Family Size?

Prof. Janet Smith comes to the rescue, from her masterful essay:

Is it right to conclude, then, that couples must have as many children as they can care for well without neglecting other obligations? I can find nothing in Church documents that suggests this or which even suggests what size a family might be considered a kind of norm. Since in past ages, spouses have had little control over their fertility, such guidance was largely unnecessary; but since in the modern age methods of natural family planning have allowed us to be able to have a great deal of control over family size, such guidance would be helpful to many. Karol Wojtyla (now John Paul II) in his book Love and Responsibility speaks of "the morally correct" number of children, whereby he seems to mean a number that constitutes a full family:

The family is an institution created by procreation within the framework of marriage. It is a natural community, directly dependent on the parents for its existence and functioning. The parents create the family as a complement to and extension of their love. To create a family means to create a community, since the family is a social unit or else it is not a family. To be a community it must have a certain size. This is most obvious in the context of education. For the family is an educational institution within the framework of which the personality of a new human being is formed. If it is to be correctly formed it is very important that this human being should not be alone, but surrounded by a natural community. We are sometimes told that it is easier to bring up several children together than an only child, and also that two children are not a community - they are two only children. It is the role of the parents to direct their children's upbringing, but under their direction the children educate themselves because they develop within the framework of a community of children, a collective of siblings.

This passage seems to suggest that only two children would not constitute a complete family. One of my friends, independently of the pope's suggestion, upon the birth of his third child, said with a sigh of relief, "Now we have a family" (this man is now father of seven and still hopeful for more). He explained that he thought three children was a "critical mass" for a family. That is, he thought when there were simply two children, they could too easily be two "only" children, pampered and spoiled by the parents and easily able to divide goods. He said three children made a social unit where they needed to negotiate with more seriousness among each other; they really needed to share and could not each "have a parent."

Now let us hasten to say that no judgment is meant, of course, on those who are not able to have many children, nor is the suggestion made that smaller families cannot be "proper" families. But perhaps there is family size most conducive to achieving the ends of a family for community living and all that comes with it and that this should be a goal for couples, insofar as possible. As several of the passages cited above suggest, large families are generally good at fostering generosity and selflessness in its members. This is not to say that small families cannot be successful at the same but it suggests that some characteristics are more easily developed in large families.

What has been said here about the importance of at least three children for a family is not to suggest that those who can, must have at least three, or that once a couple has had three, they need have no more. Rather, these reflections have been offered to suggest the kind of factors that should be taken into account when couples are assessing the wisdom of having or not having more children.

It is my observation that couples do not often feel confident in their parenting skills until the third child. Up to that point, parenting can seem (and often is) overwhelming. By the time of the birth of the third child, however, couples (for the sake of survival if nothing else) have begun to acquire some significant parenting skills and tend to enjoy greatly the interaction between the children. The oldest one starts being of some help and the youngest is generally greatly amused by the antics of his or her siblings and requires less full time attention from the parents. Parents who deliberately stop at two children might find they enjoy parenting much more were they to have three. I have heard many mothers remark that after four, it does not make all that much difference if there is one more, and then one more, etc. The exponential leap of demands made on one's self with one baby or two is simply not repeated as the family grows.

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