John Boehner, 1 of 12 Kids: Blessing or a Curse?

GOP speaker-to-be is 1 of 12 kids, something many say brings special skills.

November 15, 2010, 5:09 PM

Nov. 16, 2010— -- Lynda Meineke said the worst part about growing up in a German-Irish family of 12 children was fighting for the one bathroom in their two-bedroom house in Reading, Ohio.

She was lucky, one of three girls who got first dibbs. But her brothers, including the GOP's next House Speaker John Boehner, often had to run into the woods or seek a drain in the basement.

"The girls had no time to dilly dally," she said. "If we didn't get up when mom said to get up, then we lost some time in the bathroom."

Meineke, 51, said, nonetheless, growing up in a large family had more advantages than drawbacks.

Boehner, 61, credits his large family for the social and political skills he says he will need to soonlead the House of Representatives.

But despite anecdotal evidence about having many siblings, experts say that research shows no measurable advantages to family size, although birth order can play a role in intelligence.

"The legend, according to people with 12 children, is that it's a good thing, and it usually is," said Toni Falbo, professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas in Austin. "If the parents are fully functioning, bright, capable and hard working, they kind of organize the children so the older ones are responsible for the younger ones, on down the line, and that can work to benefit the kids."

"Scientific research shows either no benefit on social skills or it can possibly be a negative," said Falbo. "Even if you have all the resources, it's challenging."

One of the most famous parents of 12 were efficiency experts Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, whose children published the book, "Cheaper by the Dozen" in 1948. The story about their large brood was later made into several movies.

Other notables were the Von Trapps of "Sound of Music," and the fictional Waltons, who were based on the real-life family of Earl Hamner in "Spencer's Mountain."

Also in that group were the Kennedys and comedian Stephen Colbert,, who is one of 11.

Colbert has described his Irish Catholic family as "a humorocracy...Singing around the house highly encouraged."

John Boehner was 'Like Second Parent'

Rep. Boehner, R-Ohio, who was second born, has said he took over the role as surrogate parent when his older brother Robert joined the military after high school.

"He was like a second parent," said Mieneke, who was the fifth child. "He'd tell us to sit up straight, wear good clothes, the same sort of things our parents told us. He picked up the role."

In the early years, the siblings shared two bedrooms and their parents slept on a pull-out bed in the living room before building an extension on the house.

Meineke still lives in that house and now works as a waitress and bartender at Andy's Cafe, the bar founded by their grandfather in 1938. Boehner also worked sweeping floors to help pay for college.

"You learn how to share and sacrifice and how to do without in a family of 12," she said. "My father was a bar owner and that was his sole income. You appreciate when you get a new pair of jeans or a coat. We thought we were rich growing up. It made us all better people."

But a 2010 Ohio State University study published in Science Daily concluded that growing up without siblings doesn't seem to be a disadvantage for teenagers when it comes to social skills. Earlier studies had shown that kindergarteners with no brothers or sisters were slightly disadvantaged.

Birth order plays a larger role than family size," according to Falbo.

Because Boehner was second in line, "he had the opportunity to interact with his parents and, in a sense, through this critical period of life, was in a smaller family," she said.

"Sometimes those who are born later in a large group don't get the intellectual stimulation because they are always with a bunch of kids and the parents aren't that attuned to you," Falbo said.

But don't tell that to others who grew up in giant-sized families and hail the benefits.

"It was wonderful," said Jenn Giroux, a registered nurse from Cincinnati. "We really learned early on we could not put ourselves first and we looked out for each other. We had to sacrifice and sometimes friends with smaller families had more material things."

Giroux, a so-called "stair-stepper," was one of 11 children. Now, at 48, she has nine children aged 9 to 26 and 59 nieces and nephews.

The 48-year-old and her husband own a Catholic bookstore. She also serves as executive director of the Association of Large Families, and travels to colleges to talk to women about the joys of raising a larger brood.

"You have to be flexible," she tells them. "It's busy -- it can be holy chaos!"

Sometimes Giroux will get negative looks from strangers, some of whom have asked, "Did you have all your children from the uterus?"

"There is a huge advantage to having children close together," she said. "They have built-in playmates."

Giroux's eighth child is deaf and autistic and doctors have said that her daughter benefitted from having the attention of so many brothers and sisters.

As for the others, they have become "verbally skilled, like rhetorical boxing," said Giroux. "We have this long 12-foot oak table and end up talking out issues, debating things. It hones in not just your ability to discuss things, but you learn the politeness in respecting someone else's opinion."

Large Families Have Their Pitfalls

Large families say they ride out emotional crises together and bond with a special kind of humor.

"We are blunt with each other and tell each other when one is out of line and a jerk," she said. "We have the ability to bounce back and an inherent cohesiveness."

The down side? Hand-me-downs, "seven girls with menstrual cycles" and the need to be alone, according to Giroux. And there will always be personality clashes.

"Being the eldest child does have its perks, but it also has its downfalls," said Karrie Amuneke of Sacramento, Calif., who was one of five children. Her grandmother grew up with 13 siblings and had nine of her own.

"I was responsible for the younger children and making sure they weren't getting into things that they weren't supposed to," said Amuneke, now a 24-year-old student.

But she never felt neglected and her parents took time for each child.

"My father especially knew to spend time with his daughters, even our weekly trips to Wal-Mart to get little things that we wanted," she said.

Amuneke said she definitely wants a big family of her own: "My cousins and I joke that it's in our genes."

Angela Dellia of Exxton, Penn., said not getting as much attention taught her to "share, give and be part of something bigger than yourself."

The 63-year-old grew up in a family of 10 with one bathroom (no shower) and a renovated attic for the four girls. "Somehow we made it work, which I'm sure would shock the children of today," she said.

One special memory is her parents taking her out to a nice restaurant, alone, as her 16th birthday present. "I am extremely fortunate," she said.

As for those who sing the virtues of large families, "It worked out well enough for them," said Falba, "And you only know your own life."

She agrees there is something to the argument that these families, in the very least, are well-organized.

"You have to do that or the child protective services will be knocking on your door," she said. "At least these days."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events