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Small families are better for kids, new research says


Every kid from a small family has probably felt sorry for themselves at one time or another for not having loads of brother and sisters. From the outside looking in, there’s a lot to envy about families that have enough kids to field their own baseball game, produce complex harmonies a la “The Sound of Music,” or put on a play without casting stuffed animals in major roles.

But a new study shows there are convincing reasons not to romanticize large families. A recently published paper from three economists that looks at 26 years of data on parents and children suggests that with every additional kid born, the other siblings are more likely to suffer from lower cognitive abilities and more behavioral issues, and have worse outcomes later in life.

The paper builds on older research that claims that families face a trade-off between the quantity of kids they have and the “quality” of each kid — an awkward term that refers to things like how much education the child receives, whether they are employed when they grow up, and whether they end up with a criminal record. The research also supports now-popular ideas about early childhood development, that the time and resources that parents devote to young kids have lifelong impacts.

The economists — Chinhui Juhn, Yona Rubinstein and C. Andrew Zuppann — drew on a large data set from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth in 1979, which asked families a ton of questions about their children’s math and reading abilities, behavioral issues, and home environments — such as how often parents read to children or help them with their homework.

The researchers analyzed how older siblings performed before and after a younger sibling was born. They found that their measure of parental investment in older kids — represented by things like how often families eat meals together, how often parents show kids affection and how many books each child has — fell by 3 percentage points after a young child is born, while cognitive scores fell by 2.8 percentage points and behavioral problems increased.

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