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Society's Message: Don't Be Too Fruitful : Families: Despite criticism, some parents no longer believe that two children are enough.


"Haven't you heard of birth control?"

That's one of the less subtle remarks that Peggy Pond particularly remembers from her fourth pregnancy. But it was not the only one.

"It was almost like an embarrassing-type thing when people found out you were pregnant for the fourth time," she says. And though the person who questioned her knowledge of birth control did so "in a joking way, I knew what he was saying: 'What are you, crazy?' I got that a lot too from people."

Pond, of West Hartford, Conn., is the mother of four children--Jennifer, 13; Brittany, 6; Austin, 4; and Spencer, 1--and she loves her big family: "There's nothing better in the world."

But she's fully aware that in late 20th-Century middle-class America, she has twice as many children as some people consider politically correct.

According to the most recent polls, more than half of Americans believe that the "ideal size" for a family today is two parents and two or fewer children. Anything over that seems to be viewed as self-indulgent.

This is a big change in attitude, and it happened fast--in just a generation or so. Most baby boomers, which is to say people born between 1946 and 1964, came from families of three kids or more, and back then nobody blinked at the families that had more.

A Gallup poll in 1947, for example, showed that more than 67% of Americans believed the ideal number of children per family was three, four or more.

In fact, most of the people interviewed for this story came from just such families.

So why has it suddenly come to seem, in some circles, such a social stigma to be fruitful and multiply?

The type of comments mothers run into may be instructive.

There is the "there-are-too-many-people-in-the-world" remark.

"I've heard that also from somebody," Pond says. "She felt strongly that everybody should have two children, and there were enough people in the world and that we better stop and think about it."

Kitty Horigan of West Hartford, who also has four children, says she has heard that one too.

"I've gotten the comments like, 'There are too many people in the world. We've got to keep the population down. The responsible thing to do is to not have more than two children.' "

Louise Cooke of Marlborough, Conn., another mother of four, has had a sort of complementary experience to that, one that illustrates how different was the attitude of the previous generation.

"What I've run into is, 'They're all yours?' At the supermarket, I ran into an older woman. She asked me if they were all mine and said, 'That's great. It's marvelous to see big families coming back.' "

"It's really changed an awful lot in one generation," says David Blankenhorn. "Large families were seen as a good thing in our parents' generation and now are increasingly seen as something that is eccentric and sort of out of the mainstream."

Blankenhorn is the president of the Institute for American Values in New York, a nonpartisan think tank that studies family issues.

He suggests that this change in attitude is a reflection of several large-scale changes in our society, changes that include everything from more women in the workplace to more effective birth control than a generation ago.

But perhaps the biggest change is in the role of children themselves.

"We're only one or two generations into the phenomenon of children as consumption items as opposed to investment items," he says. "Historically, that's the big shift. Historically, one of the reasons that a family was seen to be blessed if it had a lot of children was that those children would be a part of the family economy, and beginning when they were fairly young."

"It wasn't that many generations ago, really, that children were by and large beginning to work and contribute to the family economy by working with their parents on the farm to make everyone richer. And more centrally than that, prior to the '40s certainly, children, by and large, were the primary means of support for parents in old age, so that when you got older, you really depended on your children to take care of you."

The bottom line, he says, is that "people depended on their children. Your old-age pension program was a large family. Children were an investment rather than a consumption item."

By contrast, "today, when you talk about children, the talk is more or less how much they cost: How much it's going to cost to buy them those little plastic toys, how much it's going to cost to send them to college."

Allan Carlson agrees with Blankenhorn on this, but he blames our current intolerance of large families on the "population propagandists" of the late '50s and early '60s.

Carlson is president of the Rockford Institute. ("We like to call ourselves a traditionalist think tank, but we're usually labeled conservative, and people seem to know what that means.") Based in Rockford, Ill., it studies family issues. Carlson is also the father of four.

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