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Cowed By the Costs: the New Contraceptive

  • Expense fears are persuading too many parents they can only have one child
  • Better awareness needed of the benefits of bigger families, says Civitas book
  • Children with siblings are more likely to be healthier and happier, research shows

Single-child parents should be more confident about the potential benefits of expanding their family and not be put off by exaggerated warnings about the costs, a new book published by the think tank Civitas argues.

A growing body of research shows that children with siblings tend to be healthier, happier and more well-rounded. But parents are increasingly being dissuaded from having another child by over-blown claims about the financial implications.

In Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families?, journalist Colin Brazier seeks to redress the balance and ensure that those who would dearly love another child are aware of the advantages and more circumspect about PR-driven scare stories about the expense.

He points to a growing number of studies and reports from banks, building societies and insurers which fail to take into account the savings parents enjoy when they have more than one child. These “economies of scale” include handed-down clothes and toys, shared lighting and heating, and a reduced spend on playdates.

“Having a second child will not save a couple money, but it need not be as ruinous as the financial services sector suggests. Annually, there is now a merry-go-round of media releases from banks, building societies and insurers, aimed at putting a figure on the cost of children,” Brazier writes.

“But these figures frequently tell only half a story. They fail to take account of the economies of scale produced by siblings; the handed-down buggies, clothes and cots, the shared holidays, heating and bathwater.

“Clearly, many parents do not rely on media scare-stories to form opinions on the economic viability of family expansion. Yet, it is strange to report that one of the most important and immutable decisions individuals make is informed by a niche area of social science that has been more or less colonised by PR execs from the City.”

By turns funny, serious and thought-provoking, Sticking Up For Siblings demonstrates the hidden advantages of a multi-child family – in a society where siblings are increasingly scarce. In the UK the number of only-children as a percentage of all dependent children rose from 18 per cent in 1972 to 26 per cent by 2007.

The book, written by father-of-six Brazier and Swedish researcher Therese Wallin, draws on a host of international data-sets to show the benefits to children of having siblings:

  • They are less susceptible to allergic conditions because of the infections they share at a young age. A second-born child is a fifth less likely to develop eczema than an eldest or only-child. The risk is halved for a fourth-born. A growing number of epidemiological studies reveal the protective effects of siblings are better still for hayfever and even appear to keep more serious auto-immune conditions at bay, including Multiple Sclerosis and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The immunological protection can only be partially replicated when young children share germs with non-siblings in childcare or on play-dates.
  • They are less likely to be obese than children without siblings from comparable socio-economic backgrounds because of the smaller meal portions and greater calorific expenditure found in multi-child homes. New research shows how toddlers crawl and walk sooner if they have a sibling while others reveals that, as children grow up, those with older siblings are ‘coached’ and better placed for outdoor play.
  • They are less prone to mental health problems brought on by family crises like marital divorce or parental death. Siblings, particular girls and “over-scheduled” or “hurried” teenagers benefit from the unconditional support provided by a brother or sister. In later years siblings offer “mutual eldercare” and can ameliorate the impact of isolation in old age.
  • They are more likely to be “well-rounded”. Contact with siblings endows valuable soft-skills ranging from empathy to gratification deferment, from risk-taking to the accumulation of moral capital.

Sticking Up For Siblings poses questions for policy-makers as well as parents. Is the valuable role played by siblings in eldercare factored into the welfare debate? Will an economy with fewer creative middle-children be as competitive? How easy will the state find waging war when more parents are reluctant to see their only-child march to the front?

The author draws on his years as a foreign correspondent to consider attitudes to siblings abroad, and his experience as a father of six, to assess how they are evolving here in the UK.

While pointing out that old-fashioned prejudice towards only-children is outdated, and that sometimes having no siblings can confer advantages, the report urges policy-makers not to ignore the impact of shifting family composition.

Brazier said: “Children without siblings are almost twice as commonplace as they were a generation ago. The reasons are obvious; costly childcare, career disruption, the price of an extra bedroom. Our only sibling subsidy – child benefit – has been slashed.

“Little wonder that more than half of couples with an only-child say they cannot afford another. Better to channel those scarce parental resources into one high-achiever.

“But as the fashion for the one-child family catches on – is there a cost – for parents, society and children themselves? Are siblings the real child benefit we have forgotten to count?”

Notes

Colin Brazier is a presenter with Sky News. He began his career in newspapers, working for the Yorkshire Post and Observer, before moving into broadcasting, with the BBC, ITN and, since 1997, Sky. He was awarded a Gold Medal from the New York TV Festival in 2001 for his dispatches from Afghanistan and was the first European reporter to reach Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A PDF or hard copies of Sticking Up For Siblings can be provided on request.

For interview bids and further information contact:

Daniel Bentley
Communications Manager
T: 0207 799 6677
E: daniel.bentley@civitas.org.uk

Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society is an independent social policy think tank that facilitates informed public debate on important issues of the day. It has no links to any political party and its research programme receives no state funding


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