Thursday, May 01, 2008

Supersized Family Big on Parental Love, Sibling Support by Dr. Alan Singer

When you see a family with a huge number of children, is your first can they possibly manage? In this column, I discuss several large family stereotypes, but more importantly the conluence of sibling support. The Home News Tribune published this on May 28, 2008

In order to give you a complete picture of life in a large family, I first asked Rabbi Norman Weitzner and wife Naomi how many children they have. His response: More than 10. Her response: Not enough.

When asked why they won't give me the exact count, Norman responded, "It hurts childless couples to describe the size of a big family so I don't want to." Naomi's approach: "When you quantify the size of a group of children, you don't differentiate individuals and you should, because each one is a separate person."

Back in the 1970s, when they lived in Boulder, Colo., where Norman directed the University of Colorado Hillel, a reporter with an anti-large family bias asked their 7-year-old son, "Don't you feel bad you have so little time with Mom and Dad because there are so many kids at home?" Their son responded, "Oh no, just the opposite. When one parent is busy, there's always someone else to play with." As a large family in the heyday of the Zero Population Growth movement, they used to get plenty of dirty looks. Naomi recalled overhearing a woman say to her friend, "What can we do, they are using up all our oxygen."

Even though I have no anti-large family bias, I still felt the need (not sure why) to question them on large family stereotypes. One by one, they shot each down. When I asked about safety, Naomi described the "buddy system" rule for bicycle riding. "They could never ride without a sibling, and once it really paid off because my son fell off his bicycle and was badly hurt. His brother flagged down a car and sent them to our home urgently." Naomi insisted, "Our children know that we are not out for No. 1 all the time; we're also out for No. 2, or No. 3, which is how we raised them." The rabbi added, "Kids in a large family know that they have to share with other people; they are not as self-centered."

When I asked how they survived what had to be a three-ring circus at times, they explained the importance of being well organized. Each child had a job to do, and jobs were rotated monthly.
Was there time for recreation? "Sure," Naomi responded, "if they wanted a day trip on Sunday, I'd point out their unfinished household chores and give them a time deadline. Things happened — zoom!"

I inquired about the amount of time they gave each child, based on dividing up the parental hours per day. Naomi took umbrage at my question: "Tell me, Dr. Singer, today's latchkey kids, who come home to an empty house or to the maid, are they all from large families? The amount of time a parent has is not related to the number of children. I don't subscribe to the thinking that if you have six kids, each child gets one-sixth of your love. You can read a story to three children and you can take three kids on an adventure hike. A child does not feel less loved because his siblings come along on a trip."

The last stereotype we discussed was the resentment of older siblings who are placed in a caretaker role. The rabbi explained, "Someone asked if our firstborn daughter, who was followed by many sons, resented being the oldest. I suggested to him that we wait and see what my daughter decides for her own family size when she gets married. Well, she has many children of her own, so the proof is in the pudding."

Enough about stereotypes; let me describe some fascinating sibling insights. The Weitzners are quite proud of how well their children look after each other. Four of their married sons and their families live within one block of each other in Brooklyn, N.Y. "It is not to be believed how much they help each other," Naomi says. "When one of them moves to a new house, they all get together, pack the furniture, and load the moving van, even if it means lowering a couch from a second-floor balcony." "My son, who is in home construction, will go to his siblings and retile their kitchen floor at no charge," says Norman. "My son the lawyer did all their house closings for free." "One of our sons often says to his siblings, "If you ever need money, just let me know." Naomi adds. "Can you imagine?"

Certainly, credit for the success of this large family belongs squarely in the hands of Norman and Naomi. Dr. Richard Weinberg, professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, stated in Child Magazine (September 2000), "Indeed, parents — not family size — have the ultimate power to shape their children's lives. If parents are patient and caring and want to invest in their kids, they can have lots of well-adjusted children." "And," add the Weitzners, "plenty of prayers and tears directed toward the Creator, who is the third partner of every set of parents."

"Be Counted" columnist Dr. Alan Singer is a marriage therapist in Highland Park. Respond to this column at Dr. Singer's blog or e-mail "Be Counted" columnists are members of the public.