Faith and the ‘One and Done’ tradition

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why so many mainstream journalists do not want to write about the practical implications of the choices made by liberal religious believers and even those of skeptics. While coverage of religious conservatives (much of it inaccurate or simply simplistic) consumes oceans of ink, the fine details of the lives of liberal believers are rarely examined.

Your GetReligionistas have been saying this since the first days of this weblog.

Consider, for example, that recent Time magazine cover story that ran with the headline, “The Only Child Myth.” (Once again, alas, the full story is behind a digital wall and you can only see an abridged version. Also, the parts of the story that center on religion were among those cut out. I’ll watch for the full text in future weeks, but for now you’ll have to rely on passages that I have typed up to share with you.)

This topic, and this report, raises lots of questions, including why the Time editors made the Meacham-esque decision to publish a news essay on this controversial and emotional topic that was written by a reporter, Lauren Sandler, who right up front states (good for her, in terms of candor) that she is an only child and that she is the mother of only one child and that’s fine with her, thank you very much.

The article feels like an extended argument on behalf of a cause, with few sympathetic voices showing up to argue for the other side. After all, states Sandler, the one-child model has become the “new traditional family,” especially during these hard economic times. Take that, Focus on the Family.

I kept wondering if and when a clearly religious angle would show up in this story, fearing that it would be totally haunted. Finally, one did.

If you comb the World Values Survey, you’ll find religiosity and fertility go hand in hand, whether in more secular Europe or in more pious America. As much as family size is a deeply personal issue, for many people it is also a spiritual one. And as Samuel Preston writes in his 2008 paper “The Future of American Fertility,” high fertility can beget high fertility: children who inherit their parents’ religious beliefs inherit at least one of the reasons to have many children themselves. No wonder churches nationwide vied to book Jon and Kate Gosselin (predivorce) for guest spots in their pulpits. Evangelicals — the biggest share of their viewership — saw the Gosselins’ brood as proof of pure piety.

It must have felt good to tap in the negative rebound on that Gosselin story. However, this is a serious subject and there are many other religious voices — including Catholics, Jews, Muslims and others — who could speak to this point. However, there really isn’t time in this editorial essay to contemplate the lives and beliefs of those on the other side.

Still, it was at this point that I really began to wonder if Time was going to leave the religion element completely out of its blissful coverage of the “One and Done” lifestyle. After all, if intense religious faith leads to fertility, what kind of religious belief or unbelief leads to this new “traditional family”? In other words, what is the religious (or, perhaps, “values”) content of this new tradition?

What we read sounds persuasive, but rather — dare I say it? — self-centered. Check this out, from the abridged version:

As parents, we tend to ask ourselves two questions when we talk about having more children. First, will it make our kid happier? And then, will it make us happier? A 2007 survey found that at a rate of 3 to 1, people believe the main purpose of marriage is the “mutual happiness and fulfillment” of adults rather than the “bearing and raising of children.” There must be some balance between the joy our kids give us and the sacrifices we make to care for them.

“Most people are saying, I can’t divide myself anymore,” says social psychologist Susan Newman. Before technology made the office a 24-hour presence, we actually spent less time actively parenting, she explains. “We no longer send a child out to play for three hours and have those three hours to ourselves,” she says. “Now you take them to the next practice, the next class. We’ve been consumed by our children. But we’re moving back slowly to parents wanting to have a life too. And people are realizing that’s simply easier with one.”

Or consider this snippet from a visit with Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick:

Ironically, it seems that if economic pressures can bring about lower fertility, so can economic prosperity. “I love my daughters to bits. But skiing and sports cars without baby seats can be fun too,” he says. “That’s why only children are the secular trend of a rich society we’ve been moving toward for the past 100 years.”

Is that it? This is a “secular trend” — period? I find it hard to believe that the Time editors were willing to settle for that.

Is this crucial question really that simple? Faith equals living for others? A lack of faith equals living for oneself? Surely there is more to the faith of the “One and Done” tradition than this? Where are the religious voices on the other side of the childbirth equation?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ray Ingles

    Is this crucial question really that simple? Faith equals living for others? A lack of faith equals living for oneself?

    Even the parts you quoted from the article don’t support that simple a picture. Religious faith tends to encourage more children, even in the economically prosperous. Economic prosperity tends to encourage fewer children, even in those with religious faith. I agree more detail about both of those factors – neither are so simple as that – would be a good idea.

    (Of course, I’m an atheist married to a liberal theist. We have four kids; make of that what you will.)

  • Dan

    I too would be most interested in reading about the spirituality of contraception from the point of view of its proponents. My own view is that any such spirituality, like most of modern feminism, is in its essence not Christian.

  • Dave

    First, will it make our kid happier?

    There’s the spiritual, other-centered aspect of the one-and-done family: The welfare of the child one has.

  • Tom McNally

    If you love Jesus Christ then it is not an about ME situation. Love Jesus and love all others. Love a wife, love your children. God provides the rest. If you have children based on what’s “good for me”,you may be in trouble.
    In Jesus’ own words he said it will be easier for a camel to fit through the head of a needle that to pass through the gates of heaven. That’s the playing field.If you’re not on that field you are out of the game.All the rationalizing in the world will not change God’s words.

  • Julia

    the spirituality of contraception

    What is the meaning of spirituality as used in this phrase and in other ways in the article?

    Does it mean religiousethicsmeditationspiritual direction from a third person? “Spiritual” is a very mushy term to use these days.

    But we’re moving back slowly to parents wanting to have a life too. And people are realizing that’s simply easier with one.

    Actually, the benefit of multiple children doesn’t start paying off until there are three of them. Two will fight and require endless attention; three start entertaining and watching over each other. You get more and pretty soon you have babysitters and chaffeurs.

    Being the eldest of six and the mother of three, that scenario was my experience and that of my friends. Maybe that doesn’t work any more – child welfare probably frowns on children sometimes being responsible for siblings these days.

  • http://NewAdvent Romy

    Well said, Tom. I wonder, though, on what is the happiness of the child based? Does it come from knowing that he/she is at the center of the family universe? From not having to share the parents’ love for them with anyone else? Is it from knowing that he/she does not impinge the freedom of the parents? Is it from being the recipient of material goods? And not having to, God forbid, share them with ANYONE?
    We are already living in a world where couples find it hard to share, to love. Sharing is learned in the family first. We are not meant to be alone. The several “onlys” I have known felt it most as their parents aged. They felt very alone in dealing with their parents’ issues and in other problems in their lives. This was covered a couple of years ago in the New York Times.

  • tmatt

    Romy and Tom:

    Why did you leave your comments? What do they have to do with the journalism issues in the post and the purpose of this weblog?

    You do see, don’t you, that you are voicing your opinion ON THE RELIGIOUS ISSUE in the post, not the journalism issue itself. There are many blogs on which such comments are appropriate. This is not one of them.

    Romy, your comment ends with a reference to a NYTs article.

    Please supply us with the URL so that we know we are dealing with real information. Thank you.

  • tmatt


    Ditto for you, btw. You are normally centered on journalism, but not in this case.

  • Steve

    Thanks for blogging on this and for excerpting portions that aren’t online yet. One thing my wife and I noticed in writing our book Start Your Family, was that today’s couples are much more likely to do a cost/benefit analysis before having kids or adding to the number they have. Articles like this that lay out the costs and benefits of kids without any meaningful spiritual dimensions just add to the utilitarian mindset that is driving much of the American population toward the European model of frugal fertility.

  • Jeff

    Interestingly, Ray underscored the exact point. I’d be curious to know what were the reasons an atheist decides to have 4 children, and how does that reflect his worldview (and all of the nuances that go into that question).

    Similarly, how does a Christian worldview square, not square, not even have anything to do with (etc.) having only one child. Even in a limited editorial piece, it would at least be nice to know that the author realizes that there is much more to be explored. In fact, it would be nice if they would commit to such an exploration.

  • Ray Ingles

    Jeff –

    Interestingly, Ray underscored the exact point. I’d be curious to know what were the reasons an atheist decides to have 4 children, and how does that reflect his worldview (and all of the nuances that go into that question).

    Well, set up the interview with the Times and I’ll consider it. It’s a little off-topic for this forum. :)

  • Evanston2

    I’m grateful for Ms. Sandler’s candor in stating up front that she was an only child, and had one. At GetReligion y’all have seemed to favor a veil of privacy for journalists. Fine, but we can seen from the latest JournoList eruption that there’s a strong, self-righteous streak of selection and spin of stories that extends throughout the major networks, TIME, and even the Columbia school of journalism. Considering that Rev. Wright is the latest topic of interest (tangentially, to protect Mr. Obama from association with his own pastor) I wonder how much the media refrains from ever putting black or other minority clergy in a negative light? Probably not a good topic for selling “copy” or for getting a Pulitzer, but it does seem that there are only a few socially acceptable negative topics for religious journalism. Here’s a Daily Caller quote regarding what negativity is OK within your trade:
    “Part of me doesn’t like this shit either,” agreed Spencer Ackerman, then of the Washington Independent. “But what I like less is being governed by racists and warmongers and criminals.”
    Is it any wonder that journalists are not trusted on any topic any more???

  • Dave

    Jeff, your suggestion is a good one but one could not base a decent story on interviews with a few representative people. That would be anecdotes, not data, and would be ripped to shreds by GR, among others. Someone would have to sponsor a poll that asked the right questions of enough people, or interest one of the motivated pollster outfits to do it from their own interest.

  • Crimson Wife

    “Economic prosperity tends to encourage fewer children”

    Not a true statement. I read a statistic in The Economist that affluent families (those with incomes >$250k) have a greater number of children on average than middle-class families (2.3 vs. 1.8). The very wealthiest families (those in the Forbes 400) had an even higher average number of kids (2.88).

  • Peggy

    I actually think it’s the DESIRE for economic prosperity that begets fewer children. It’s careerism and feminisim, frankly. Only-children is often the result of late marriage (or never marriage by a career woman) or IVF-created, making only one child more than likely in those cases. In any case, perhaps, it’s a chicken and egg thing.

    I hope to see this at the dr’s waiting room tomorrow and read it all. Not knowing the whole of it, I wonder whether the article addresses the societal drawbacks of single children. The most important of course being that this does not fulfill the replacement rate of birth necessary. Further, what about families who are less than willing to have their only child enlist in the military especially when wars are in progress? I had a woman friend with this same concern, fearing a draft of her only son, in the wake of 9-11. Now, it didn’t come to pass, but some kids may volunteer.

    Also, on the religious side, for Catholics, this means fewer families will encourage their only sons to take holy orders–though I know of 2 priests who are only sons. [Side coincidental note--one died of cancer a few years back; the other is suffering from cancer at this time.]

    I don’t know if this article would cover the negative consequences for Catholic schools when Catholics are violating the teaching by having fewer children, including only one child in some families. Schools must close, parishes close with smaller and fewer families in successive generations. [There are other factors, such as geographic population shifts, however, to consider, but low birth rates is a key factor.]

  • tmatt


    You are doing it again.

    You are arguing about THE ISSUE ITSELF, instead of the issues raised in the post about the coverage of the One and Done issue.

    Stick to journalism.

    This is depressing.

  • Peggy

    Is it possible that the use of “secular trend” by prof Oswald refers to a statistical analysis use of the term “secular” as opposed to meaning “non-religious”? That occurred to me reading the quote again.

    For example, the idea of a “secular trend” is used in economics to distinguish such events from cyclical trends.
    This is an economic journal articlel, eg, which I don’t really expect any one to read, but I provide by way of example.

    It is possible that the prof means the long run trend, not a cycle of decrease and increase in birth rates. The prof is talking about economic pressures.

    Here’s a brief definition of secular trend:

    secular trend:

    Economy or market trend associated with some characteristic or phenomenon which is not cyclical or seasonal but exists over a relatively long period.

    Finally, this guy, Andrew Oswald, is indeed an econ prof. He means statistically speaking, not in reference to religious considerations. He is silent on the religious aspect of single children households, we should conclude.

  • Marie

    tmatt, thanks for adding more to the abridged version. Is there any mention of China? Their one child policy has a society of one and only kids, or was that not explored. Also are factors like immigration and urbanization (makers of more kids and an encourager of fewer, respectively) mentioned?
    Regarding churches (can’t say for mosques and temples) Protestant churches (and some individual Catholic) churches have done a poor job at encouraging sizable families. Better at being pro-life but not so much pro-production.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It seems like the story is focused solely on the individual and what will make individual parents happy. In fact, we Americans seem to have reached a point where one’s individual bliss counts for absolutely everything and one’s responsibility to society for absolutely nothing.
    Since the human replacement rate is over 2 people per couple, that means if everyone becomes determined to have only one child, inevitably that society will soon go out of existence (to be replaced by more generous toward giving life societies).
    Did the article delve into this aspect???

  • Suzanne

    I wish the author of this article had interviewed Bill McKibben. He’s an environmentalist who has written about the spiritual (and specifically the Christian) aspect of environmentalism and wrote an entire book (Maybe One) about the decision to have only one child.

    Haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how much it delves into the religious aspect of the decision. But I suspect he would have been a really good interview to counter the “there’s no room for a baby seat in my convertible” aspect.

  • Dave

    Deacon John, a reporter who went into that kind of stuff would, for balance, also have to get into how immigration is bolstering the population whilst changing it. That would get far away from the “one and done” subject.

  • Martha

    “This topic, and this report, raises lots of questions, including why the Time editors made the Meacham-esque decision to publish a news essay on this controversial and emotional topic that was written by a reporter, Lauren Sandler, who right up front states (good for her, in terms of candor) that she is an only child and that she is the mother of only one child and that’s fine with her, thank you very much.”

    That’s probably fair enough; after all, hasn’t the argument been made on here that having a reporter with knowledge of the topic covering a story means at least more likelihood of the hidden pitfalls, the meaning of the type of terms used, and less inclination to treat the story as ‘with gun and camera along the Limpopo’?

    Myself, I’m more cyncially inclined to wonder has the decrease in numbers of children coincided with the increase in number of parents: mom and dad, then mom’s new boyfriend and dad’s new girlfriend after they split up, then step-dad and step-mom (who needn’t be the same persons as previous boyfriend and girlfriend) and any new half-, step- or foster-siblings thrown into the mix?

  • Colin

    Evangelicals — the biggest share of their viewership — saw the Gosselins’ brood as proof of pure piety.

    I don’t doubt that Evangelicals represent a large share of the Gosselins’ viewership, but it would have been helpful for the reporter to offer some justification for the claim that Evangelicals would be inclined to see their large family as proof of piety, ‘pure’ or otherwise.

    It’s the rare Evangelical church where one would be exposed to, for example, a sermon that denounced the use of contraception in expressly religious terms. I know that the so-called ‘quiverfull’ movement has received some coverage on this blog, but my impression is that the movement, such as it is, is a relatively small (if vocal) subset of evangelical Christianity.

  • TeaPot562

    In Japan, the older population (above 65; or above 70) continues to grow; and the population of working age is shrinking. This is primarily a/c most Japanese women of child-bearing age are rejecting the life-styles of their mothers – staying home with the kids in evenings while their husbands partied with geishas or whatever.
    Western Europe has a shrinking non-muslim population, but a growing muslim population. What group will be dominant in the year 2100 A.D.?
    In the USA, the caucasians excluding recent immigrants are failing to have 2.1 births per woman of child-bearing age over her lifetime. We are showing by our behaviour that some educational ideas cause the decline and eventual death of a culture. If we as a civilization fail to replace ourselves, the civilization will die out.
    TeaPot562 – Parent of five, grandparent of twelve, great-grandparent of three so far. (And blessed with a very loving and kind wife of 55 years and counting.)

  • Peggy

    I read the article at a waiting room today. It was devoid of religious considerations except for stating that some people have religious considerations. There was no discussion of religious consequences, either, eg, fewer children means closing Catholic schools. I see it as a self-justification article knocking down–weakly–one by one the objections to single child families. At least she addressed taking care of one’s older parents. She and her husband are responsible. Their daughter will be responsible alone if it’s only them. The consideration was about personal happiness. There was no deep consideration of what it means to be happy. Happiness meant going on more exciting trips once that one kid is out of car seats and diapers; it means lowering monthly diaper bills; it means more time alone, more time to dwell on the one kid and make him perfect.

    I think most discussions of marriage and family (and life) today omit the idea that true contentment or happiness comes from obligations or commitments we freely make to others, to do God’s will. The idea of happiness discussed today is limited to cool trips, cool cars, cool sporting activities, cool TVs, houses, etc. The parents want to “enjoy” themselves. They want to feel like they did their duty by having one kid. Having kids is about self-fulfillment, not about God’s will in any way.

    That’s what the article sounded like to me. My discussion of “secular trend” is confirmed correct by reading the entire article.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I re-read the long part about how the only child reacts to being an only child. I am an only child–now 67 years old.
    Along these lines I wonder about two aspects of the article. The article seemed to look only at adjustment or accomplishment conclusions made by researchers. How about just plain not liking having grown up an only child and disliking that fact the older one becomes. Did the researchers look at any senior only children???
    Every only child I know has, by modern American standards, a large family (4 or 5 children) including my wife and I (4 children). That says something that may not come out in any psych survey
    And I’ll give three examples that young researchers or Time writers may never have considered.
    When your parents die, who do you share your childhood memories with–the wall?? Wife and children can be totally wonderful in comisserating–like mine were. but they have no way of sharing what brothers and sisters are able to share in remembering their growing up together. What a blessing it was for my wife to be able to share memories of her father with her brothers and sisters when he died.
    Also, as my parents aged, I had no siblings to discuss and share responsibility on how to handle difficult situations that developed with them.
    Also, I have noticed many older siblings becoming each others support systems as their own children and grandchildren have scattered across the country.

  • Suzanne

    @Deacon John

    I agree with many of your points, and I think talking to grown only children is an important part of this story.

    It goes both ways, too. I’ve read trend stories about extremely large families that fail to talk to grown kids who grew up in them.

    I personally know several children who grew up as the eldest in large families. They themselves have only one or two kids — they resented a childhood spent as unpaid babysitters for the younger kids and don’t want to subject their own children to that.

    When you do a lifestyle story such as this one, it’s good to go to the people who have been there, done that and can give a longer-range perspective.

  • Diane Duggan

    I am an only child. So is my husband. It was a lonely childhood. I prayed that I would have more than 1 child. Thankfully, I have 3. They are each others’ best friends. Thank you God.

  • Lori Pieper

    I couldn’t help wondering about this bit –

    “A 2007 survey found that at a rate of 3 to 1, people believe the main purpose of marriage is the “mutual happiness and fulfillment” of adults rather than the “bearing and raising of children.”

    Now 3 to 1 is a huge margin, and would represent a significant societal change in views of marriage, but I can’t help wondering how this survey was constructed. Was it an “either a or b” choice? If so, it would eliminate or even skew most Christian views of marriage, which say that marriage is a community of love between husband and wife that has as its natural result the bearing and raising of children; both purposes of marriage are an inseparable unity (This is certainly the Catholic view; I trust most Christians share it). Or would respondents have been allowed to choose both these alternatives? Also was the survey divided by religion at all? How did religious vs. non-religious people respond? And would the author have mentioned these things if they were included?

    Or was there any more analysis this survey elsewhere in the full piece we didn’t see?

    In case you couldn’t guess, I think this is an altogether shallow piece of analysis, though of course I didn’t see the whole article.