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Oregon Family Magazine

The Right Number of Children

09/01/2021 ● By Sandy Kauten
A friend of mine, whose wife was expecting their third child, was trying to imagine what it would be like handling three kids. He used a basketball analogy: “I guess with the third child you’re outnumbered so you have to switch from man-to-man coverage to a zone defense.” That’s where you wait under the basket, and contend with whoever shows up there. 

But it’s really like this: When our oldest daughter Marie was 7, she was lying on the kitchen floor conducting a kinetic-energy experiment when a mousetrap snapped shut on her finger. Yeow! Crying in pain, she ran to find her mother. Betsy, at that moment, had newborn Wendy undressed and squalling on the changing table.

"Just a minute,” Betsy told weeping Marie, “I’ve got to finish with the baby.”

Marie, in agony and equipped with the best reason she’d had in weeks to come running to her mother, pointed at the infant and sneered, “What’s SHE crying about?”

There is a technique many parents use when they’re outnumbered by crying children, but it doesn’t come from athletics. It is called “triage” and it was devised by overwhelmed battlefield surgeons. They divide their incoming patients into three groups – those who will recover anyway, those who will die anyway, and those for whom prompt attention will make the critical difference. This is the way my wife usually operates. Marie, the oldest child, would rather we dole out attention based on seniority. I would rather each child take a number like in a delicatessen.

The point is, with three kids, parents need a strategy. Without a plan, there is chaos. 

Case in point: One night recently, my wife was away at work, and I was putting our three girls to bed. It’s fun telling a bedtime story to 3-year-old Wendy because she gets excited and starts yelling at any character who causes trouble.

With the lights out, I lie in bed with one child on each side of me. But when I’m on bedtime duty alone, I have to process all three children at once, and the only place to put Wendy is on top of me. This arrangement makes physical interaction with her big sisters inevitable, and violence results. So instead of a gentle winding down, easing the children into dreamland, a story session gets all three kids so spun up they’re ready to run into the street and chase cars.

After this night’s story had degenerated into a riot, I installed each child in her own bed. Wendy was crying because, for her, bedtime is an insulting and disappointing surprise every single time. Her roommate Sally, age 6, was shouting, “I can’t sleep with this little kid yammering.”

Not having a ready solution to that situation, I let it boil while I went into Marie’s room to tuck her in. (One of the good things about having three children, is that at any given time you usually have at least one child who is not driving you nuts.) Marie, age 9, said, “I think I’m only going to have two kids when I grow up.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because it seems to be really hard having three kids,” she said.

"You’re an observant child,” I said. “Two IS the best number of children. But Mom and I can’t agree on which one to get rid of.”

Marie snorted to indicate a low level of amusement, and I went back to sing to Wendy. (“Teddy Bears’ Picnic” sung in a monotone makes slumber seem interesting by comparison.)

Marie was right about the difficulty of managing three children, especially when Child No. 3 is as lively and forceful as Wendy. But you stumble down a path awhile and the landscape changes. What began as a wish, a decision, or a surprise, grows into a 3-year-old child who loves green olives, mud puddles and Piglet.

A child who will look into a fisherman’s bucket full of dying fishes, and point her finger and say, “That one is me, that one is Mommy, that one is Daddy...”

A child who will sit in a shopping cart and sweep up the entire checkout queue plus cashier in her hand and eat them in one gulp.

To think that only a few years ago Betsy and I were rationally listing the pros and cons of having a third child. No, we’d decided, a third child was not essential. Not then.  

Rick can be reached at [email protected]. But please know that even the harshest criticism only makes him feel important.