What's the Best Number of Children to Have? A Psychologist Weighs In

12/30/2016 12:57 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2017

Which is better for the family: one child, two children or more? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Mike Leary, Psychotherapist in private practice, Individual-Marital-Parenting-A&D, on Quora:

Wisdom - that which is acquired through experience. First, my credentials:

  • Original family--five kids. I'm number two, all separated by three years. I also have two half-siblings, one I never met and he never knew he was my dad's son.
  • First marriage--two girls five years apart.
  • Second marriage-- four step-children. Girl, boy, girl, boy born all within five years.
  • Grand kids and great grand kids.
  • Been a marriage and family therapist for thirty-five years and have seen thousands intimately from a single child to families with fourteen children. Sometimes they were twins or adopted.
  • Initiated with my wife the state Step-Parenting Association and ran it for a number of years.

Question: Which is better for the family; one child, two children or more?

FOR THE KIDS

Psychological: Research shows that the best spacing is three years. Closer together and they compete with each other too much. Further apart and the brainpower is so different, they might not even be friends. There is an old joke about the first child luring the parent into thinking the others will be the same. Boy are they always surprised. I've even had a few parents with four children who actually said; We raised them all the same and they turned out so differently. They actually believe each had the same experiences.

They won't be similar for a number of reasons. Each child has his own DNA signature, which sets up predispositions. Each child has a birth-order that sets up different roles. Each child has a different influence in the family for the expectation of the caregivers (that includes gender and parental aspirations). Each child has different opportunities. Each child has different experiential influences from trauma and abuse to acquisitions and skills. And certainly each child develops his own unique personality because the drive is--Each child must belong to the family he finds himself in and be different than any child in front of it. In other words, an individual.

We see certain typical expectations desired from a single child where both parents' beliefs, hopes, and dreams are placed on the one child. That burden is enormous. Failure is not an option.

In addition, the child tends to be treated more as a mini-adult so they don't get to just be a kid and play. Most things have to have a purpose and goal, which is an adult trait. The single child thinks alone and works alone. That tends to be their world for the most part. Many develop rich fantasy lives where others become crippled from too much solitude. The poster child for this is Robin Williams who grew up as a single child in a thirty room mansion until he was in high school. He said 2000 toy soldiers were his playmates. And lastly, single children tend to be lonely most their life internally even though they may surround themselves with things and people.

Social: Single children don't learn how to be intimate because most had their needs taken care of by others. That means they usually have unrealistic expectations for relationships. They simply don't know how, especially in conflicts. Other kids tend to see them as spoiled and don't like hanging around them, which increases their isolation. Another major factor I've run into all the time is--these single children have typically been immensely over-indulged so they develop very self-centered, narcissistic personalities. They didn't learn the give-and-take siblings have to sort out things out among themselves.

With siblings, one has to learn all the subtleties of playing together and sharing (even when you don't want to) including how to negotiate getting what you want when the other isn't being reasonable. The conflict between siblings should be expected, and just an aspect of life one learns to work through and be happy. The noise factor alone is important to ignore and learn to focus even when they're lots of distractions. Then there's the working together to provide negotiating skills which will be unconscious as an adult. It's how team-building gets more done together, rather than isolating and doing it all yourself.

The closeness of relationships also means empathy is developed when one of the siblings is hurt and in distress. Siblings tend to protect each other. This scene was most striking and brought me to tears a few years ago when I saw the documentary movie 'A Film Unfinished' where the Nazis were making a propaganda film trying to show the Jews didn't care about each other and staged scenes. There is a clip of a small child actually protecting her tiny sibling from the brutality by taking it herself. A Film Unfinished | Documentary on Nazi Propaganda | Independent Lens | PBS.

Economic: Of course more children means more expenses. I've dealt with so many who couldn't afford a lifestyle they wanted because they sacrificed for the children. They'd put them in better schools and bought them the equipment needed to advance the children's lifestyle. Some even give up their country and culture in hopes of giving their offspring what they never had.

On the other hand, there are many parents who put their own enjoyment first and the children suffered because that's what had happened to them when they were small. They had to work in order to find a bit of happiness in the world so say-- "When the kids get old enough, they can run off and figure out how to survive just like I did. It's my turn."

As a therapist, I've seen a lot of pregnant teens and many, many kids in legal trouble from running away or trying to leave their family of origin. I had run away from home sometimes starting at the age of ten, and by my senior year of high school, I was living in an apartment with a classmate downtown. I managed to graduate, but so many don't.

As for going to high school and working, the research says: kids who got part-time jobs shouldn't work more than twenty hours. That allows them to learn self-sufficiency and manage their affairs better.

FOR THE PARENT

So what about impact of one child on you as a parent?

Psychological: You get to focus on one child and the intensity of it is way less than with more. For some parents this tuning in to one child takes on the form of making the child happy or giving the child opportunities the parent never had.

We see an interesting thing with conflict when the parents may feel more stress and actually be overwhelmed at times with too many demands on them. "Just go outside and play" is a common phrase for relief. They give in to the children whose energy is exhausting when they are demanding interaction. Particularly when there are many of them.

There also is an interesting dynamic when more kids start showing up. It is not a serial process where you add one more. In power dynamics, it's geometric. At different times during the family's growth, different alliances develop for different reasons. It's two or three against another, with each side using whatever power they can acquire. Enlisting one or the other parent always tends to strengthen a position, particularly if they are that parent's favorite.

Kids always know which one it is and to which parent. They usually know why, too. That also means they know they are not liked but believe they are wrong in some way. The child feels they are a disappointment and start acting out to get attention, hoping that will somehow get them the parent-Gods' blessing. It rarely does, but it does get them negative attention, which is better than none. It also teaches them to be oppositional or never good enough.

I've also had to deal with some marital events where the one parent bonds to the child at the exclusion of the other spouse. Sometimes it's one particular kid and in other families it's the kids in general. Sometimes it's the same gender and sometimes it's the opposite. It takes a significant toll on the marriage when that kind of dynamic isn't cleaned up. Many adult relationships don't survive it if a parent is cut out of the loop. Same thing can happen to a child who feels they don't fit in. In today's blended families, it's all too common for one or more kids get ostracized.

Social: Having a single child is more normalized now so there isn't the stigma there was a generation ago. Adults get together and "show off" their child at school and with friends. There is a lot more time for self when only one child need be concerned with and can be relatively easily sent somewhere. The additional kids with diverse ages, as well as having two genders, complicates things more and more. They require a lot of your time and attention. You either invest now when they are young or you will pay someone else a lot more later when they are troubled.

We had the six, with four living with us constantly and my two only visiting periodically. We also were both still going to college in those early days of our late twenties, early thirties. When my ten year class reunion came for high school, we brought all six kids. People were a bit shocked we had a team. We actually had a blast where a number of the adults didn't as they were still hung over from the night before.

The four kids we were able to raise and socialize well all ended up doing professional-management jobs and working with people. When they were young, we had them go through processes to problem solve and get along with each other, as well as us. They had to work together many times which translated into having to learn to negotiate others' feelings in order to accomplish what they were supposed to. That included each child getting themselves up for school in the morning. It was their job.

My two part-timers did get along some but they also had five years separating them. They weren't friends. Having grown up around their mother's insecure influence and coping with that, it handicapped them emotionally. A lot of neediness came out sideways. My ex-wife was not dealing with emotional realities, especially in relationships. That isn't the way to demonstrate intimacy or have a happy life then or later. That process contaminated their view of the world and how they interact. They lost the ability to have inclusive relationships.

In all six, our two exes' influence gave them all a psychological problem to work through as adults. It was hard and even painful work for all of us at times but we believe it has been a wonderful journey. We joke and reminisce about some of the antics now and especially the foibles. Having them all was well worth it.

Economic: The cost impact for single kids is obviously less than multiple children. Each parent needs to set up in their mind what they believe they can effectively afford and provide. There will be mistakes and crashes no matter what. Serious health issues can trash any system quickly. I've seen many, many people have child after child with no real concern what their choices would do to that child for the rest of its life. I have listened to too many patients who wished they'd never been born. That transfers into the real world later. Their whole life felt like one big burden as they were never really wanted. Pretty tough to turn around.

But if the lifestyle is good enough, if there is room to grow and you can afford it, multiple children will make your life worth so much more. They will teach you about every aspect of life--from ethics to morals, from rage to tears. but most of all, they will teach you to love from the bottom of your heart--and you will open like a flower.

This question originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

More questions: