Are children a form of wealth?

The only time I experienced culture shock was a few years ago upon return from a convention of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. One night at the bar, some of the people there got in a friendly discussion about our families. And, specifically, the size of our families. The men and women with 10 or more were quickly identified and feted. Then, I came back to DC and went to see the movie Anchorman. It’s a great movie but at the end, the mentally retarded character played by Steve Carrell is identified as a fundamentalist Christian who ends up having 12 kids. The audience roared with delight.

That was my experience with culture shock. In my religious community, having many children is considered an extraordinary gift from God. In my cultural circles, it gets you mocked as an idiot of epic proportions. It may sound silly, but I had never felt that disconnect between my two worlds so strongly as I did that night.

So it was a treat to come across Kate Zernike’s piece in the New York Times about how large families are scorned and mocked by various elements in the culture. The story profiles a variety of different large families and packs an unbelievable amount of thoughtful detail into each description. It tackles big issues but keeps everything very readable.

As most of the media is obsessing about the California octuplets, this reporter uses that as a hook to explore the much more significant phenomenon of family size in general:

Back when the average woman had more than three children, big families were the Kennedys of Hickory Hill and Hyannis Port, “Cheaper by the Dozen,” the Cosbys or “Eight is Enough” — lovable tumbles of offspring as all-American in their scrapes as in their smiles.

But as families have shrunk, and parents helicopter over broods tinier yet more precious, a vanload of children has taken on more of a freak show factor. The families know the stereotypes: they’re polygamists, religious zealots, reality-show hopefuls or Quebecois in it for the per-child government bonus. And isn’t there something a little obsessive about Angelina Jolie’s quest for her own World Cup soccer team?

If you read the article, these paragraphs are clearly not meant to be taken as face value. They’re presenting a common view of large families as opposed to arguing for that view. The story goes on to mention how the British government’s environmental adviser declared it “irresponsible” to have more than two children and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s goal of including contraception in the stimulus package. The story doesn’t overplay the significance of these things but steadily paints a picture of how large families are marginalized and attacked as immoral or costly.

Check out this interesting substantiating detail:

If large families are the stuff of spectacle, it is partly because they have become rarer.

In 1976, census data show, 59 percent of women ages 40 to 44 had three or more children, 20 percent had five or more and 6 percent had seven or more.

By 2006, four decades after the Supreme Court declared a constitutional right to use birth control (and the last year available from census studies), 28 percent of women ages 40 to 44 had three or more children, 4 percent had five or more and just 0.5 percent had seven or more.

So many of the families who share their stories tell of unbelievably inappropriate comments or questions about sex or birth control from bosses, random strangers and friends. The article explores the idea that women who have many children can’t also be educated or professional or have ambition. The women in the article talk about having a foot in both the domestic and professional words. One mother, a college professor, notes that much of the criticism comes from educated people who shouldn’t traffic in such gross stereotypes. On the other hand, sometimes people assume you have to be super wealthy to afford a large family.

So the article introduces us to Barbara Curtis, a mother of 12 in Northern Virginia. She’s a Montessori teacher and her husband is a commercial accounts manager — neither super-rich nor poverty stricken.

Mrs. Curtis illustrates one of the many ways that families grow so large: she had two children from her first marriage, then, with her second husband, seven in 10 years. One of those children had Down syndrome, so they adopted another Down syndrome child, believing two would grow up happier together. Since then, they have twice accepted requests to adopt another child with Down syndrome.

“Children are a kind of wealth,” Mrs. Curtis said. “Just not the kind of wealth our society tends to focus on.”

It’s fascinating how quickly the praise for the mother of octuplets rather quickly turned to scorn. A friend noticed that the scorn was based mostly on money. It’s not that people think marriage is a necessary prerequisite for family. And people certainly believe in-vitro fertilization is fine, even if you’re a single mum. But it is morally wrong for a single woman to have in-vitro fertilization if she already has six children — particularly if she doesn’t kill some of the embryos who are growing in her womb. The main — perhaps only — ethical problem seemed to be that the woman couldn’t support these children. It’s just interesting to note how much society views children as economic liabilities as opposed to people.

The story has some hidden ghosts. A comment about how women with less education have more children on average than women with significantly more education could speak to different priorities in life as opposed to some proof that hicks are breeders. But other ghosts are brought out a bit:

Many large families are religious, and some follow the QuiverFull movement, which takes encouragement for big families in Psalm 127: children are the gift of the Lord, “as arrows are in the hand of a mighty man,” and “happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them.”

The article also addresses the efforts by some environmentalists to fight the existence of siblings. Every couple would get one child and then they’re done if some had their way. Large families contend that they have economies of scale and an economic incentive to reduce consumption and reuse resources. The article also notes that women’s fertility in the United States is barely at replacement rate. We don’t hear from any members of large families who have negative comments about them but it’s a long article that covers a lot of ground. It’s a great idea for a story and handled very well.

YouTube: Click it. Listen to the clashing worldviews.

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  • jane

    A good article, but I think you may miss a reason for our “scorn” or frustration. IMHO, it’s all about our health care system and the disconnect that permits people to self-impoverish by doing IVF and plastic surgery, using disability payments for these, but then prove they’re not really disabled by running up massive bills on the results of IVF, while many of us who have worked our lives and pay for insurance have to struggle to get any $10 out of our health care plans, and never could feel confident of our financial ability to raise children. It’s as if there are two sets of rules: the ones we are all urged to follow, and then rewards if you just ignore them and go for it for yourself, sure you’ll somehow be able to make other people pay.

  • Lucy

    Good article. It was nice to see something so even-toned and respectful. I’m a regular reader of Barbara Curtis’s blog and have read nearly all her books, so it was great to see her quoted in the story, too. I guess my quibble with that would be that she’s mentioned as a teacher, when actually, she’s a published author of multiple books, a speaker and a well-known blogger. She *used* to be a teacher, although she writes a lot about Montessori. She writes a LOT about politics, prolife issues, etc., as well as mothering. And there was no link to her blog or mention of her books. So that’s kindof irritating.

    But overall, nicely done.

  • hoosier

    Jay Wexler, a contributor on Prawfsblawg, had a post a week or two ago about how he gets flak for being the father of an only child. Several commenters pointed out that parents of large broods also get as much if not more flak, and someone even suggested that perhaps its just deviation from the norm that irritates people. Have 2-3 children and you’re a regular joe/jane; have any more or less and there’s something wrong with you. Why don’t you conform?

    Here’s the URL for the post:

  • BJohnD

    Very interesting. Skimming the comments on the NYT site, the reaction seems mostly negative (not, I suppose, much of a surprise). A representative comment: “Interesting that no-one asked the kids what it’s like to have that many siblings. It does seem to me that there is something a little self-centered about parents who, in a world where limiting births is possible, choose to have many children. Is it good for kids to grow up in a litter?”

  • Karen Vaughan

    I think a major part of the furor over the octuplets is that there are eight at a time and one parent, plus a single set of overtaxed grandparents to go around. She isn’t on public assistance (the disability payments per year were quite modest) and apparently she found a way to get the IVF, but there are now 8 one-pound and a half babies in incubators (paid for by who?) who will likely never completely recover. Implanting no more than two at a time would permit her to have a large family without the danger to the babies and with more physical resources in the form of older siblings and used clothing, carseats and carriages to go around.

    We weren’t created to have eight at a time and the situation would never arise except through artificial interventions. Large families are one thing, eight at a time is another.

  • Peter H.

    Nothing in the story about NFP, and I agree that there could have been more coverage of the religious angle. There was a big ghost in one of the pictures, where the family room had a picture of the Divine Mercy and the room beyond it had a statue of Mary. I also found it funny that that family chose to have everyone pose barefoot. A little snarky I think!

  • Jerry

    The only time I experienced culture shock

    I assume you’ve never been overseas to a very different culture? Or maybe your reaction was very different from mine. I’ll never forget my first visit to India in the mid 1970′s and how it felt to walk off the airplane into a different world.

    The main — perhaps only — ethical problem seemed to be that the woman couldn’t support these children.

    That is not the reaction I’ve seen at all – financial considerations appear to be secondary if not tertiary. But I have seen some stories talking about the woman becoming a welfare Mom and the cost to the taxpayer. The primary story appears to be about the ethics of using fertility treatments. The secondary focus is on the question of the woman’s mental health including a supposed obsession with Angelina Jolie.

    FOX news headline from a different perspective, a National Enquirer one: Octuplets’ Mom: I Haven’t Had Sex in 8 Years, I Don’t Plan on Dating for 18 More,2933,494244,00.html

    So while cultural attitudes toward family size issues are a valid concern, I think this situation is a bad example to use for that discussoin.

  • thomas

    from David Bentley Hart article at
    (my bolding)

    I am not convinced that we are in any very meaningful sense in the midst of a “culture war”; I think it might at best be described as a fracas. I do not say that such a war would not be worth waging. Yet most of us have already unconsciously surrendered to the more insidious aspects of modernity long before we even contemplate drawing our swords from their scabbards and inspecting them for rust. This is not to say that there are no practical measures for those who wish in earnest for the battle to be joined: homeschooling or private “trivium” academies; the disposal or locking away of televisions; prohibitions on video games and popular music; Greek and Latin; great books; remote places; archaic enthusiasms. It is generally wise to seek to be separate, to be in the world but not of it, to be no more engaged with modernity than were the ancient Christians with the culture of pagan antiquity; and wise also to cultivate in our hearts a generous hatred toward the secular order, and a charitable contempt. Probably the most subversive and effective strategy we might undertake would be one of militant fecundity: abundant, relentless, exuberant, and defiant childbearing. Given the reluctance of modern men and women to be fruitful and multiply, it would not be difficult, surely, for the devout to accomplish — in no more than a generation or two — a demographic revolution. Such a course is quite radical, admittedly, and contrary to the spirit of the age, but that is rather the point, after all. It would mean often forgoing certain material advantages, and forfeiting a great deal of our leisure; it would often prove difficult to sustain a two-career family or to be certain of a lavish retirement. But if it is a war we want, we should not recoil from sacrifice.

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  • MikeL

    An interesting angle to include would be the long term demographics and how having so few children will affect entitlements like Social Security and all the debt generated by the stimulus bill.

  • Dan

    The article has an adult-centric orientation that is characteristic of modern, secular thinking about children. No consideration is given to what it means for children to grow up with very few cousins and in neighborhoods that are devoid of other children to play with. I tell my children stories of how I grew up in a nieghborhood that was virtually overrun with children and how crowded my grandmother’s house was with aunts, uncles and cousins when we gathered there. They say: “that sounds neat.” And it was.

  • Perpetua

    Hi Molly,
    You inspired me to do a post on Cornelia and the famous “These are my jewels” quote and the metaphor of jewels for children.

  • Jimmy Mac

    I have a developmentally disabled sister. The idea of her having a child … or anything near 12 children … is beyond the pale. She lives by herself, but under constant supervision. She would NOT have the skills to raise a baby.

  • Ben

    Interesting topic. I am the youngest of six children, and my eldest brother has five kids. My wife and I are leaning toward having none — which also draws considerable negative comments. Actually, come to think of it, most people think my large family background sounds fun and mostly react negatively when I say we might not have kids, and I’ve lived in deeply blue areas for most of my adult life.

    You don’t have to be rich to have a big family, but I think it’s undeniable that kids in large families can be deprived of various resource advantages unless their parents are pulling in quite a lot of money. Here I’m thinking primarily of private schooling or good public schooling in expensive real estate markets, and travel in distances requiring an airplane. That said, kids in a large family I think have socialization advantages that are also valuable: patience, perspectives outside your age group, not always getting your way/being focus of attention.

    Based on what I’ve seen, the education of the eldest tends to suffer a bit because it’s hard for those kids to get the space needed to study and they are also least likely to get significant travel experiences.

    One thing that’s unfortunate about the demise of large families is that kids in these families are far more detached from their parents — most of their time is spent with their siblings, rather than looking to their parents to provide all manner of entertainment and scheduling. I think that made for more independent people and parents that were less controlling.

  • Eve Tushnet

    In terms of journalism, I think these family-structure stories are so incredibly difficult because in order to portray a “balanced,” positives-and-negatives picture the reporter would often need to get parents to speak negatively about their experiences with their children or vice versa. I wouldn’t tell the New York Times all of my family’s business, and I am pretty sure most other people wouldn’t either.

    How can a reporter get a realistic picture of the difficulties of large families, or ANY family structure/size/insert variable here, when many parents and children would defend their families out of loyalty and love?

    And so we fall back on outlier-as-parable/outlier-as-scapegoat: The “octomom” becomes the only way we can talk about our own fears and misgivings without sounding ungrateful or disloyal… and we can defend our own and our parents’ choices, whatever they were, by comparing them favorably to hers.

    (fwiw, I’m biased strongly in favor of families with 3+ children, but this is a comment about the difficulties of doing journalism, and why people in unusual situations become celebrities.)

  • Sherry

    Thank you for addressing this topic so well. I read all 72 comments on the New York Time article. The level of ire against those with more than 3 children is real. As the mom of 9, I can tell you, I’ve been told to my face in FRONT of my children, “ARE YOU CRAZY?”

    It is hard not to want at that point, to turn to my built in loyal horde and say, “Sic ‘em!” but children are a form of spiritual wealth, and that sort of treasure does not translate to a fat 401 K or make much sense to the world.

    It’s no sacrifice to be surrounded by love. It is what makes living in the “real world” bearable.

  • Sarah Webber

    If you have neurotypical children, three or four or more seems possible. My eldest has high functioning autism and we consider ourselves greatly blessed that his younger sister only has a sensory disorder and a speech delay. I think my son is the only one in his all-autistic preschool class to have a younger sibling. We love our children but sometimes the thought of years of IEP’s stretching out before us is a little disheartening. And we are planning for certain not to have any more.

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  • Sherry

    Sarah, I recomend the book Voices of Autism, both for inspiration and comfort.

    As a former Special educator who worked with autistic teens, you have my support and sympathy in the hard push part of parenting that having a child with sensory processing issues involves.

    I have one son with Downs but it is not the same, and I was not advocating that everyone must have untold numbers of children, only that it is not as impossible as the world would have us believe.

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  • Darel

    A very interesting statistic gleaned from Pew Research Center, Social & Demographic Trends: Marriage/Parenthood, 2007.

    Percentage of people who believe children are “not important” for making “a successful marriage”, by level of education

    Less than high school: 12.0%
    High school or vo-tech: 21.9%
    Some college: 29.8%
    College graduate: 33.0%
    Post-graduate/professional: 41.3%

    Percentage of people who believe children are “very important” for making “a successful marriage”, by level of education

    Less than high school: 74.1%
    High school or vo-tech: 51.4%
    Some college: 39.3%
    College graduate: 35.7%
    Post-graduate/professional: 27.1%

  • Suzanne

    One thing I’ve heard from adults who grew up as older siblings in very large families is that they spent much of their childhood acting as unpaid babysitters. Many are quite bitter about having had no opportunities to do the normal things their peers did and they’ve made a conscious decision not to have as many children.

    Obviously every kid can find a reason to go back and fault their parents, but the actual experiences of children who grew up in large families — the good and the bad — seems to me a necessary component of writing about them.