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Are parents selfish if they have a big family?

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Why do people think it's selfish to have lots of kids?

Recently there was a bit of a dust-up in the combox at my sister's blog, Mama Says*, in which one commenter in particular charged that only selfish parents have big families. Having lots of kids (eight, in this case) allegedly is harmful to the older children in the family.

This is a mainstream attitude in modern American culture. Big families are viewed with scorn and derision, the parents accused of being selfish because either (a) they are dividing their love and attention among too many kids, (b) they are contributing to overpopulation, (c) they are using more than their share of natural resources, or (d) all of the above.

As a cradle Catholic, I have known a lot of big families. I even grew up in one, as the oldest of a brood of eight. But I have yet to meet a big family with selfish parents who are focused on fulfilling their own desires at the expense of either their family or our larger society.

I think this attitude stems from the discomfort people feel when they see large families. They cannot imagine themselves having a baseball team's worth of children, so they feel subconsciously threatened when they see one. That statement is not intended to be judgmental; it's human nature, and everyone experiences feelings like that when confronted with behavior that falls outside of social norms.

Why it is not selfish to have a big family

Let me present a picture of a typical big family. This fictional family has two parents and a startling number of kids. They have a strong religious faith, perhaps Catholic or Mormon or Evangelical. The parents at times feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of people underfoot. They know they could easily take steps to prevent themselves from having so many children, but they don't, because they have decided to trust God. They see each kid as a gift and have faith that God will provide for the kids he gave them. This is not a decision made lightly. This is radical, and they know it.

All the members of the family make a lot of sacrifices in order to follow this path. Maybe the kids aren't in as many organized activities, sports, and lessons as most of their peers. Maybe they go to restaurants less often, take fewer vacations, and share bedrooms. Maybe the younger kids rarely see a new article of clothing, being clad instead in hand-me-downs.

But they also have a lot of privileges that their peers will never know. They are never lonely. Their house is the neighborhood social hub for the 18-and-under set. They probably have a groupie or two, lonely children with no siblings whose parents work all day. They have a precocious understanding of the important things in life, like love and sharing. The older ones help their parents and learn child-care skills. They all learn practical life skills by doing chores, such as how to do laundry. They see what it is like to really live according to one's ideals and values.

They never have to hear their parents say that children are burdens, or that they are "so glad" they're done having kids.

And above all, they never, ever feel unloved. Big families like to repeat the saying that "love doesn't divide, it multiplies." It's more than a cute saying, it's literally true: the kids all love each other. Each new baby has a live-in fan club. Each older child has a crowd of younger devotees who think he is the coolest person on the planet.

The truth is, every parent of a crowd has no choice but to give of the deepest part of themselves, every single day. They are practically forced to be unselfish.

Selfish parents could not do this job.

* (cough cough) Which I helped design, by the way (ahem) not that I'm boasting or anything, but I have mad skillz don't I? Nevermind that I didn't do most of the work.

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