In the day-to-day struggle to make ends meet, the hassle of raising a big family may not seem worthwhile. The economic costs, the endless worries and the ever-growing pile of laundry are all too tangible results of our unfortunate instinct to procreate. But although humans may regret many things during the course of life, having children tend not to be one of them. At the baby's first smile, the teenager's rare hug and the father's proud walk down the aisle, all sorrows are forgotten, or so it seems. In fact, the disadvantages of having a small family outweighs the advantages, regardless of the small size being universally heralded as a mark of progress and a necessary key to success in our modern world.
Of course family size and domestic economy go hand in hand. According to the demographic transitional model lower birth rates are the secret behind the unprecedented growth in living standards the world has seen in recent years. In small families, parents are free to allocate more resources per child. As parents invest more money in the health, education and social status of their children, their chances of success in a competitive environment increase. Small families are, in short, financially better off. But even though this is true from an economic perspective, it does not hold up when other factors are taken into account.
First, the small household dines around a quiet table. In spite of its economic edge the small family is less equipped to provide children with good social skills. With only its parents to relate to the only child misses out on vital social training. The big family, on the other hand, provides its members with ample opportunities to both cooperate and compete, as well as argue and agree. Lively debates around the dinner table between brothers and sisters, parents and children, are the perfect preparation for a future in the postmodern marketplace of ideas. Likewise, the big family's multi-relational character promotes a level playing field with many contributors. In a society moving towards flatter structures, where everyone is expected to speak her mind, people with many siblings will have an advantage.
Secondly, the impact of the family on an individual's psychological well-being can not be overstated. Whereas the child of a small family will get much attention from its parents, it will at the same time be more vulnerable to change. With fewer family relations the only child may be left with very few close connections in the case of death, disease or divorce. Although the small family thrives on the mother's love and the father's care, in a lifelong perspective the colorful relationships between brothers and sisters may prove equally important. In a fragmented and volatile world the importance of being connected and being known is greater than ever. A big, robust family can provide that security.
Finally, today's atomistic society celebrates the individual, the temporal and the immediate at the price of the spiritual. Raising a large family is the opposite of this sentiment. It is a long-term investment with uncertain returns, and consequently we find that the choice of having a big family is regarded an oddity, even frowned upon. Indeed, the father who loads his seven kids and pregnant wife into a beat-up Volkswagen van seems a dated figure not fit for an Instagram selfie. But maybe he knows something the onlookers do not. Family and children connect him with his past and his posterity. Where a small, well-designed family fits nicely into society's linear plans, the big family is part of the circle of life. It is a spiritual thing.
Back in the time of high mortality and big families, children were a natural part of the family's work force. Everybody had to pitch in. Nobody could opt out. Today this link between work and survival is severed, and children are seen as nice extras, but little more. We do not need them, unless they can add value to our carefully branded lives. The small family has become the norm. But we do need children, and we need the family, that uncontrollable, noisy, messy and wonderful melting pot of human relationships. Indeed, if we do not let money trump the discussion, we will discover that the social, psychological and spiritual cost of limiting ourselves to small families will exceed any benefits we enjoy from our carefree careers. The small family is made on the drawing board. The big family is a piece of art. It requires a vast canvas.