As the youngest of four kids, I can honestly say that I loved being raised in a big family. Sure, there was a lot of jockeying for attention among us, not to mention a gazillion rules we had to adhere to so the house could keep running (somewhat) smoothly. And there was so much noise that my mother, a teacher, rang a school bell she installed on the kitchen wall to get us to listen to her through the racket.
Still, I thrived on the chaos. My brother and sisters taught me about sharing and selfishness, compassion and competition, and more. Which is why I wondered if I was cheating my two girls out of those big-family bonuses—even though we all love being a family of four. I turned to some mom friends who grew up in large families for ideas on how to replicate those big-brood advantages. Here's what I've learned:
Open your door to others
Even though she has only two children, it's not uncommon for my friend Kathy Christensen to have a trail of kids running in and out of her house. That's because she's created an extended family of sorts with her Glenside, Pennsylvania, neighbors. Within the group, children come and go from family to family, and Friday nights almost always turn into a happy hour for everyone at someone's home.
Her kids get to create bonds stronger than schoolyard friendships and see what it means to be a part of something larger than their small nuclear family. "I teach my children that you don't have to have the same last name to have that special connection," she says.
Other moms create a similar atmosphere by fostering a bond between their children and their own siblings' kids. "There's a special feeling my kids have about their cousins, whom they see every month or so," says Carol Beinish, a Montclair, New Jersey, mom of two, ages 6 and 3. "Maybe it's the unconditional-love thing—that they know they can be themselves and mess up and still be okay—but my kids are so happy, and definitely more independent, when they're with their cousins."
Maureen Boland has written for Redbook, Family Circle and Prevention.
Don't be afraid of rivalry
Sometimes lessons about competition don't unfold on their own in small families, either because the second sib is too young or you've got an only child. So if you can rustle up a little rivalry, it's worth the effort—your child is at an advantage if she's learned to contend with other kids all intent on being served first.
My oldest, who's 7, is a perfect example. Since Julia is six years older than her sister, Caitlin, she doesn't have to compete with her (yet). So last year, when Julia was desperate to learn how to ride a two-wheeler but was afraid of failing, I tapped into the cousin factor rather than coax her.
When I casually mentioned to Julia that her one-year-older cousin, Lauren, couldn't ride a two-wheeler, either, the next morning Julia was outside trying to balance on that bike with all her might. And she did it, too, because she saw it as a rare opportunity to pedal past her cousin.
The funniest part is, when Lauren learned that Julia had taught herself how to ride, she decided to learn—just days before our vacation together. I was curious to see how Julia would react upon hearing that she wouldn't be able to show up her big cousin after all. Her response warmed my heart: After the first nanosecond of disappointment, Julia turned to Lauren and said, "Good for you."
Encourage a sense of responsibility
As any head of a big clan can tell you, chores are a given. Everyone has to help out in order to keep the household running. Our family was no different (although, as the youngest, I definitely got off easier than my sibs).
"When you have fewer kids, you have more of an impulse to just do things for them because it's easier," says Christensen. "But kids have a natural desire to take on responsibility." And so she lets that desire loose in her house: Her 6-year-old son makes his own lunch, she has her 3-year-old help her make dinner and set the table, and both kids bring their dishes to the sink after eating and clean up their toys.
My husband and I started to give Julia an allowance when she began first grade. We let her know that she's responsible for a certain number of jobs as a member of our family—making her bed, helping clear the table, and picking up her toys; if she wants to earn extra money, she might help her dad wash the car or clean the basement.
Beinish also works hard to teach her children a sense of responsibility. "I try to put things like a water cooler and their own dinnerware drawer within reach for them so they can do for themselves. After all, it's those small things that can help teach independence and self-reliance, no?"
Forget about fairness
"Just because one of my sons needs soccer shoes doesn't mean the other gets a new pair, too. I don't subscribe to the even-Steven mentality," says Ann Marie Maglino, a Cranford, New Jersey, mom of two boys, 8 and 6. Growing up in a big family, she learned early that everything wasn't always about her and that your parents can't give you a constant flow of material things. She now tries to pass that lesson on to her sons. "Kids need to realize that sometimes their siblings are going to get something that they're not," she says. Or that sometimes they won't get anything without working for it. "My children have a lot more than I ever did as one of five, but my husband and I don't overdo it," says Cristina Gonzalez DiCalvo of Plantation, Florida, a mom of two. "We tell them they have to earn certain things."
Still tempted to get the orange My Little Pony for one child because the other got a pink one? Think again: You'll be doing your child a favor. Lessons in fairness and unfairness may be hard-won in small families, but from a very early age, kids need to see the people around them—whether they're siblings or friends—get things that they don't. They'll learn to be comfortable with it and start to see what they really value.
Teach them to stick up for themselves
Sometimes a child can get lost in the shuffle in a big family. As the youngest, I learned early on that I'd have to pipe up if I wanted to get a word in during dinner-hour conversations. And with three sibs, endless teasing taught me the art of the fast comeback—a perfect skill for the playground. That's why, when I see my girls get made fun of, I don't jump in to rescue them. If one of them does turn to me, I'll coach her on rebuttals so she can defend herself without my help next time.
Showing kids how to stand up for themselves goes beyond getting picked on. My friend Mary Alice Savulich teaches her two girls, 10 and 8, how not to consider everyone else's desires all the time by occasionally saying no to friends—in front of her daughters.
Make sharing second nature
So many moms I spoke with worry that in smaller families their children will suffer from "me-me-me" disease—automatically thinking of themselves first because there aren't any or many siblings to contend with. But surrounding your kids with lots of friends and extended family can help teach them to share when they otherwise might not have to.
"I push the social thing," says Beinish, who comes from a family of eight. "When my son was in preschool, I made it a point to take another child home at least once a week, and I'm always having kids over for dinner and sleepovers. The kids are forced to learn how to share when there are four of them piled on one mattress on the floor!"
Let them lean on someone besides you
Encouraging your child to rely on someone else for support will help him create that larger network of resources kids from big families make for themselves out of necessity.When my 8-year-old nephew, who's always struggled with bedtime, can't sleep, my sister Cathy tries not to come to his rescue. Instead, she lets him turn to the next best person—his sister, Sheila—who always manages to comfort his bogeyman blues by letting him snuggle in her bed. "I try to step back. It might mean the kids are up a half hour later talking or giggling," Cathy says. "But I've allowed the relationship to blossom by giving them space. They learn how to care for someone else."
You can do this with anyone who's close with your family—a babysitter, a neighbor, or a grandparent. When my father died two years ago around the same time that I had a new baby, I saw it as an opportunity to encourage my mother to take a more regular role in my children's lives. Now she watches my girls so I can work, takes Julia on special day trips, or just joins us for dinner. As a result, my girls sometimes turn to her for comfort over me—especially Julia, who'll quiz her grandmother about everything from sex to Santa Claus. And she'll often ask my mother if she's sad about missing my father, or she'll inquire about her bad knee.
In the end, even though our extended family got smaller after my dad's death, bringing my mom closer into the fold made it feel larger for my little family.