Sunday, May 25, 2008

The case for having a "large" family

The following is simply a reprint from Vanishing American's excellent May 22 entry, Large families?, with a few of my own comments interspersed throughout.

What are the advantages of having a large family? What are the disadvantages? Can a large family be raised on a single income in today's economy? Are people with large families irresponsible, environmentally and otherwise? These are just a few of the questions VA touches on in her post. VA writes:

Caveat: the following is not meant to disparage anybody who has few or no children. I am speaking in generalities and I trust that nobody will take offense at anything I say here.

TM: Likewise. However, if you do take offense to something VA says, and I agree with, I have to tell you that in my opinion, having already encountered it many times before I'm sure, it's likely a personal problem. Each of us has his or her own little quirks that in the grand scheme of things don't amount a hill of beans. Let's not make a mountain out of a mole hill, okie dokie.

VA continues:

In the recent discussion, the question of family size and number of children came up. Now, the most common reason we hear for encouraging large families these days, is the Mark Steyn-esque argument that we need to outbreed the Moslems. I think that's one of the least compelling, and the worst reasons, for having large families. First, can we, who are a dwindling number globally, out-reproduce the teeming Third World? Remember we are far outnumbered, and also keep in mind that this teeming Third World is knocking ever more insistently at our doors and windows. Those who are not already in our midst are on their way or planning to be on their way or trying to find out how they can get here, wishing to be somewhere in the 'rich world', as they call it in The Economist. So hoping to outpace the Third World in reproducing is a far-fetched hope.

There are better reasons for having large families, the best being that we love children and want to welcome as many as we can take care of into our already happy lives. And for Christians, we view kids as God's gift to us, and we want to raise them to know and love and serve and give glory to God.

As members of a large extended family called our nation or people, we want to raise our children to carry on the life of that group, and to continue our ways and our heritage into the future. Our children are the future for our particular line, and for our people.

Who should not have a large family, or perhaps any children? Those who don't want children, who are not prepared financially to care for them, or who are in some way not good candidates.

People should not reproduce carelessly and should not have children by accident.

TM: I agree with VA in the first instance. I have no personal interest in trying to "outbreed" the Moslems or anyone else. That we need to, if we need to, is just incidental to any good reasons for having a large family. Raised as I was in a moderately large family, as well as in a community where this was more the rule, than the exception, and having come away from that experience with an outlook more favorable than not to the experience, my wife and I determined early in our marriage that we and a relatively large family were more or less made for each other. This decision between my wife and I was made secretly and independently of anyone else, and as I said, very early on in our marriage.

I only have one disagreement with what VA wrote above worthy of note -- her use of the term "kids." Many moons ago (as my native ancestors might have put it) I was corrected for using the term, and I've never forgotten that invaluable lesson. A very prominent, influential, well respected individual said to me in response to my usage: "sheep have kids, human beings have children." Amen! The words we choose have impact and meaning in ways that simply escape us at times. I can't tell you how many times I've been in discussions with people where I emphasize the word "children" in place of their word "kids", and I notice an almost immediate dignified and reverential tone, which was not there before, come into their speech, and a new light come into their eyes. It's as if they'd never really thought of their children as dignified human beings with independent value, but as just so many dependent offspring (sheep) who happen to have the same bloodline and live in the same pasture. I could say a lot more, but in the interest of keeping this entry within limits, I won't. I would simply say that if you doubt me, try it for yourself next time you're in conversation with someone about their children.

VA continues:

But apart from all this, what are the advantages of big families?

Over the last 30-35 years, we've seen the triumph of the leftist-feminist idea that large families are harmful to women, who are thereby made nothing but domestic slaves to husband and children. Even many 'conservative' women believe this, and say as much. Once, only leftist feminists said and thought such things; now it's considered common wisdom among 'conservatives', sadly.

The other attitude that has won out since the counterculture days is the 'zero population growth' attitude, that somehow people having large families are irresponsible and backward and selfish, while having few or no children is the sure sign of an enlightened, environmentally responsible person.

Somehow, this ethic is never applied to the Third World peoples, whether they are at home in their native countries or whether they are here in our countries, breeding large families, at public expense.

Another argument that has been widely accepted is that couples cannot afford large families because today's world makes childrearing and stay-at-home mothering out of reach of 'average' people. I say this is not as true as we think; it's all a matter of priorities. It's only economically unfeasible for some people because they choose to spend their resources on pricey toys and gadgets, extensive travel, dining, and many other non-essentials while ruling out the 'expensive' family.

This is very much a 'live for today' attitude, which is at odds with conservatism or tradition.

Today we have much higher standards in terms of what we think is an acceptable standard of living. Many think poverty means having only one car, or living in a modest home rather than a McMansion, or shopping at a lower-price retailer (and I don't mean Wal-Mart) rather than having the trendiest, most up-to-date of everything.

In other words, many of us are spoiled and self-indulgent.
Most of us, myself included, could cut out a lot of the frills and nonessentials and thus have more money for the essentials. In this day of rising gas prices, and tightened budgets, we will probably have to cut out the fat.

Where do I start? I can assure you that my wife does not feel, nor has she ever felt, for more than a fleeting moment, like a "domestic slave" to myself and the children. Indeed, this is one of those things that I've run across many many times during our marriage. People automatically assume that my wife would be much happier if she had a career and weren't burdened with the necessity of taking care of six children. I don't know how it is exactly that they come to these conclusions, but I assume that it's mainly driven by the impulse that since they're happier with one or two children and a career, or they think they are (I'm not sure how they know they're happier), then she would be. Little do they know that she wants to have more children, and I do not. Selfish individual that I am, I don't particularly care for the idea of raising children in my senior years. Aside from the biological problems with having children past a certain age, I simply don't think midaged and elderly people are equipped (in any number of ways), on the average, to properly raise children. Simply stated, God has good reasons for limiting our productive childbearing years to a youthful average, and I don't question them. I simply try to understand them to the best of my meager abilities.

As to the "environmentally irresponsible" attitude about having a large family, I'd really rather not discuss it. I'm not out to make any enemies, so I think it's better that I not address it, if you know what I mean. Suffice it to say that the vast majority of people I know who have fewer children than I do use more, a lot more, of the earth's resources, among other things.

VA writes:

But are there real arguments to be made for large families?
I grew up in a fairly large family of five children.

My parents were from large families, of thirteen and eight children, respectively.

Here's what I know from experience and observation about large families:
The children of large families are given more responsibility, usually through necessity, and they have to pull their weight and do their part. This encourages a work ethic and a mature attitude at an earlier age, as well as giving them confidence in what they can do.

They learn the idea of accommodating and getting along with others among a group of siblings.

Kids in a large family are each others' company and entertainment, as well as emotional support. You learn to interact with peers through interacting with your sisters and brothers. Granted, it's not always a bed of roses, but neither is life in the larger world. It teaches you a sense of reality.

"The great advantage of living in a large family is that early lesson of life's essential unfairness."
- Nancy Mitford

Older children in the family act as role models (in positive ways, and sometimes negative ways). Older siblings can sometimes be an inspiration either to do good things, or an example to avoid, by bad example. Having younger siblings helps us learn childcare skills and responsibility, which prepare us to be parents in our turn.

Having many siblings tends to teach us not to be as materialistic, because resources are spread rather thinner in large families, and we learn to have regard for others and their wants and needs as well as our own.

Children in larger families have a less exaggerated sense of their own importance; in a larger family you are not going to be doted upon by your parents or grandparents as much as if you were an only child. You thus attain a sense of perspective about yourself and your value. You don't get the idea that the sun rises and sets on you, in a large family. It isn't all about you. There are other people to be considered, and everybody has to take their turn, and learn to wait.

I've noticed that many 'only children' have more trouble relating to peers, or that they tend to be more idiosyncratic, more inclined to be loners. That can be good or bad, but from an outsider's perspective, it seems rather lonely to be an only child. Friends somewhat take the place of siblings, but friends can and do come and go. They are not always there for life, as siblings usually are.

Now I can hear the arguments that 'brothers and sisters aren't always close; many times they can't get along, and even loathe each other.' That's as may be; no doubt it happens, but I don't see that in really well-functioning, loving families much. I didn't see any of that kind of conflict in my Dad's family; the bond between him and his brothers and sisters, and their loyalty to each other, overrode any squabbles they had, which were few.

Blood is, as the old saying has it, thicker than water. Friends can fall out and part ways forever, (and yes, so can family members) but especially with a large family, even if you are estranged from one or two of your siblings, there are plenty of others there for you. Large families present better odds of having supportive, loyal family members who will stick by you.

The same is true of parents and children. My beloved Grandma, with thirteen children and dozens of grandchildren and who knows how many great-grandchildren never lacked for someone to care for her at the end of her life. She did live a long and healthy and active life, and her health failed only at the very end. She was always surrounded by people who loved her as only family members can love.

Of course we can love those who are not kin. But there is a special kind of accepting, enduring, unconditional love that is found among close kin. We can see it also between loving spouses and among certain very close friends, but the family circle is the main source of such love, and after all, it's within the close family unit that we first learn love, acceptance, cooperation, self-sacrifice, and compassion. We also learn patience, and contrariwise, we learn how to stand up for ourselves, if we have contentious siblings.

The family is a microcosm of the larger world out there. It can prepare us to succeed and prosper, given the right conditions. Even a less-than-ideal family can teach us useful lessons.

And surely having large families, with many caring relatives is better for society, especially when seen from a conservative or traditional perspective. In the future, given the prevalence of small families, there will be many, many older people who will rely on nursing home care, and on the ministrations of strangers and the government to help them as they become infirm.

In past eras, when there were large families, siblings shared in the care of the elders when they could no longer take care of themselves, and there was less need for the old folks to be warehoused in nursing homes as they aged and their health failed. Usually, one of the many children could take in the ailing parent and care for them at home.

From a conservative point of view, smaller families and many childless adults will one day mean many frail elderly having to be cared for by the state and by strangers in the relatively near future. If our ideal is smaller government, and a shrinking of the 'nanny state', small families are counterproductive. The presence of strong (and large) family support systems means far less need for entitlement programs and institutions for the elderly.

Likewise, the leftist-feminist agenda has created a need for more day-care centers and has led to a tendency to put toddlers in 'pre-schools' at earlier ages, in the care of the school system.This contrasts to the customs of the past. When I was a child, most of us did not leave our mothers until age six, when we were required to start first grade. Now, at age six, most children are already veterans of the 'system', and fully acculturated to the public school institution.

So the smaller family tends to mean more isolation, early in life and late in life, with the reliance on the rather impersonal institution rather than the loving bosom of the family.

There are many reasons why the left pushed the idea the desirability of few or no children, and of the 'village' raising our children, as opposed to parents and the extended family having control over their children's upbringing. Overall, the agenda has weakened the family and home and the influence thereof, in favor of the influence of the state and debased popular culture.

And speaking of debased popular culture, has anybody noticed how much our popular culture tends to disparage and ridicule the family unit, especially the traditional family? Many sitcoms and movies tend to portray 'dysfunctional' families with obnoxious, boorish parents and malicious siblings. The family is treated very roughly in our entertainment media. I think this is intentional.

People in a society with mostly small families and a weakened family unit are often people with few close ties, people who are rootless and disconnected and more prone to alienation and anomie. They might be possibly more inclined to find 'surrogate families' in weird places, like cults, or political causes, or perhaps simply to remain permanent adolescents, doing adolescent things into middle age or beyond. We often read the standard excuses made by liberal sociologists and journalists about how fatherless kids, (of whom we have many now) or kids with weak family bonds, join gangs, and find their support system there. We are social animals, and people who lack the most primal connections will either tend to find some substitute, or perhaps just become isolated. There does seem to me to be a larger number of isolated, lonely people in today's America, compared to the past.

On WikiAnswers, someone asked about the advantages and disadvantages of a large family. The only response was this:

"If someone decides to have a large family that's their business, however having a large family you better have a good salary or both parents working as the cost of having a large family today is expensive. With a small family the costs are less."

Is this what it really comes down to, dollars and cents? It isn't possible to count everything in economic terms. Doing so, or even attempting to reduce everything to the naked economic calculations, shows a kind of soullessness that is the unique product of our spiritually impoverished time.

Our parents and grandparents raised families, often large families, in less prosperous times than ours. If they did it, so can those today who want families.

It all comes down to priorities.(emphasis mine)

“He that raises a large family does, indeed, while he lives to observe them, stand a broader mark for sorrow; but then he stands a broader mark for pleasure too.” - Benjamin Franklin

TM: With respect to this last lengthy section of VA's entry, as I said in a comment to the post, "I couldn't agree more with everything she said." My experience, both during my childhood (when we were much poorer and had much much less than my family has now), as well as during my adult years which has been primarily devoted to properly raising a large family (by today's standards), is essentially the same as VA's. Indeed, as people who know me well can attest, I've made the exact same arguments in the exact same terms time and time again. To my mind, and by my experience, it must be much more difficult to raise children right in a small, as opposed to a large family. I'm not saying that a large family necessarily assures that the children will turn out better, just that it must be, and is (I know) more difficult -- it must require a great deal more conscious effort to resist both a personal impulse, as well as the impulse of the extended family (grandparents primarily) to indulge them, to enforce proper discipline, and so on and so forth -- to "raise them in the way they should go" so that "when they are old, they will not soon depart from it."

Once again, I could go on and on and on about the advantages of having a large family, not just to myself and the children, but to society at large. But as VA rightly notes, it's all a matter of priorities. One thing that cannot be denied is that we now live in a debased culture full of self-absorbed, self-indulgent people. And I'm willing to wager that the vast majority of this culture of self-absorption and self-indulgence are the product of small, not large families. Any takers?


Rick Darby said...

"And I'm willing to wager that the vast majority of this culture of self-absorption and self-indulgence are the product of small, not large families. Any takers?"

Terry, old chap,

I'd take the other side of the bet, but I don't know how we'd ever settle it.

Spare a moment, though, for a few words from your self-absorbed, self-indulgent friend.

Might I suggest that both you and VA are arguing, at bottom, on the basis of what makes you feel comfortable because you came from relatively large families, so that seems "right." I do not mean to sound patronizing: we all, myself included, find comfort in what we grew up with and are used to (if it was a reasonably pleasant experience).

But if everyone felt as you do, then we would in a few generations (with or without immigration) be living in a country with a billion people, such as India today. I guess that's okay with you; it isn't with me. Again, just a question of values, no "proof" possible either way.

One thing I do insist on: contra VA, I know for a fact that there are people who urge small families for environmental reasons, and that applies to all nationalities and races, including — no, particularly — those of the Third World. I know it for a fact because I am one who so argues.

I congratulate you and VA on your good sense in not wanting to have lots of children in an effort to out-breed the Muslims. Producing babies as political weapons is as bad a reason as I can think of for procreation. Mussolini was very keen on it, awarding medals to mothers who had a bumper crop.

Terry Morris said...


When you call someone "old chap", that means they've struck a nerve with you, right? Anyway, re the bet: when I wrote that I felt like the law of averages was probably on my side -- I'm not much of a gambler in any case. Should I have reason to believe otherwise? We do agree that we live in a self-absorbed, self-indulgent society, right? Are we disagreeing on what constitutes self-absorption and self-indulgence?

When you say that VA and I are arguing, at bottom, on the basis of what makes us feel comfortable, you imply that we've put little or no thought to the other side of the issue. I don't know whether you've ever had any experiences working with children, but I have. And I can tell you that, generally speaking, children that come from large families are more respectful, more caring and generous toward those around them, more self-governing, better disciplined, require less maintenance, and the whole works. But here again, so do their parents exhibit these qualities. This is, again, a general rule. I freely admit the exception.

And speaking of the exception, I don't doubt that there are people who genuinely urge small families for environmental reasons. Were there no others to look to, your example is proof enough for me.

But anyway, good to see you made it back safe and sound from your vacation. I trust all went well.


Call Me Mom said...

I am in agreement with you and VA. I'll even take it a step further. In addition to having fewer resources at both ends of life, those with small families have fewer resources in the middle too. The probability that one or more siblings will be relatively successful is greatly increased when there are siblings. That makes for more resources that can be called upon when one is in need of advice or support. (Emotional or financial)

Santiago Chiva de Agustín said...

Hello. I think that you would enjoy this video. When the European society discovered that in some years there will not be enough children, some, companies, celebrities and associations have prepared in Germany this video in 2005. In it they explain very well some reasons to have children.
In the United States the low number of birth is not a big problem yet, but it could be in the future. I hope that this video help to every family to think.

Santiago Chiva
Granada (Spain)