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How many children should you have?

How many children should you have?

Or should we have them at all? Six writers enter a moral maze

Or should we have them at all? Six writers enter a moral maze

July/August 2014

Lauren Sandler One

The majority of parents say they have a second child for the sake of their first, or at least that’s what they’ve told pollsters for years. But it’s hard to imagine anything that can be reduced to a survey question, much less an issue that layers family, happiness, responsibility and legacy. Still, we recognise truth in this response: first children tend to be a choice parents make to fulfil their own lives and second children a choice they make to fulfil the life of their existing child. 

That’s because only children, like myself and my daughter, are seen as lonely, selfish and maladjusted. That’s what the stereotype tells us, but not the data. In fact, hundreds of studies conducted over decades reveal we’re not measurably different from anyone else. Those studies, and my own interviews with onlies all over the world, suggest it looks like this. On loneliness: as kids, we’re usually fine. As adults, we often face the logistical and existential nightmare of our parents’ ageing and death on our own. But the good news is we develop the strongest primary relationships with ourselves. On selfishness: we’re sufficiently 
socialised to play well with others. On maladjustment: we’re fine. Overall, we’re pretty fantastic.

The area the stereotype largely ignores is achievement. We tend to succeed at significantly higher rates, whether at school or in professional endeavours. Solitary pursuits like reading train focus and curiosity; and the verbally rich environment of life among adults boosts learning. Parents can devote more time, energy and money to nurturing. It’s a simple concept called “resource dilution”: the more kids you have, the more those resources are diluted.

This factor extends beyond what children gain from their parents, to what parents can offer themselves. When our personal resources are stretched thin, we lose our own pleasure and freedom, as well as the space to ruminate on what confronts our world, much less to participate in meaningful change. “Who’s got the time?” we commiserate with each other. This is the behaviour we teach our children. We model what it means to have nothing left to give.

To have a happy kid, I figure I need to be a happy mother, and to be a happy mother, I need to be a happy person. I need to make choices within the limits of reality—which means considering work, finances, pleasure. At the moment, I can’t imagine how I could possibly do that with another kid, and I can’t think why I would when I’m so happy with what we have now, in our snug unit of three.

Ma Jian Four

If you ask me how many children should you have, I would be unable to answer because no one has the right to prescribe the number of children other people have. The decision of whether to have children, and if so how many, is the most important anyone can make. No outsider should intrude on this private matter.

In China, the Communist state’s continual efforts to control family size over the past 60 years have had disastrous consequences. When Mao came to power in 1949, he recklessly encouraged Chinese women to produce as many children as possible, to boost the workforce and the ranks of the Red Army. By 1976, China’s population had almost doubled. Panic-stricken, the new leader, Deng Xiaoping, introduced the draconian one-child policy, which in turn has scarred the nation more profoundly. Two generations have grown up without siblings, and millions of women have suffered the indignity and trauma of gynaecological monitoring, forced abortions and sterilisations. Only now, when the workforce is shrinking because of the policy, which threatens to hamper economic growth, has the government considered phasing it out.

If you ask me how many children should I have, I would say four, because this is the number that now scampers around my house, and to contemplate having fewer or more of them would be as painful as the thought of having fewer or more limbs. We never planned to have so many. We had a son, a daughter, then four years later there was a surprise third pregnancy, which to our astonishment produced twins. Chinese friends, who once envied us our two offspring, now look at us with pity. Of course, the physical strain of bringing up four is enormous, but the joy each one brings is immeasurable. Although our home sometimes feels like a zoo, and we resemble a travelling circus whenever we venture abroad, there is a great comfort in being part of a six-member clan, especially now that I am no longer allowed back into China. When my wife Flora and I sit at opposite ends of the kitchen table in the evening, with two children on one side, and two on the other, and watch them tuck into their noodle soup or fried rice, I feel a sense of symmetry and completion.

With thanks to Flora Drew for the translation

Jonathon Porritt Two

First, no woman should feel under any pressure whatsoever to have any children at all. From a broad societal point of view, the more women who feel that children just aren’t for them, the better it is in terms of bringing down average fertility. And that is an absolute priority for the world today.

The majority of women, of course, will want to be mothers. And the majority of men will want to be fathers. Children are a joy, and for me personally our two daughters have massively enriched our lives. But having more than two children doesn’t necessarily increase that joy, and the more families in rich countries who choose to stick at two, the better.

It’s all about fair shares and personal responsibility. Rich-world countries continue to consume totally disproportionate shares of the world’s energy, 
resources, food, forests and even water—in terms of the water embedded in all the food we import from poorer countries. Ensuring a more sustainable world for the whole of humankind necessarily entails significant economic growth, over many years, in developing and emerging countries—and given today’s already chronic shortages, let alone accelerating climate change, that means we in the rich world have to cut back on our own levels of consumption.

Thinking about this from the perspective of climate change provides the most compelling reason for sticking at two. A study by Oregon State University in 2009 compared the impact of an individual adopting six well-known ecological lifestyle changes to cut their carbon budget with the single decision to have one less child. By adopting the easily available, environmentally friendly actions of driving a more fuel-efficient car, halving annual car mileage, fitting double glazing and low-energy lightbulbs, replacing an inefficient fridge and recycling all their paper, tin and glass, an individual could reduce their carbon footprint by 486 tonnes over a lifetime. By having one less child, a woman from a rich country would save 9,441 tonnes of carbon dioxide over the rest of her life: nearly 20 times the amount saved from all those positive eco-actions combined.

I know how offensive some people find this argument. Every time I voice it, the hate mail ramps up. It’s a very personal issue—but that shouldn’t force it forever beyond the pale of rational debate.

Kevin Maxwell Seven

Four of my father’s eight siblings were murdered in the Holocaust, which fuelled his desire to create a large family. I’m one of nine siblings, and I have seven children. I’m wholeheartedly in favour of the largest family you can manage.

My commitment to large families is not a global proposition. It reflects my good luck in living in Britain and coming from an affluent background. But it has never wavered. One of my children was conceived in the run-up to my trial for fraud—though I was acquitted, at the time I faced a possible lengthy prison sentence. Another was born during the trial itself. To some this would seem the height of irresponsibility; to my wife and me, it was an affirmation of life.

When you raise a large family in a loving environment, you create a clan that is self-supporting through successes, failures, celebrations and bereavements. The knowledge that life isn’t fair is learnt in the cradle—maybe someone has to have surgery, another has an exam crisis or a break-up. My own kids now range from 12 to 29, and their support for each other undoubtedly helped them cope better when my wife and I eventually divorced. Now the eldest five are over 18 and free to live where they like, all have chosen to live within 1.5 miles of each other, which I think is testament to the bond between them.

Contemporaries cite school fees as the greatest disincentive to having more children. But Britain has great state schools, which would benefit if even more middle-class kids went to them—and the children would turn out better-equipped to deal with the real world.

There are those who say that having lots of children is ecologically irresponsible. That argument ignores the benefit of having productive, tax-paying, environmentally aware and eco-friendly children, all able to contribute positively to society.

We will all need more children to help bear the economic weight of an ageing population. This problem doesn’t have to be solved by increasing the retirement age and immigration: try procreation!

David Benatar None

Millions of years of evolutionary history have programmed you to reject the notion that procreation is wrong. Bear this in mind if you rush to reject my argument, and to defend a deeply harmful practice.

Morally responsible parents wish to spare their children pain. There are ways they can minimise the chances of their children suffering certain types of harm, but the only way to prevent harm altogether is to desist from bringing children into existence. Any child will, inevitably, suffer considerable harm.

Privileged procreators in developed countries are inclined to respond that their children are likely to be spared the chronic deprivation, insecurity and violence that blight the lives of so many. This response ignores the discomfort, distress, frustration and unhappiness that characterise even the most charmed lives. It also ignores the appalling fates that can befall anybody. These include assault, devastating injury, degenerative disease and depression.

Nor can these fates be dismissed as improbable. For example, 40% of men and 37% of women in Britain develop cancer at some point. Add to these odds the cumulative risks of other terrible conditions and we find that the chance of escaping calamity approaches zero. It reaches zero if we include death. In creating a child you are ultimately responsible for its death, and for the ensuing ripples of bereavement.

A common retort is to acknowledge all this harm but to claim that the good can nonetheless outweigh the bad. One problem with this glib response is that procreators have no idea whether this will be true for their children. Moreover, consider, in all their gruesome details, the horrors of rape, cancer or chronic pain, for example. Then, with a straight face, tell us how much good your child would have to experience to outweigh those horrors. In this exercise, the procreator very quickly appears callous and indecent.

Parents may benefit from procreation, but only at serious cost to those brought into existence. It’s hard to see how imposing these costs can be justified, especially since nobody is harmed by not being born.

Emma Duncan Three

I didn’t mean to have three children. The second of my two pregnancies produced twins, which I wouldn’t particularly recommend. But the result was that I ended up with what I believe—and economic theory suggests—is the ideal number.

There are economies of scale to having children, especially for more affluent parents. A full-time nanny employed to look after one child can just as well look after three. One child needs shoes in every conceivable size and outfits for all weathers and every occasion. These can be handed down through the trio (though some allowance may have to be made for differences in gender). Expenses such as food vary according to size of family, but overall the average cost of raising each of three children is considerably lower than the cost of one.

In a family, as in all investments, it is important to create a diversified portfolio. The more children you have, the greater the chance that one of them will be successful enough to keep you in your old age. And children can go off the rails. If you have one, you risk seeing 100% of your investment wasted; if two, 50%. A third is a more acceptable proportion to write off.

There are advantages for the offspring, too. As the number of children rises, the number of sibling relationships rises exponentially. One child has none; two children have one; three children have three. So if two of them are on bad terms, there may still be two decent sibling relationships in the house, and each of the squabblers will still have a friend.

Why not have more, then? After all, four children have six relationships between them, which must be even better. The reason for stopping at three is that, beyond this magic number, the marginal costs of child-rearing start rising again. The shoes are worn out, and so is the nanny. When the noise level reaches a certain decibel threshold, the cost-benefit ratio turns decidedly negative—as do parental feelings towards the whole breeding business.

3 Readers' comments

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nique - March 22nd 2017

Jonathon Porritt is quite right in appreciatIng the negative effect of human procreation on the health of the planet. But then way argue for 2 instead of zero? Because that fits himself conveniently with his own 2 daughters? The way David Benatar ages makes me think he either just wants to be controversial or he has a very miserable life himself. Most people appreciate life as a gift despite all of the miseries he quotes as serious as they are. And then, if somebody feels like them it is in their own power to end a life they find not worth living.

nique - March 22nd 2017

Jonathon Porritt is quite right in appreciatIng the negative effect of human procreation on the health of the planet. But then way argue for 2 instead of zero? Because that fits himself conveniently with his own 2 daughters? The way David Benatar ages makes me think he either just wants to be controversial or he has a very miserable life himself. Most people appreciate life as a gift despite all of the miseries he quotes as serious as they are. And then, if somebody feels like them it is in their own power to end a life they find not worth living.

sorenscreams - March 21st 2017

I am confused about Emma Duncan's mention of the sibling relationships rising exponentially. The number of sibling relationships rises in an N-1 fashion. With Three siblings having 2 siblings each, and four siblings each having 3 siblings. This isn't what I would call exponential. If you are talking about the total number of sibling relationships, that is a combination. In which case the numbers would be 1 sibling = none, two siblings = 2, three siblings = 3, four siblings= 6, five siblings = 10, six siblings = 16, etc. Which is still not what I would call an exponential growth, as exponential growth implies a proportional growth.