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On Parenting
Posted at 01:20 PM ET, 11/08/2011

The Duggars are expecting a 20th child. How do the rest of us decide how many?

Is one child enough? Two? Three? How about 20? The stars of the TLC reality show “19 Kids and Counting” announced on the “Today” show that they’re expecting their 20th child.

Although very, very few of us make the call that Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar have, their news does bring up a question that most parents grapple with at some point: Should we have another?
(Image via ‘Today’ )

In many circumstances, family size is not a choice. Health, belief and partner circumstance can all make the decisions for us. But where it is a variable to be considered, parents have a slew of issues to consider. What’s interesting is that so many of us end up making such similar decisions: between one and four children. It’s within those bounds that most American parents tend to grapple.

The latest census figures suggest that quite a few Americans are holding the line at two. It seems so common and, frankly, expected to have two kids in many parts of the country, including the Washington region, that I wonder how many of us family-of-fours contemplate it deeply.

There are plenty of families who find one completes the picture. About 20 percent of children are onlies. Still, parents of one child often find themselves having to defend their decision. The question about when they’ll have another, offensive as it might be to some, has become part of everyday discourse.

On the other end, jumping from two to three does not seem to need much explaining as it tends to be common, more so, perhaps, outside cities and among younger parents. Just over a quarter of families have three children. The leap to three does frequently trigger major changes: It might mean a move to the suburbs, a bigger car, one parent leaving work. And, of course, a shift in the family dynamic. As one friend with three children told me, “having two, you have the illusion of order. With three, the illusion is gone.”

The jump to four is a different animal. This was not the case a generation or two ago, but the costs and expectations associated with raising a child have skyrocketed. Most families with four children tend to be labeled. They might be considered either religiously motivated or, less charitably, status-conscious.

No less than mother-hero Tina Fey articulated the perceived trend: “Large families have become a status symbol in New York. Four beautiful children named after kings and pieces of fruit are a way of saying, ‘I can afford a four-bedroom apartment and $150,000 in elementary-school tuition fees each year. How you livin’?’ Fey wrote in “Bossypants” (Reagan Arthur Books, 2011).

(It may be a global phenomenon. When British celebrities Victoria and David Beckham announced they were expecting a fourth child this year, several British publications also declared that four children was the ultimate status symbol.)

Considering the estimated cost of raising a child in the United States now stands at about $13,000 annually, four children does seem prohibitively expensive for the masses.

Not all parents consider finances a valid reason to limit (or expand) family size. The Duggars, obviously, don’t. Bryan Caplan, a father of three and an economist, argues that it actually makes more financial sense to expand a family.

He lays out his argument in a book, “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think ” (Basic Books, 2011). The book argues that nurture counts for very little in child-rearing and that parents can afford to kick back and relax their standards.

But Caplan, last I checked, had not persuaded his wife to have a fourth.

How did you decide on your family size? What are some of the key issues to consider?

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