The benefits of big


Siobhan Rowe
Focus on Adoption magazine

Do big adoptive families work better for children with attachment issues? The families we spoke to all think so.

These days, having numerous kids tends to be considered eccentric. For some children though, a bursting-at-the-seams-family may be exactly what they need.

To learn more about how big adoptive families can benefit certain kids, and what it takes to be at the helm of a jumbo household, Focus on Adoption spoke to and surveyed a group of families who have bucked the tiny family trend and adopted up to 12 kids—most of the families also have biological children and all but one family lives on Vancouver Island—BC’s hub of big adoptive families.

Why go big?

One of the first questions big adoptive families get asked is, “Why so many kids?” Only 33% of the families that we surveyed intended to go big from the outset. For the rest, the main reasons they expanded were because they adopted sibling groups, they saw the difference their family made to the kids they adopted, and they loved parenting so much they just kept going.

Linda Hyatt, parent of nine children (five biological and four adopted) sums up her motivation: “It just kind of happened. The more kids we had, the more fun we had. We have lots of kids that love us, and they make us very proud.” Linda is hoping that a new sibling group will join her family soon.

Leah Elliott, a single mom who has adopted five children and is also waiting for another proposal says, “There’s a family photograph on the mantle piece, and when I look at it I just keep thinking that there are some children missing. I have so much experience, tons of skills, and I know I can offer a stable, forever home. Parenting is my passion, especially for children who haven’t been cherished. I also strongly believe in keeping siblings together, and I’ve seen first hand the benefits to the kids.”

Brenda McCreight, parent of 12 children, explained her expansive brood this way: “The first couple of adoptions are about the parents; as you go on, it becomes about the kids.” Brenda believes her large adoptive family was created by her need to respond to a child’s need for a family when she became aware of it. “If you can do it, you should,” she says matter-of-factly.

Attachment can wait

Though it might be assumed that children who have experienced the most difficult early lives need to be adopted into small families where they can become the focus of parental attention, that is not necessarily the case. In fact, there are increasing numbers of advocates for placing children with attachment issues into large families. Brenda McCreight believes that one of the biggest benefits of kids joining a large new family is that there is less pressure for a new child to attach to parents—an intimidating and difficult feat for a child who has never experienced a “normal” relationship with a parent, or who has moved in and out of foster homes. Several of the families we spoke to emphasized the benefits of removing that pressure to attach and noted that new children often form bonds with other kids in the home first and then start to attach to parents. Brenda McCreight also suggests that in large families the parents are less likely to feel an immediate need for attachment with a new child who might find it hard to attach because he or she has other kids.

A new normal

Another benefit of big families, mentioned by several families we spoke and surveyed, is that disabilities stick out less, particularly if one or more sibling has the same issues. The fact that many of the children will have had similar difficult pasts and experiences, have birth family, and don’t physically resemble their parents, also helps kids in large families feel less “different.”

Less lonely

Leah Elliott, who parents children with a range of diagnoses explains that three of her children struggle with friendships and often don’t get invited to parties or sleepovers. “Having five siblings helps enormously. There are five birthday parties to go to each year, Christmas is always fun, so are vacations, and there is always someone to play with. The loneliness experienced by kids who don’t fit in with peers is taken care of in a big family.“

Family Growth Guide

What parents of large families need:

  • A willingness to make children the focus of their lives
  • A stable relationship, or good support
  • The ability to multitask
  • Strong advocacy skills
  • Realistic expectations about kids
  • Tons of energy
  • The ability to handle chaos and structure
  • Flexibility, patience, sense of humour
  • To be able to accept help
  • Not minding sticking out as a family
  • Good budgeting skills!

Brenda McCreight agrees: “There’s always something to do and someone to play with. Lots of socialization takes place between the kids—they tell each other the rules and sometimes do the parents’ nagging for them, and the pressure isn’t always on the parents to arrange something to do.”

Linda Hyatt has noticed how much her children benefit from being in a large family, “The kids develop good social skills, there are lots of combinations in terms of who to play with, and our kids have lots of tolerance of other people and readily accept differences in other families.” She also notes, as did other parents, that when a sibling group joins a new family, often each child will form a bond with a child outside his or her sibling group and that it’s easier for a sibling group to meld into a large family. One of the respondents to our survey pointed out that a large family can bring a strong family identity, which can give kids confidence and a sense of security.

One parent who answered our survey pointed out another benefit of the solidarity that a big family can bring: “Someone at school was picking on one of our daughters and all her siblings were their to defend her.” When asked if kids in large families lack parental attention, Leah Elliott replies, “No, if one of the kids is frustrated, upset or needs a cuddle from Mom, there’s always children around to entertain the other kids.”

Bias against big

Fifty percent of the families that responded to our survey reported that their social worker was supportive of their applications to adopt, 12.5% said their social worker wasn’t encouraging and 37.5% said that their social worker was somewhat encouraging. Cathy Gilbert, an adoptive and biological mom of 15 kids, who lives in the Nanaimo area, puts the large number of big families in that community down to the fact that families see how it can work for others, the families support each other, and social workers in the region have seen again and again that big families work.

The Vancouver Island bulge of big adoptive families is certainly not widespread across the province, and the parents we spoke to wish the idea of large families was more accepted. “Those who criticize us should take a look at us,” says Brenda McCreight. “One of the problems is that people say, ‘I couldn’t parent 12 kids’ but that doesn’t mean other people can’t. Large families are still seen as a bit of a last choice if a smaller family can’t be found.”

As a single mom, Leah Elliott is especially conscious of what she calls a possible bias against large adoptive families, especially those headed by single parents. “I think there’s a myth that single parent families must be stressed and barely coping. I have five kids and it’s very calm and structured in our home. I wish social workers could see our family in action.” Linda Hyatt also feels that there are mixed feelings about big families, “The MCFD drags its feet a bit because it’s not too sure whether or not it approves of large families.”

Even though other people may balk at families who buck the tiny family trend, the families we spoke to were positive and proud of their families and were convinced that, for some children, the bigger the family, the better.