Jeffrey Kluger's The Sibling Effect: The latest book in an emerging canon that fetishizes large broods.

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Sept. 21 2011 5:39 PM

Books By Men Who Like Big Families

Jeffrey Kluger's The Sibling Effect is part of an emerging canon that fetishizes large broods.

Siblings. Click image to expand.
The Sibling Effect and other books romanticize big families

When Jeffrey Kluger was in his 20s, out of his family nest and settling into a career as a journalist in New York City, his longtime girlfriend suggested that perhaps his extreme emotional expenditure on his three brothers—with whom he spent his free time hanging out or chatting on the phone—would be best devoted elsewhere. When Kluger mentioned her comment to his brother Bruce, he received a simple, damning reply: "Yoko."

Kluger, now an editor and science reporter at Time, admits—lionizes, really—an unusual closeness with his brethren. "The four of us, we came to know at a very deep level, were a unit—a loud, messy, brawling, loyal, loving, lasting unit," he writes in his new book The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us. (In place of a conventional author photo, Kluger chose an image of the "unit"—four towheaded brothers, arms entwined.) Given the extent to which Kluger interweaves his survey of sibling studies (on everything from birth order to gender to competition) with memoir it is tempting to take a Sharpie to the book's title, replacing Us withThem. I don't begrudge Kluger's close fraternal ties; his writing about his family is both frank and lyrical, and it's tough not to fall for his spunky tales of brotherly hijinks. But I couldn't escape the feeling that he was trying a bit too hard to pitch me something. When, at the book's end, he quotes a researcher who points out (darkly) that siblings cast a lifelong shadow, Kluger writes that this "shadow, like all shadows, is a thing created by light. And siblings—old or young, living nearby or far way—shine a very bright one."

Why the hard sell on siblinghood? Kluger is unabashed about the fact that his book's mission is to argue for what he calls the "sibling ideal." In his view, "as long as mom and dad are able to breed and support more young, they may as well keep having them." It's an unlikely stance for a science reporter who should know well the psychological, environmental, and financial costs of large families. And it places The Sibling Effect in an emerging canon of books, invariably written by men, arguing that women should have more children. These books tend to fall into one of three categories: 1. It's better for your kids, e.g. Kluger. 2. It's better for you, e.g. Bryan Caplan's Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. 3. It's better for society, e.g. Philip Longman's The Empty Cradle.

As a journalist who reports on such studies, Kluger has probably seen the research suggesting that parents with more kids tend to be less happy (though they score higher in lifelong satisfaction) than those with fewer children. Kluger also knows first-hand about the cost of such choices—his father was remote on the best of days, and Kluger surmises that his father's misery, and the subsequent unraveling of his parents' marriage, was a result of his father having been cast too young as a father to four kids. But still, Kluger's message is unwavering: To have thriving kids, it helps to have a "whole band of them."

In deference to this message, Kluger downplays and even ignores another ream of research (about which I wrote a cover story for his own magazine) on how happily children can develop without siblings. Even as he includes a quote from a leading researcher who says that singletons do just fine—and sometimes better—than people with siblings, he describes only children as "pampered, spoiled, hothoused things, too temperamentally fragile to survive in the wilds of the world," and so on. He cites data showing how only children thrive, but makes a claim that has been disproved in hundreds and hundreds of studies over the last century: "Singletons will learn selfishness when they should learn sharing, inflexibility when they should learn compromise, narcissism when they should learn generosity."

Kluger's conception of marriage is likewise anachronistic, a relic of an era long since done in by Betty Friedan and the need for two incomes. In Kluger's world, a typical mother still says "Don't bother Daddy when he gets home; you know how angry he gets," while "in stable marriages Dad would also take pains to give Mom props for how hard she works and to remind the kid that anybody would be fed up at the end of a long day of domestic labor." Seriously. So even as census rolls show the share of families with more than two kids creeping back up, the rough-and-tumble crewcut-era boyhood Kluger waxes nostalgic about seems impossibly distant from the contemporary reality of female breadwinners.

Driving the way-back machine even farther, Philip Longman, the author of The Empty Cradle, goes as far as to call for a "return to patriarchy" (and homesteading!) to ensure more robust fertility. At least he understands the opportunity costs: Factoring in the penalties of mommy-tracking in our inhospitable work world, he writes, would raise the Department of Agriculture's per-child estimated average expenditure (currently climbing toward $300,000) to more than $1 million a kid.

Meanwhile, Bryan Caplan, an economist as well as a virulent natalist, bypasses such notions entirely in last year's Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, preferring to argue that since we earn more money than we did in the '50s, we should have more kids and not fewer. He doesn't bother with increases in cost of living, let alone the cost of college tuition. Nor does he make any mention in the book of the fact that his wife works; I know that she does only because I asked him myself. He does, however, tell us that when his wife learned that she was pregnant with just one baby after previously having twins, he had to resist the temptation to tell her, mid-sonogram, "better luck next time." Caplan isn't suggesting that his wife pick up the pace for the sake of the fetus, however—he's not trading in the sort of don't you want what's best for the children guilt beloved by so many writers on parenting. (In fact, Caplan rails quite effectively against parental guilt. Among other things, he advises us to lean on the serenity prayer, a tip which allowed me to send my kid to school in PJs this morning.)

Don't do it for the kids, Caplan says of procreation, do it for you. It's a business-school-style approach to consumption (rather than production, oddly), one he rides hard. "As a consumer, how do you change your behavior when a product gets cheaper or better or easier to purchase? You buy more," he writes. "You post a five-star review on Amazon. If kids are the product, consumer logic still applies: Buy more as the deal gets sweeter." Writ large across the globe this means major gains, he argues—including the as-yet unborn geniuses who will solve any resulting environmental and overpopulation issues. Exultant in the idea that we are soon to hit the 7 billion population mark, Caplan tells us that just means 7,000 one-in-a-million thinkers.

Of course, these books aren't really anything all that new; it's the American way, this Cheaper by the Dozen mentality, conflating virtue with fertility. In June's GOP debate, when candidates were instructed to deliver a single opening sentence, Rick Santorum counted his kids (seven) and Mitt Romney followed suit (five), adding daughters-in-law (five) and grandchildren (16). Both were potentially trumped by Ron Paul's claim that he had delivered 4,000 babies as an obstetrician. (Dudes all, like these authors.) But the winner in this otherwise-cockfight was the Bachmann birthing overdrive—Michele's parenting of 28 siblings, 5 from her own loins and 23 from foster care. No doubt we'll read all about it in her forthcoming book, which is supposed to cover both her personal life and, fittingly, her views on "pro-growth economics." The canon of big brood books will have another author with an agenda, and I won't feel any better that this time it'll be a mother holding the pen.

Lauren Sandler writes for Slate, Time, the New York Times, and other publications, and is the author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One.