Monday, November 28, 2005

Family Size

Iwas at the movies twice this weekend where I saw posters for Yours, Mine and Ours and Cheaper by the Dozen 2, films about multiparous women and their husbands and offspring. I reckon the idea is that having a house full of children is like having a barrel of monkeys, in which case I wonder why more families don’t have more children.

The optimum family size in America today seems to be two, a boy and a girl, and three if your first two were the same sex. Few people continue past three to get the desired mix of male and female offspring. I don’t entirely know why this is the appropriate family size, but there is apparently considerable social disapproval of larger families, especially if the parents are relatively poor.

I have queried a good number of people over the years about family size, and most folks explain that they had all the children they thought they could afford. (Some admit that their last child was a “stopper”, a child so horrible that they would not consider going through such parenting hell again.) For many families I have queried, it is anticipated that the mother will eventually return to work; therefore, it is necessary to stop having children at some point to permit the last child to reach school age. Family size is determined in large part by the opportunity costs associated with having the mother out of work.

Having only one child is considered problematic, although it is increasingly accepted. When I was a child, it was thought that only children would necessarily be “spoiled” and lonely. Having no children is frowned upon, although less so than in the past. Parents seem to find childlessness inexplicable.

Is the popularity of movies and TV shows about big families an aspect of resistance to the two children norm? The norm probably comes from the dominant culture, as elites have smaller families as a rule and would prefer that the masses curb the growth in their numbers. Large families would take parents out of the labor pool much longer with a potential for increased labor costs. Larger families would leave folks with less disposable income to spend on consumer goods and amusements. Larger families would mean higher costs for medical benefits. Larger families would entail more spending on schools and social programs.

Mainly, larger families would mean that the popular culture isn't buying into the dominant ethos of atomization and hyperindividualism.

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