Cheaper by the Dozen (2003)

In 2003, Steve Martin stared in a movie called Cheaper by the Dozen, based not on the book by the same name but simply on the concept of the challenges of a (fictional) family (the Bakers) trying to raise twelve children. I was in high school at the time, and watched it with my family because we had around the same number of children.

At the time, I was horrified. I declared that the movie was not at all realistic, because no actual family with twelve kids would function like that. I declared that the problem was that the movie portrayed a couple trying to raise twelve “only” children – you know, selfish, spoiled brats.

I rewatched the movie last week, and came to a very different conclusion. The movie portrays not a couple trying to raise twelve “only” children but rather a couple trying to raise twelve “normal” children.

While having twelve kids may be the definition of abnormal in our society today, the Baker children are actually the very definition of normal. They all go to public school. They are allowed to dress as they please and while they play with their siblings quite a bit they each also have their own social lives, activities, and friends. Even more importantly, they are allowed to be individuals, allowed to be teenagers, and allowed to have attitudes. They are allowed to speak their minds without getting in trouble. They don’t have to worry about self-censoring or that their parents will flip out at them for having a contrary viewpoint (when the older daughter moves in with her boyfriend, the parents express their disapproval but let her make her own decisions).

Perhaps most importantly, the children are not given responsibility beyond basic chores (the twelve-year-old is in charge of unloading the dishwasher, for instance). There is no expectation that the older children must constantly babysit – or raise or discipline – their younger siblings. When the mother goes out of town on a book tour for two weeks, it is the dad who steps in to run the house, not the oldest daughters (the oldest daughters were in school and had their own lives, after all). When I watched the movie in high school, this really confused me. I couldn’t understand what those older girls were doing having their own lives and not running the house for their mother like a well oiled machine. Now I get it. It’s the parents’ responsibility to run the house and raise the kids, not the older daughters’ responsibility.

Basically, the premise of the movie is to give a normal couple twelve kids and see what happens. While plenty of normal couples today do have large families, “large” generally means around five or six, not twelve kids (with the occasional exception of farming families, Catholic families, and “mega families” created through adoption). There is a big difference between trying to raise twelve children normally and trying to raise twelve children the Quiverfull way. Therefore, while the movie was about a family with the same general number of children as the family in which I grew up, it didn’t actually resemble my own life in the least. In fact, it more resembled the lives of my public school peers (not that I actually knew any of them) then it did my own. And I find that fascinating.

Allow me to illustrate with some pictures.

Now, some pictures of the daughters.

The interesting thing about the Baker family is that while the kids each have their own individuality and lives, and while they sometimes dislike each other and are unkind, they generally show a great deal of love for each other and see family as extremely important. While I saw their having their own lives as selfishness the first time I watched it, the second time I saw very little genuine selfishness.

I’d recommend watching the movie, especially if you’ve watched any episodes of the Duggars’ TV show or know anything about Quiverfull/Christian Patriarchy. The contrast – a mega family of kids being raised in a QF/CP environment versus a mega family of kids being raised normally – is fascinating.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • lil-ms-drama

    A great family friend of mine was 7 kids and 2 adults, probably the largest family I ever met personally. They weren't QF, just didn't use protection as they should've (oh and they were from 3 different fathers, the wife's first husband passed away in a tragic work accident, second one verbally and physically, to the point of nearly killing the infant, abusive, and still married to the 3rd). The 3rd husband adopted the oldest, but the father of the younger wouldn't agree to it. Nearly right after baby #7, he got cut to ensure no more. Completely Christian home to this day. They were more like the family from the movie, though. The oldest is now probably about 34 and the youngest is a high school sophomore. All the kids went to public school with the exception of the year I met them carpooling with them to the Christian school I attended. Only one (the 2nd born) is married and has any children. Just letting you know it IS completely possible to have a large Christian family that's normal and not QF. (Personally, I'm an atheist and am stopping after #2 is born this coming March.)

  • Lola

    Oh yeah, I think it's more common than you're realizing to have large families that aren't QF and are more like the cheaper by the dozen family. I have one friend who's somewhere toward the end of about 14 kids and another who is the youngest and only girl with 9 older brothers, plus a slew of other families with between 7-10 kids. All of these large families raised normal kids, and were not particularly religious, just really liked big families. Not completely normal, but I'd have loved to see a reality show of one of those families opposed to the Duggars (hey look, normal kids with a crap load of siblings!) Also, I love your comparative use of pictures. I feel like when I look at the Duggar picture, the cluster of younger boys blend together into one person, where as with the line up of the movie family, you can tell that each kid really has their own thing going on. (I don't know if it's just me, but your 2nd picture of the daughters isn't showing up)

  • Ashton

    Interesting how your perspective changed. The older kids in the movie were good people and not selfish at all. As I recall from the movie, the oldest 4 didn't cause any trouble although several of the younger siblings did, most notably Sarah. I didn't really like the movie though, mainly because it's supposed to be a comedy but I didn't find it very funny. I found it hard to believe that a father of 12 would have that much trouble while the mom was away or let his kids play hockey inside. He really didn't do a good job. Certainly a normal couple with 12 kids would not have a smoothly running household, but I doubt that it would be much like that. Everything that you said about the movie is true and they are a pretty normal family, but I wouldn't recommend the movie. I just thought it wasn't very good.I do think that there are families with that many kids that aren't quiverful. I don't think I've ever known anyone with more than 5 kids, though. Maybe I vaguely know one Catholic guy with around 10 siblings.

  • Maria

    I know families who have very large amounts of kids – some are Fundie families, some are normal families. It's not the amount of kids you have but how you parent them.

  • Libby Anne

    A clarification: When I said "normal couples today don't have twelve kids" I didn't mean "normal couples today don't have large families" but rather "normal couples today don't have mega families." The normal large families I've met (and I've met plenty in the last few years) tend to stop at five of six, or maybe as many as eight, but definitely before twelve. But then you're right to point out that there are exceptions to this rule – farming families and Catholic families in particular. I'm going to amend the post to reflect this.

  • Libby Anne

    Maria – "I know families who have very large amounts of kids – some are Fundie families, some are normal families. It's not the amount of kids you have but how you parent them." My point exactly. There are challenges that come with having very large families (especially financial challenges and the issue of the parents having to share their time between all of their kids), but that doesn't mean you can't raise a large family normally. Having to conform to your parents' viewpoint, raise your younger siblings, and forgo being a teenager isn't a consequence of growing up in a large family but rather a consequences of growing up in a Quiverfull / Christian Patriarchy family.

  • Anonymous

    I would suggest the book No Biking in the House Without a Helmet, about a family of 9 (4 bio, 5 adopted) to get yet another take on life in larger families. Funny, enlightening, and well-written.

  • Monica

    One of funnier side effects of surviving being raised QF/CP is that – for me, and for quite a few women I know – the infamous biological clock just doesn't start ticking. There's nothing like enforced pre-adult parenting to make being a parent seem less enticing once you actually are an adult and free to do what you feel you should do. Mega families might be the most effective safe-sex teaching ever foisted on the offspring of fundies.

  • Joy

    I had a lot of trouble with this film because I went in with the expectation of it being based on the book. (There was a b&w; film based on the book starring Myrna Loy, btw, and I thought this was a remake). The real Frank and Lillian Gilbreth were industrial efficiency experts and they used their children to refine some of their methods/ideas. They were not a "normal" family on all levels (there's this hilarious part of the book where the father chaperones his daughter on a date–this was seen as weird even in 1924), but they were not religious and had a large family because they wanted one.I realize this is a huge tangent but perhaps you or your readers would find the original _Cheaper By the Dozen_ interesting.

  • Libby Anne

    Joy – I grew up reading the original Cheaper by the Dozen, and watching the original movie, and loving them both. And yes – the dad chaperoning his daughter to the dance was hilarious! He did chill a bit after that first date, though, and eventually let her go out alone. Unlike you, I knew that the 2003 movie wasn't based on the book, but only the concept (12 kids), and therefore I wasn't disappointed at all. I think the Gilbreth girls had some similar problems to the ones I did, specifically in not being allowed to cut their hair or dress like the other girls or date without a chaperone. They felt like their dad was making them into oddballs. However, they did go to public school, they weren't religious, and their family hired servants rather than asking the older girls to foot the extra work. So yes – good book! And pretty funny too.

  • Steve

    Libby, you seem to be a strong believer that public schools produce "normal" people. I couldn't disagree more. I was home schooled for many years and also attended public school. I can honestly say that more of my home schooled friends are better citizens than most of my high school friends. Exceptions to each of course.The Problem isn't always the public schools themselves but the other students. Many kids in PS have parents that are uninvolved with they children's lives. These are often the troubled kids that end up influencing other kids. You can homeschool your kids without them become social outcasts. You can even raise them in a Christian home while homeschooling them and they can still turn out better than some public school kids. I was homeschooled for all of high school (probably my most developing years) and I turned out ahead of the curve. My employers have always held me I. High regard compared to my public school peers. I showed up on time, didn't smoke pot before, during and after work and I was respectful. I considered my fellow employees to often be the socially retarded ones.Now I'm my own boss and deal with people from all walks of life on a daily basis. Honestly, I attribute my success to my homeschooling years (not to sound arrogant). Homeschooling may not hold all the answers but public school certainly doesn't either. I can give you countless homeschool success stories and equal numbers of public school failures. Once again, there are exceptions to each. As for me, I'll homeschool my kids.

  • skjaere

    I want to get my sister to read your blog. She wants to have about a million kids (only one so far), and is convinced that it's fine to have the older kids help raise the younger ones. She is staying home with my niece, and her husband makes minimum wage working at a restaurant. I don't know where she gets this, since this is not what we were raised with at all, but she has a shiny, idealised vision of the life you grew up with. I suppose there was a time when I wanted a big family, too, but at some point I realised how impractical that was. I don't even know what to say to her about any of this. It worries me a lot.

  • Renter

    I'm the oldest of twelve from a farm family. Honestly, I think my experience was closer to your QF experience than what other folks are describing. My dad wasn't religious (mom is pretty fundamentalist though) but he was really chauvinistic so childcare or running the household were not things he was prepared to do. I remember him cooking a few times when mom was unable, but it was pretty horrific and stopped cold when I was 10 and considered old enough to take over those responsibilities (this was also the year my mom went back to work as a nurse, so I guess we did depart from QF in that regard!).The oldest 8 of us all went to public school, but the youngest 4 spent a lot of time being homeschooled. As the eldest lot rebelled and didn't turn into good little Christians, mom put a lot more work into the younger ones to try to get them to turn out correctly.