Why Stop?

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Why Stop?

News article

By: Sarah Ebner

Date: February 4, 2006

Source: The Guardian Limited. "Why stop?." February 4, 2006 〈http://www.guardian.co.uk/family/story/0,,1701474,00.html〉 (accessed June 24, 2006).

About the Author: Sarah Ebner is a journalist who contributes regularly to the London Times and to the Guardian series of newspapers and online media, headquartered in the United Kingdom. She has also written for the London Daily Post and the Liverpool Echo.


Family size is determined by a number of factors, among which are financial and childcare resources, dwelling size, parental age, marital status, job or occupational demands, and medical and fertility factors (ability to carry pregnancies to term, physical and other potential gestational complications, and the like). The appearance of the family has changed during the past several generations in America, as the economy has shifted away from agrarian pursuits, rural populations—although those certainly continue to exist in America, just to a significantly lesser degree than they did when the population was much smaller—and subsistence living, to more urban and suburban population concentrations, with their attendant grouped and smaller housing arrangements, diminished available land for construction, and increased cost of living. Before the growth of technology, there was economic benefit in having a larger family, as it contributed to available labor and resource. As demographic and socioeconomic shifts occur in which occupations have shifted to more industry and technology and less family farming types of pursuits, it has become progressively less feasible for a middle class family to support a large number of children.

In most of the developed countries of the world, the trend has been for people to marry later, to discourage (or outlaw) child labor, to emphasize education, and to embrace lifestyle choices and creature comforts that are not financially accessible if all available resources are being directed at childrearing. As a result of these and a complex interaction of cultural and sociodemographic factors, the number of children per family has been gradually declining since the middle of the twentieth century. Decisions about family size are made with an eye toward the ever-increasing costs associated with the raising of each individual child through maturity.

According to data published by the US Census Bureau (from year 2000 data), the average household size has decreased steadily, with five or more person homes diminishing from twenty-one to about ten per cent between 1970 and 2003. The average number of people making up a household in the United States stood at about 2.5 in 2003. Overall, fertility rates have declined, and average number of children per family has decreased during the past thirty plus years, despite changes in the demographics of family make-up—more single women are giving birth than in the past, and more single parent families with household heads of either gender exist, but there are fewer children per family than there were in previous generations.


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In addition to a slowly growing subpopulation of "natalists" who endeavor to have families that are as large as possible, believing that their central mission in adult life is parenthood and the rearing of the next generation, there remains a group of individuals in the United States who are committed to having very large families. They are often a self-described "underground subculture," existing in a society—and, indeed, in a global culture, that discourages the considerable use of resources inherent in the raising of families that contain significantly greater numbers of children than are the norm for their demographic area.

According to the 2000 Census, the average American family has (just under) two children; so few have more than six children that the Census Bureau has eliminated that as a demographic category. There is evidence that families with considerably more than the average number of children may be subject to bias and negative communication from peers and strangers alike. As a result, they sometimes express a belief that they must resort to elaborate explanations to justify their family size to others and to themselves, and that they sometimes either isolate socially in order to avoid criticism, or seek out communities or organizations that encourage large family size.

Mueller and Yoder coined the term "supernormative mothers" to describe mothers who bear, adopt, or otherwise raise four or more children. Their research results support the hypothesis that families with more children may be subject to criticism from other adult members of the dominant culture. Indeed, there is some suggestion in their research population that "outsiders" make a variety of negative value judgments about parents of large families: that they may be neglectful or even abusive to their offspring, that they are diminishing financial and natural resources that belong to the entire population, that they are living in poverty or tapping into governmental or local resources that ought to be given to other, "more deserving" (smaller) families simply because of their size, and that they are unable to adequately parent or otherwise attend to the needs of their children. The same research data suggests that children growing up in large families may also experience a lack of social support or approval. Perceived social support affords several protective functions: It insulates from negative circumstances (such as financial stresses, illness, and the like), increases ability to cope with the pressures and demands of daily life, increases feelings of self-efficacy, personal empowerment, and parenting satisfaction. There is considerable evidence, published by Moore and Chase-Lansdale, as well as by Rosenfeld and Richman, that a feeling of social support or approval can have long-lasing positive impacts on children's future successes.

In a progressively more technologically advanced society, in which citizens are potentially isolated either by life circumstances or perceptions of social stigma, a sense of "virtual community" can sometimes be gained by participating in Internet "chat groups" or information boards populated by other people with similar issues or values, or by attending in-person support groups for parents of large families. Because there may be a lack of community support for large families, considerable satisfaction and relief may be found by being able to turn to others with similar experiences for advice and support, and for answers to questions specific to extra-large families—such as the best spacing of siblings, how to decide when the family is big enough, how to provide for larger numbers of children on limited income, how to buy an appropriately sized vehicle, how to shop for clothing and shoes, how to travel with a group of small children, and how to manage natural family planning.



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