Ideal Number of Parents

October 4th, 2019
I'll often hear people say with varying levels of seriousness that the ideal number of parents to have is something large, like maybe five. Children, especially infants, can be an enormous amount of work, which is certainly easier spread out among more people. Kids also like getting a lot of attention, can require a lot of money, and, since different adults are good with kids in different ways, can benefit from having a range of adults in their lives. But while having many people involved in taking care of the kids is great, I'm not sure having all of them be co-equal parents is a good approach.

First, a question: why are people excited about putting so much of themselves into parenting, when if you wanted to pay for similar levels of childcare it would be incredibly expensive? Not to suggest that parenting is simply unpaid childcare; thinking about what why these superficially similar situations lead to such different levels of desire helps illuminate what's important about parenting.

Answers will, of course, vary based on individual perspectives and drives. For some people the answer is "I'm not excited about this, which is why I don't want kids", but for people who do want to be a parent I think it's common for things to trace back through two points:

  • Having a substantial say in how the child is raised.
  • Knowing that this is a life-long relationship.

For the first point, the more people you have co-parenting the less say each one has and the harder it is to reach agreement. Parents can have different ideas on what is safe, how discipline should work, how much help to give, how to do food, value of different kinds of toys/screens/games, co-sleeping, night training, potty training, is it ok to microwave baby milk, what rules to have for sharing, how structured the day should be, when they're ready to go outside alone, how to do money, what to do for childcare, when bedtime should be, what's important in schooling, how important is predictability, how to handle various unique challenges most kids have in some form, how to do presents, when to let them try a thing, what medical treatments make sense, how much to let them make their own decisions, whether to let them ask people for things when it's kind of rude, how much to push them, when to encourage an interest, how to build responsibility, and how to balance all kinds of tricky tradeoffs.

For important issues having more people involved in the decision could make it more likely you are to get good decisions, but you need to balance this against how hard it is to get people to come to agreement on things they feel very strongly about. Unless all the parents have an incredibly close sense of how kids should be raised there will be a lot of these, based on different childhood experience, different parenting philosophy, how to weigh different factors, etc. This is hard enough with two people, and it seems like something that gets substantially more difficult the more parents there are.

For the second point, the permanent nature of the relationship allows a kind of parent-child bonding that people are understandably wary of in more temporary arrangements. I care enormously about what happens to my kids, and part of that is knowing that they're my responsibility no matter what. Getting this kind of assurance of permanence with a larger number of parents is legally somewhere between "very difficult" and "not possible" in a society where only some parents will have official status. The legal parent(s) could at some point, if things fall apart, cut the others out. If you think co-parents wouldn't do this, consider how many loving relationships collapse into spitefests in divorce. Even if we fixed the legal aspect, however, the more people you have in parental roles the more likely there is to be some kind of falling-out over the years, and joint custody among large numbers of households wouldn't work well.

Other aspects that could be a problem, however, seem like they could be managed with good communication, good culture, and dividing things. For example, I do the kids breakfast and pack Lily's lunch in the morning (hence the thermos experimentation). I then pay attention to what comes home uneaten in the lunchbox to try to figure out what I should send next time. In figuring out what to send I also pay attention to what she's been eating and not eating at breakfast and dinner. [1] Even if we had several other co-parents we could still divide things up so this was all on one person and avoid having to manage this process across the full number of parents. I do think the ways parenting work tends to drift towards the people who are already doing the most, because they're currently best at it, are more of an issue, but a surmountable one if you're attentive.

Overall I do think something with more parents can work, and I'm excited people are trying out new approaches. I think it could turn out to be really positive for children to have so many adults strongly invested in their well-being. But I think children having one or two parents in a strong and stable community/household of family/friends probably works better than a larger number of fully-equal parents.

[1] I initially tried an approach of asking her each day what she wanted for lunch, but it turns out she's pretty bad at predicting what she's going to want to eat. So my current strategy is that I pack what I think she'll eat, and then if she wants me to pack something in addition she can ask me to and I'll do that as well. I do eventually want to move to her packing her own lunch and getting good at figuring out what she wants to eat, but at least for now it's much more important to me that she be getting enough to eat.

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