Family Dynamics: The Sibling Gap

In his regular column, Harry Wallop shares the trials and tribulations of raising four children. Would going back into the newborn world of sleepless night 9 years after their first child wreck their family dynamic?

I have four children. This raises eyebrows, as if by producing enough for a polo team (three more are needed for water polo) my wife and I are trying to make a statement. In this day and age of university tuition fees and squeezed disposable income, having four children suggests financial recklessness.

No statement was intended when we decided to add a fourth child to the family, though I appreciate that we are now in the minority. Those with four children or more make up just 3.7 per cent of the all the families in Britain.

But the fashion for small families is a relatively new phenomenon, it is only in the last 100 years or so that Britons stopped producing more children than they actually wanted, on the understanding that only a certain proportion would make into adulthood.

I was reminded of this simple fact when watching David Attenborough’s latest BBC landmark series Life Stories, which attempts to explain the battles so many animals face when trying to ensure the survival of their species. Many insects, geese and lions play the numbers game, knowing that at least half their offspring will be gobbled up by a predator within hours of being born, or dashed against a perilous cliff face.

Recent evolution or rather, modern healthcare, means 21st century Britons no longer need to breed spare children.

 The only threat to the species in North London is when Waitrose runs out of quinoa.

But we were nervous about a fourth child. Not just having to embark on another round of sleepless nights and nappy changes. But because we found out it was going to be another boy and we feared it might have wrecked a fairly decent dynamic the family had developed.

At the time, we had a 9 year old, a 6 year old  ­– both boys – and a 4 year old girl. They all got along. Sort of. If we were going to have four children, it would have been neater to have two boys and two girls, we thought.

When the newest one arrived, the sleepless nights, the nappies and the howling were all worse than I remembered. Juggling a tiny baby with three primary school children was a complete nightmare. And for a year, I was barely able to be civil when someone congratulated me on the latest addition.

But the new dynamic worked a treat, it turned out. The eldest boy adored the baby. Not just in a let-me-play-with-my-new-toy way, but with a fully-fledged paternal flair. He changed nappies, he bathed him, he read him stories. He did these things not just willingly, but competently too. At times, the nine-year-old proved a better parent than many fully-grown adults.

Eldest children are often the most sensible in a family, but the arrival of a new brother helped him mature immeasurably. And because number two nearly always copied his older brother, he joined in the childcare lark. Possibly less enthusiastically, but he still embraced having another brother. After all, he now had a boy to boss around, another person to play football with, someone to teach Fruit Ninja. The baby is now nearly three, but he and the eldest still get along like a house on fire. Even when the toddler (as he is now) is being a complete menace and ruining whatever painting/computer game/homework the 11 year old is attempting.

It is possible that number one would have doted on a new sister just as much as a new brother, but I am not so sure. Part of the appeal in looking after him is that he is a mini version of himself, he has even tried to dress him in similar outfits so that they can be a his-and-his couple. And because the eldest and the youngest get on so well, it ties all the siblings together. If we had had a daughter as our fourth, it would have split the children down the middle: two older boys, two younger girls and never the twain shall meet.

I am sure that each family, from only-child cocoons to seven-strong squads, think their own dynamic to be the best. But three boys and a girl seems, to me, to be just right. Especially when you gain another child minder in the process. 

Harry Wallop is a features writer at the Daily Telegraph and its Dad of Four columnist. He has four children – three boys aged 11, 9 and 2, and a girl aged 6. His Sunday is enjoying Downton Abbey, while simultaneously being rude about it on Twitter. Follow Harry on Twitter @hwallop

Do you have four or more children? Does having a big family define you? Or does more than one or two seem literally inconceivable?