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Demography is Destiny

How many children should you have?

How many children should you have?

by Shannon Roberts | May 07, 2019

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As parents of three children (currently 6, 4 and 13 months), how many children my husband and I should have – and what would be best for our children themselves – is a question we have thought about.

We have contemplated whether or how a range of factors should affect our decision about each pregnancy.  These include the temperaments and health of our current children, how far away our extended family lives, how our children might benefit from another sibling, how much money we have, how much stress or anxiety we currently feel, how much community support we have, work, the cost of school or necessary expenses (and what are necessary expenses?), how strong our marriage feels, how sick I get in pregnancy, and how many adult children we would like to have in the future.  

And then there is the absolute amazingness of having the power to create a whole new human being and another beautiful little newborn baby to cuddle, and the expansion of love, sacrifice, growth and community that comes with each new family member.

Joe Pinsker of The Atlantic interviewed economist Bryan Caplan to see what he considers the optimum number of children.  Over and above being an economist, he is described as “a dad who has thought a lot about the joys and stresses of being a parent", and is author of the 2011 book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.  He said,

 “If you have a typical level of American enjoyment of children and you’re willing to actually adjust your parenting to the evidence on what matters, then I’ll say the right answer is four.

Though Caplan himself does currently have four children, apparently he even suspects that more than four would be optimal for him.  

He suggests that parents should revisit their child-rearing approach and then, if they can afford to, consider having more kids, because kids can be fun and fulfilling.  He also considers that many of the time- and money-intensive things that parents do in the hope of helping their children succeed, such as multiple extracurricular activities and sending them to private schools, don’t actually contribute much to their future earnings or happiness.

Since having a child at school, it is interesting to me how much the emphasis on extracurricular activities really does affect parents.  One parent told me that having a third baby was “an excellent advertisement for a fourth,” were it not for the fact that she then hit extracurricular activities, ‘taxi driving’, and a very busy household.  (By the way, in my experience parents seem to really enjoy third babies, and I am one of those parents!  At this point, we are often not worrying as much about the intensity of the baby years as we might have been the first and second time around.)

According to Ashley Larsen Gibby, a Ph.D. student in sociology and demography at Penn State, the societal norm also affects how many children will make you happiest. So, if the norm changes, the number of children that will likely make parents happiest changes as well. 

It is much harder to have a big family in a society where the norm is small (currently two children in most places).  This makes sense because a lot of community and business services won’t be aimed at meeting your family’s needs in the way they would be if bigger families were the norm.  You will also likely feel different to many of the parents around you (and maybe even endure regular amazed comments about your family size), something which is harder for some temperaments than others.  

Pinsker writes:

In general, the experts I consulted agreed that the optimal number of children is specific to each family’s desires and constraints.

“When a couple feels like they have more interest in kids; more energy for kids; maybe more support, like grandparents in the area; and a decent income, then having a large family can be the best option for them,” says Brad Wilcox, the director of the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project.

“And when a couple has fewer resources, either emotional, social, or financial, then having a smaller family would be best for them.”

However, one thing is certain from the research.  Women are measureably less happy when they are unable to have as many children as they would like to; something to bear in mind for the many women who now put off having children until their thirties, or those contemplating an additional child.

Per the General Social Survey, in 2018, 40 percent of American women ages 43 to 52 had had fewer children than what they considered ideal.

“Part of the story here is that women are having children later in life, compared to much of human history, and they’re getting married later in life as well,” Wilcox says.

“So those two things mean that at the end of the day, a fair number of women end up having fewer kids than they would like to, or they end up having no kids when they hoped to have children.”

Though the root causes can differ, this mismatch between hope and actuality is seen worldwide, and appears to make women measurably less happy. So, while people’s ideal family size may vary—and is highly individualized—they’ll probably be happiest if they hit their target, whatever it may be.

Two children is currently the preferred option for most, but it seems from the research that many families may actually be happier with more -- especially if they rethink some of their unproven intensive parenting practices.  And the more people who do have one more (thereby contributing to a change in the norm), the more happy those with a slightly larger family will be.

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet's blog on population issues.

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