The Duggars and attitudes about large families

English: Family posing for a portrait, 1900-19...
Look--a large family! Better call the cops... (Image via Wikipedia)

The recent miscarriage experienced by Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar is making a great deal of news headlines these days, as are thoughts about whether or not it was appropriate for photos of the child to have been taken by the family or for some of those photos to have become public (perhaps inadvertently) through social media. (It should be said that this was done by a nonprofit organization that specializes in such photos for grieving families and that they were used in a family ceremony to commemorate the baby’s life–context is important!)

I actually don’t want to speak to the photo “controversy” and simply add my words to the cacophony. They are a family in the public eye, and when private tragedy happens to such public individuals and families, the results are often awkward. I sympathize with the Duggars and I hope that they are able to find comfort in the days ahead.

I would rather use the opportunity to address something I have seen here and there that does bother me, and that is the growing attitude of many–in the media, as well–that large families are somehow, in and of themselves, wrong or that the desire to have a large family is somehow immoral. Our family isn’t even that large (the two of us and four boys), and yet we’ve experienced a bit of that attitude, ourselves. What’s wrong with a large family? If children are a blessing and we’re able to have them, then why is that somehow unethical? When did “big family” become a pair of dirty words?

Before I get to my thoughts on that, let me add some qualifying comments.

For one, I know that there are families out there who actually use a growing family as an opportunity to capitalize on public welfare. There are, as well, related but (IMHO) less-offensive-but-still-very-wrong cases where couples continue actively pursuing making their families larger and larger despite the fact that they know that they do not have the means to support their family as is and despite the fact that they expect the government (which means, of course, taxpayers) to support their family. Yes, I believe this is wrong and, frankly, immoral. (Note: I’m not speaking of a large family that has fallen temporarily on hard times, but, rather, a couple that is deliberately continuing to make their family larger and larger despite knowing that they cannot support the children they have already.)  If a man can’t support a larger family, he should not create a larger family. (cf. 1 Tim. 5:8).

Also, I know that there are so-called Christian movements out there (e.g., some “Quiverfull” folks) who believe that it is a sin to plan your family in any way and that any sort of contraception (not abortive birth control, which is wrong, but true contraception) or “natural family planning” techniques involving timing, etc. are against God’s will. While it would be beyond the scope of this post to discuss the matter in depth, let me simply say that this is not what the Bible says. The fact is that God, Himself, is carefully planning His family and not just going about it “willy nilly” (e.g., John 6:44, 1 Cor. 1:26-29), and lovingly planning a family is not the same as being anti-family. (It is a terrible shame that the satanic abortion industry has co-opted the words “family planning” and “planned parenthood” as they are actually in the business of “family destroying” and “corrupted parenthood.”)  The Bible is NOT against the wise use of contraception, nor is the Church of God that teaches from that Bible.

On this point, since we’ve been talking about Herbert W. Armstrong, it might be good to point out that he was very forcefully clear on this matter, as well, and that he taught very straightforwardly: “To PLAN a family in an intelligent manner, as to the time of the first arrival, and the time-spacing of other children–this is a different matter [versus purposefully avoiding family altogether]. Nothing in the Bible forbids this. MUCH in the Bible, in principle, supports it!” (The Missing Dimension in Sex, p.232). He then recommends to married couples some secular books on contraception and birth control (p.233) that could satisfy their need for contraceptive information to help plan their families. As he says (back on p.232), failing to apply principles of what he called “planned parenthood” (not the evil, pro-abortion “Planned Parenthood” but the principle of actively planning your family) actually meant missing out on an element of God’s “supreme purpose of character building.” Mr. Armstrong was right about this then, and he’s still right, today.

And–one more point–it is true that some can make an idol of “family” and an idol of “procreation.” They worship the idea of family instead of the God who created the family. That, too, is wrong.

From what I understand of them, I do not agree with the Duggars concerning their beliefs about what it means to “trust God” concerning the having children. Trusting God with such things does not entail adopting such attitudes about family planning any more than trusting God with your family’s protection means that you have to leave the doors to your house unlocked and open while you sleep–or any more than trusting God with providing for your family means that you don’t try to do your best at your job or career and be the best provider you can be.

However, much of the criticism they seem to receive comes more from those who seem absolutely against big families.  Yes, some of the criticism comes from those who aren’t against big families, per se, but against certain choices they’ve made concerning their family (are they exploiting their children on television, etc.) — I understand that, and I’m not addressing that.  I don’t watch them on TV enough to speak intelligibly on that. And, yes, some may criticize whether or not families of that size are wise or may question if they are really doing right by their kids — I understand that, too, and I’m not addressing that. If you decide to allow your family choices to be the centerpiece of a television series, you open yourself up for those sorts of discussions. And they can be good discussions.

But then there are those critics who seem to be against the idea of big families, at all, where “big” in their minds, varies but isn’t necessarily truly “big” at all. If a husband can truly support a large family, and his wife’s health is not unreasonably at risk, and they are able to give those children the love they owe them, then what’s wrong with a large family?

It seems such criticism is grounded in a few different things. Some feel that it is an additional burden on the earth’s resources–global warming, overpopulation and all that–that is immoral to allow at this stage in human history. Others seem to be offended at the need such a large family has for customary, biblical husband/father & wife/mother roles–outdated, oppressive, yadda, yadda, yadda, and all that rot.  Still others seem affronted by the focus such families generate on traditional family structure versus, say, homosexual “marriage”, etc.

Each of those criticisms is misplaced.  As for the environment, a rightly raised generation can do wonders for the world.  The burden of proof would be on those who so loosely

connect large families with environmental degradation, and I don’t know that this would be the easiest argument to make (see entry on “China”)–nor that it would even be relevant if it could be made.  God is the source of moral law, and it would be in the laws of God that the case for “immorality” would have to be made.  As for traditional roles for parents and the traditional family structure, well God is for both. Those with issues about such things are invited to take it up with Him. 🙂

(I’ll add that my wife makes a good observation at this point. Though we disagree with them on what God expects of a husband and wife with regard to family planning, my wife believes that some of the criticism they receive comes fro those who believe that God has no place in telling you what to do with your family at all. I think she’s right about that.)

No, there are those who would turn their nose up at a large family whether they were on television or not. Seeing them at the mall or grocery store would be just as offensive as seeing them on TV. And that’s a shame.

If the husband and wife can truly love them, if their health is up to the task, and they can actually, physically support them, what’s wrong with having a large family? Nothing that I can see. And aside from all the legitimate and helpful discussion that a public family like the Duggars’ might generate, there is an element that derides them purely for the fact that they believe that children are a blessing, that big families can be a wonder thing, and/or that religious beliefs should actively guide our decisions regardless of convenience. Having a large family definitely means that one will have to give up focusing on yourself and your own wants and desires and sacrifice for the sake of others. And, frankly, that goes against the “Religion of Me” that so saturates this world.

I do hope that the Duggars grow in their understanding of God’s true desires and purposes. (I know a television program I could recommend they watch!) I do hope that they are able to see that trusting God with your family does not mean abdicating responsibility for planning that family. I do hope that they are able to see that just because children are a blessing and a heritage from the Lord (and they are: Psalm 127:3), that doesn’t mean that we can’t have a role in prudently planning the timing and spacing of such blessings, any more than the fact that a prudent wife’s being a blessing and gift from God (and she is: Proverbs 19:14) means that we should “get one” as soon as possible whether we’re ready or not (nor does it mean that we should try to obtain as many wives as possible 🙂 ). Blessings such as these are also stewardships–something I am sure they understand but something I believe they could understand more fully.

But when it comes to those who seem to look at their family in disgust simply for the fact that they are a large family, I’m on their side. It’s true that when it’s done wrong it can be a disaster. But when it’s done right, a big family can be a very beautiful thing, indeed, and something to be celebrated.

13 thoughts on “The Duggars and attitudes about large families

  1. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    Whenever I see a post like this by you that spells out, in such painful and complete detail, all the ways that people can go astray on a topic, I find myself reminded of some lyrics from this song (originally published on Disney’s Rhythm of the Pride Lands CD and probably part of The Lion King stage play now):

    Written by Lebo M., John Van Tongeren and Jay Rifkin
    Performed by Lebo M.

    …Sometimes I wonder
    Why people always seem
    To turn around
    And lose their way…

    But I’m also reminded of the lyrics to this song (for that is precisely what it is in the Hebrew Masoretic Text):

    (Isaiah 53:6 NKJV) All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

  2. its not that I a against large families but the notion some think we can live like our grandparents. Another reason for the criticism is the impact on government. The Duggar’s friends their Bateses for example, said they get tax deductions for all their kids. I am sure the Duggars did at once. the Bateses mention they negotiate certain costs with the hospital and kelly visits a free Christian clinic. they only have insurance for the older kids. There’s another large family who appeared on TLC ,. the Jeubs. They have no health care and 16 kids. So whatever these families get free, they don’t realize others are paying even if they negotiate costs the rest is perhaps made up somehow. I agree with you on fmaily planning shouldn’t be ‘wily nilly’. If everyone really took time to ask themselves are they able to support and give this many children love as you say, I imagine 99% would answer no.

  3. TheresaMC

    Q: When did “big family” become a pair of dirty words?

    A: Probably around the same time the human race became a burden to the earth. Big families were once a necessity, whether it was just to ensure that a few kids actually made it to adulthood, or to work the family farm, having lots of kids was practical. Now it’s not. The population is growing at an unsustainable rate and in order to provide quality of life for all, smaller more manageable family sizes are necessary.

  4. A.Roddy: Thanks for your comment. If they get tax refunds for each child, that needs to be taken up with Congress, not the Duggars. I would dare say that given their TV presence, they have generated more working dollars in publicity, advertising, etc. for the benefit of the economy than whatever they might get from the IRS each year — certainly more than you and I put together. And as for negotiating costs, few businesses (generally none) negotiate to their own hurt and it would be careless to assume that this creates a burden on anyone outside their family. I dont know anything about the other family, you mentioned and will beg off of commenting on that.

    TheresaMC: Thanks for the response! But I would differ on whether or not it really is a given that we are a “burden to the earth” and on whether we are anywhere near the earth’s ability to sustain a population. Your last statement trying to connect high rates of population growth and low quality of life is, historically, completely false, as populations, economic prosperity, and quality of life, and efficiency of energy consumption have risen hand-in-hand for quite some time.

    Has a limit been truly reached? Some certainly argue “Yes,” some argue “No,” but regrettably most seem to argue their favorite answer out of agenda-driven bias rather than facts — and using facts, alone, it’s a very hairy puzzle to solve, given the vast number of variables involved. Regardless, the things you’ve stated are far from established fact, and, narrowing the view to Western society, are very likely false. It is falling populations that are leading to declining standards of living and declining quality of life, not increasing populations.

    There may be fewer “family farms,” but whether or not it is not practical to have lots of kids is something that has to be proven, not taken for granted.

    Thanks, again, to both of you for your comments!

  5. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    With regard to some of the ideas expressed prior to this post, may I recommend the intriguing article The City Solution: Why cities are the best cure for our planet’s growing pains by Robert Kunzig (National Geographic, December 2011, pp. 124-147). Every merely human solution has its advantages and disadvantages and the increasing urbanization of planet Earth is no exception to the rule. It is the advantages of the current trend that I found the most intriguing to think about. (I leave them as an exercise for the student. 😀 )

    This got me to thinking about something else, but in trying to write it out I realized I was sinking into causal quicksand. But I do believe I’ll get on firmer ground in time and then I’ll have something worthwhile to add to the honorable mention above.

  6. Steven

    I would have to agree with “Theresamc”. The world can only support “x” number of people. There are only so many resources to go around (including food). There must be a balance somewhere. I believe that everyone is entitled to have whatever family size they want, but not at the cost of reducing a child’s standard of living. In other words, I would rather have 2 kids and give them all they need to grow up happy and healthy than have 5 children and be struggling to even buy them clothing. That is not right or fair.

    Interestingly enough, this topic reminds me of a great “Genesis” song from 1986 called “Land of Confusion”. The legendary Mike Rutherford must have been a prophet of some sort because that song is even more true today than it was back then 25 years ago. My father who was blessed with tremendous Godly wisdom even commented on it when I played it for him at the time. He said “That’s right, there are too many people in this world who have evil intentions, and it’s not getting better, it’s getting worse”. The line in the song that hits the bullseye is this:

    ” There’s too many men, too many people
    Making too many problems
    And there’s not much love to go around…”

    I would say that sums it up rather nicely. That song has become quite phophetic. In this fallen world, More People = More Problems, that is, until the Lord returns.

  7. Thanks, Steven. Yet, you give us in your own post the reasons not to agree with you easily. For one, we don’t know the value of x. And two, yes, there are too many people who have evil intentions, but why should that limit families who are raising their kids to not have such “evil intentions”–in fact, wouldn’t that be part of a solution? The song does, indeed, sum it up nicely, but it doesn’t agree with your point.

  8. Steven

    The point is, that when we exceed a threshold of population, we get increased problems. As I previously mentioned, there needs to be a balance. In other words, if everyone in the world were to have 8 children, where would that leave us? As they say, “everything in moderation”.

  9. Thanks, Steven, except that you still don’t establish your point. First, there is no confirmation that we’ve crossed some sort of prohibitive “threshold.” Secondly, your statement could be very easily turned around to show its irrelevancy: “If everyone in the world had zero children, where would that leave us?” Your comments do absolutely nothing to justify negative attitudes toward large families at all. If anything, they sound like the words one would hear from a totalitarian state which wants to enforce uniform family sizes based on some elite idea of “what’s best for everyone” — no good until you establish that (1) you actually know what’s best for everyone, and (2) you show that it’s worth whatever it takes to achieve that “best”.

  10. Steven

    Let me clarify. #1) We have already crossed the point of overpopulating the world (in order to sustain a BALANCE between resources and people). The research I have come across overwhelmingly supports that. #2) The ideal BALANCE for the whole should be capped at 3 children (should couples even decide to have kids). #3) Although I am the last one to support China in anything, there is a practical rationale as to why they limit their married couples (by law) to only one child. Would you not say that China is overpopulated, or should they continue to have as many children as they would like? I think the facts speak for themselves on that one. #4) The negative attitudes comes from overwhelming demand for commodities, thus driving inflation on everything, thus lowering the standard of living. After all, that is what it is all about….standard of living for all. There is a direct correlation between inflation and population growth (directly or indirectly). How about the bidding wars on homes in certain cities in particular such as Toronto, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Los Angeles etc. etc. Do you even know what the traffic is like in those cities? By the way, that’s another problem caused by too many people – traffic congestion. #5) You comment about “If everyone in the world had zero children, where would that leave us?” is just silly, because that is NOT what I am saying! Have I ever mentioned (even once) that people should not have children? NO! Of course not! What I AM saying is there needs to be a (here comes that word again)…..BALANCE! In other words, the birthrate needs to offset the number of deaths in a given country (approximately).

    Lastly, showing that it’s “worth” keeping that balance can be proven through sustainability. Do you know why there are LIMITS when people go hunting and fishing? Not only is it so that all who wish to partake in such an activity will have a chance at catching whatever they are after, but it is also to allow for a BALANCE in species population. Case in point, it is a FACT that the world is suffering from overfishing. How can overfishing be a problem unless there is tremendous DEMAND for fish? Where does that demand come from?……PEOPLE! Too many people causing too much demand for fish, grains and yes, even water will be the next thing you will probably see a war over. There is only so much food that can be produced in the world for a limited number of people. Again, when a BALANCE is achieved, then we have a harmoneous system. Right now, the world is overpopulated, and there is an excellent argument for capping populations for certain countries especially. Facts are facts. That is the reality of the world we live in. It’s unfortunate, but true.

  11. Thanks, Steven, for more clarification. I think we can come to some agreement, but only—in some ways—agreeing to disagree.

    On #1) I don’t think I’ve seen research that can be said to prove that point conclusively, especially given how it is usually tainted by the “fad” of the day. People thought Thomas Malthus sounded convincing in his day, as well. I’ve seen projections that “demonstrate” that the earth could support vastly more people than it has now, yet I take those with a grain of salt, too. Mankind is so terribly inefficient at governing not only his resources but also his living space, I think it is folly to draw the conclusion that we are somehow at some sort of theoretical limit.

    On #2) This really needs to be proven. And there are just as many out there who would say that one is the right number until we reach a lower equilibrium (or two), or that four is a good number, etc. Again, given how little we actually know, this seems to be folly. Your dogmatism on this point could be easier to take if it were begun with a nice “I think that…”

    On #3) China’s a great point for those who believe that population size is something that should be managed, but it isn’t the “smoking gun” it’s often taken to be. For instance: (A) it assumes that there are no other solutions, (B) it encourages the idea of a state so empowered that it controls too much, (C) it is China and not the globe, thus to argue for global controls because of one nation is irrational [especially when some areas are suffering the opposite problem: too low a birth rate], (D) the fruit of China’s policy has been horrible and is bringing devastating consequences to the nation. The facts may speak for themselves, but they may say more than folks too easily assume.

    On #4) You’re right, the standard of living in the world was so much better when the population was lower…NOT! 🙂 The overall standard of living in the world over the decades (and centuries) has increased with global population, not decreased, with fewer people living in squalor, not more. One can argue that future trends will reverse this trend, but one can’t make an economics argument based on historical circumstances.

    On #5) Of course you didn’t say that there should not be a zero birth rate, but your reaction shows that you miss the point. (I apologize if I did not communicate it clearly.) Rather, is just as irrelevant and illogical as such a comment. Surely you agree that it is OK for some couples to have zero children, isn’t it—given that some are incapable of having offspring? [I know you agree with this, so let’s move on.] To say that it is OK for some couples to have zero children is not the same thing as saying that all couples should have zero children. Ditto for big families, as well. How many families are out there like the Duggars? More than one, to be sure, but, really, how many? We have four boys—more than your theoretical limit, to be sure, yet I know any number of people who only have one, which is under your theoretical limit. In the US according to recent census studies, the average number of children per household is 2-3, just under your proposed theoretical limit. This comes from the fact that many families have 0, 1, or 2, while some have more—the larger the family, the more rare. To suggest that a totalitarian regime should come in and enforce a certain birth rate (which I know you are not suggesting…right?) or that those rare families that do choose to be beautifully large should be looked down upon and oppressed (which I hope you are not suggesting) does not make sense. Comments of your sort (“Well, if everyone did X, where would we be?”) do nothing to clarify the conversation, because not everyone is doing that. This was my point: to disabuse you of thinking that your point was relevant in any way-like saying, “Well, if everyone was a mailman, where would we be?” I hope this clarifies that comment.

    on #6) [Your “Lastly”] You’re right: Facts are facts. But interpretations are interpretations. Nothing you say proves that “the world is overpopulated” in any way. It could just as easily be argued that the world is being poorly developed and that mankind is being a poor steward. For instance, you mention demands on grain. Yet, how much grain is being grown and harvested for human consumption? Much less than you might think. The developed world’s obsession with beef, for instance, vastly over inflates the demand for grain, as does the current fad of “biofuels.” Your words argue for good management of our resources more than anything else and do not establish that population reduction is the solution. Not being stupid about our resources would make a huge difference, and—given proper maintenance—I believe the planet could very likely sustain even greater populations.

    So, a long response comment—I apologize. But hopefully I’ve made the point clearer: Your points simply don’t establish your conclusion. They may explain your position, but they are no reason for me to change mine.

    Thanks, again, for your interest.

  12. Alex

    Let me pile on, if I may…

    My own personal opinion regarding the Duggar family is generally very positive. It is refreshing to see a strong traditional family, that seems to be instilling certain virtues in the children. Do I agree with having 20 children? It is not likely to be a responsible choice for me, but I have always wanted a large family (My wife has said, ‘as many as we can afford [handle or provide for]’). Mr. Duggar does not seem to be crossing that line… I understand that he has been successful in business, and will no doubt teach his children to be productive members of society.

    In regards to the discussion…

    “… some think we can live like our grandparents.” – I submit that we ought to live more like our grandparents — who if they had large families (and sometimes struggled), at least for the most part they raised productive offspring to contribute to society. They lived simply (not necessarily without convenience – but without wanton consumption), they lived within their means, and were productive.

    With regards to the limit of people the earth can support … 4 seems to be the maximum. Notice that Cain murdered his brother Abel (see Genesis 4). The availability of resources could hardly have been the reason, but rather a lack of SELF restraint meeting one of the basest of human emotions. It seems as though not many individuals are needed to create strife and “problems.” If resources seem to be scarce, perhaps it is because of poor management.

    I agree with the principles of balance and moderation. But the argument for checking the rate of population growth are off the mark. Let us use your examples of hunting and fishing. Hunters, fishermen [lumbermen, farmers, etc.] make some of the best conservationists – because it is their livelihood. They want to be able to harvest or consume so they make it a point to be productive, add to the availability of the resources in question, and manage them properly. (btw … war is a terrible use of resources.)

    You may notice that I have used the word ‘productive’ a number of times. This is where the imbalance lies, the problem of population does not lie with the availability of resources but rather with the population itself. The attitude or practice of the population leans too heavily toward consumption and away from production – there are too few people leading productive lives [sorry to open another can of worms].

    This in short is why I want to have as many children as I can – to make the world more like me. The world needs a larger portion of people who are positive, productive, a hopefully virtuous and moral.

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