you visited my home at bath time, but I suppose we’re getting there.