The Decline in Average Family Size

Alienation takes many forms, and one of the most pronounced happens at the level of the family group.

In 1850, before industrial capitalism changed the social and political landscape, most Americans lived on small farms, in large nuclear families. This correlated to living in close proximity to other, closely related, large nuclear families.

If you grew up in 1850, you were likely to have four or five siblings. The families would likely settle on neighboring (or, at least, approximate) farms. When you reached marrying age, around the time of the civil war, you’d have four to six kids yourself, as would your other four or five siblings. Thus your own kids would likely have twenty-five cousins, living at most a day’s ride away.

Cooperative networks were formed between kin. This was an important bit of social insurance that immunized the individual from all manner of risks, even as it constrained him from giving way to his baser instincts (at least in public).

Screen Shot 2018-01-19 at 02.00.51

Graphic courtesy of qz dot com.

Today, even as we are infinitely more mobile, the average family has two children, and it is unusual to find a family with five children.

Author: Boxer

Secret King of all Gamma Males, Member of Frankfurt School, Your Fave Contrarian!

17 thoughts on “The Decline in Average Family Size”

  1. “it is unusual to find a family with five children”

    And when you do have that many kids, you get a lot of strange looks from people. And a lot of people who think you must be saints because they think nobody could survive that many children. It’s a bit weird.

    “Today, the average family has two children”

    As much as I approve of large families (obviously), the graph is deceptive.

    Global child mortality was 40.4% in 1850, 36.2 in 1900, and 4.25% in 2015. Families don’t need to have family sizes quite as large because mortality rates are much lower. That dampens the information implied by the graph you provided by a little.

    Mortality rates for mothers was also as high as 1% per birth and mortality rates on the whole were much higher. Men consistently got remarried, so many of those large families were from more than one wife. This happened in two of my four great-grandparents. In the rest of my family tree this was a fairly common occurrence.

    A better statistic would be to break it down by a married women’s children, rather than household. Households frequently included more than two generations and multiple families. Now, Derek, you might say, the header for the chart says “number of her own children”. The census did not record this information. It is a mistake. If the information was requested at all, it was the head of household (usually the father) and the children who were under that head (son, daughter, and adopted).

    All that said, a more natural average family size is 3 in a low-mortality environment. Most families stop at 2 quite artificially because that is their plan from the outset. Many try for 3 only when they fail to get one of each gender. This is born out by the statistics (3 children is about 50% of the 2 children size). Gender matching is a relatively modern trend. If we abandoned that the average would obviously go up, but with later marriage ages and extensive birth-control, most would not hit 4 or 5 before running out of time.

    1. Dear Derek:

      First of all, congratulations on successfully raising an intact family.

      You’re making a number of fair points, but unless you’re contending that children raised together will not have an intuitive sense of place around their siblings (even if they’re technically half-siblings) then you aren’t really disagreeing with me. I don’t read you as making that argument.

      Now, Derek, you might say, the header for the chart says “number of her own children”. The census did not record this information. It is a mistake. If the information was requested at all, it was the head of household (usually the father) and the children who were under that head (son, daughter, and adopted).

      This assumption seems hasty. From the U.S. Census Bureau site:

      1850

      The 1850 census saw a dramatic shift in the way information about residents was collected. For the first time, free persons were listed individually instead of by family. There were two questionnaires: one for free inhabitants and one for slaves.

      Schedule No. 1 – Free Inhabitants
      Listed by column number, enumerators recorded the following information:

      Number of dwelling house (in order visited)
      Number of family (in order visited)
      Name
      Age
      Sex

      https://www.census.gov/history/www/through_the_decades/index_of_questions/1850_1.html

      I could imagine a shell-script which sorted all the 40-year old women in such a database, and counted up this sample’s kids. Note that in 1850, kids were listed under their parents, like so:

      This is a random page from the raw 1850 census microfilm that the Mormon church has digitized. Household members descend by age, rather than sex. I find it reasonable to assume that Minerva Smith (age 33) is the wife of William (age 35), and is the mother of John (age 14), Robert (age 12) Francis (age 10) Elly Ann (age 8) Mary (6) Elijah (4) and Joel (2).

      Let’s suppose that John and Robert were sired through William’s first wife, Mathilde, who died in childbirth. Would it really make a difference to children ages 2 and 0, if they knew Minerva as their mother, and if they knew Francis as their half-brother? I would argue that in most cases it wouldn’t matter as much as we’d assume today. People back then were more pragmatic (their lives depended on it). If Bob has to slop hogs with his half-brother Frank, and both are getting bossed around and tormented by their asshole older brother Johnny, then it’s likely Bob and Frank will be closer as adults anyway, and this will tend to lead to their kids spending more time together.

      As an aside, check out the single-mom Sarah Spainhour (age 42). She is the head of the household in entry 674. It’s fair to assume that she’s the mother of Julia (12), Alexander (10), and Washington (6). Where is her husband? Is he dead, or did she simply inherit the sort of wealth that let her become a skank-ho on the downlow? No one knows. Note that this record isn’t from Arizona Territory or Occupied Deseret (where I’d assume she was the second or third wife of someone). It’s from North Carolina, where there weren’t any Mormons until very recently.

      Anyway, I find it reasonable to assume that the grandchildren of William and Minerva Smith will be more numerous than the grandchildren of Sarah Spainhour, whatever her origins, only because the Smith family is sending 7 kids into the world (and Minerva’s old enough to have a couple more) while Sarah is sending only 3. This will translate into a broader and deeper social network for those children, which will insulate them from random misfortune somewhat, and which will also compel them to honorable behavior more often. On the whole, I’d guess that societies which encourage and support large, intact families tend to be high-trust societies.

      1. you aren’t really disagreeing with me

        No, not really, just saying that your graph is highly deceptive and it would be a shame if you or your readers drew the wrong conclusion from it, because the obvious conclusion is not factual. It’s really terrible work and if someone wanted to debate your point, they could attack your credibility by pointing out that your supporting evidence is junk.

        I’ve done genealogical research using the Mormon resources (i.e. familysearch.org) and found lots and lots of examples of what I’m saying, going back to dozens of families in my tree back to before the founding of America. This is the most recent example in my tree, which is not atypical:

        My great-grandfather, who had two wives, had 15 total children. At the time of the 1910 census, he had had 7 children with his first wife and 4 with his second. His first wife and first child was deceased and his eldest living was a girl of 15 years old. While he had 10 living children, only 6 were listed on the census record, a mix of children from both spouses. All were listed as sons and daughters. There was no indication that the children were not all from the wife listed.

        Census records are a complete mess and not particularly useful for statistics. A large part of that graph is statistical and other errors. The list of reasons why your reasonable assumptions are actually completely unreasonable would take a bit of explanation. Many reasons, including, multiple wives, deaths of children, widespread reuse/misspelling/variants of names, census errors, a census only every 10-years, and the census form changed every census. This is just getting started. This is why the Mormon church does not do exactly as you are suggesting, because it can’t be automated. It takes detailed research to get even a remotely accurate measurement.

        As to your original alienation point, you are absolutely correct. Family sizes are smaller and that utterly damages society by reducing the fabric that holds close kin together. Everything gets dehumanized.

        The reason why I focus on children-per-woman rather than children-per-family is because there were fewer, but much larger, families. Now we have many, but smaller, families. The children-living-to-adulthood-per-mother statistic is required to evaluate what the actual decline is. It might not be as significant as you think it is.

        It always comes back to the massive destructive evil of divorce and single-parenthood. If those two things didn’t happen, the average family size would probably increase much closer to historical norms. Not all the way, perhaps just to the 50’s, but it’s no surprise that the changes started happening dramatically around the 60’s and 70’s.

  2. Sir I also think that the ride them one or two children help children to be more selfish. If you have eight other people under the age of 18 to think about besides yourself you’re going to try to be more loving if you have no one it’s all about you.

  3. In the hamlet I grew up in……out in the northern reaches of New York State…..it was founded in 1792. In high school, our one history class did a study aside from the usual study of that year (europe). We researched some of the history of my town. We went to county offices, checked death records……..a smallpox outbreak in the 1880’s decimated the whole area. After World War I, the flu killed many people……mostly children under the age of ten. In college I learned that this flu outbreak was a worldwide one…probably the last major “outbreak” the world has seen. Aside from the usual causes of death…….childbirth, accidents…..and “teeth” (which surprised us at the time…..so many died from a tooth infection of sorts)

    The population of my hamlet / town was bigger……300% bigger in 1888 than in 1988. In 1988 the census calculated roughly 893 people…..and the trends showed a continued decline (as of 2010……799). The average family size in 1875 was 7. When I was growing up there is was 4, or 3.

    The sharpest decline hit in the 1890’s (formation of the Adirondack Park, and the opening of / founding of General Electric factory / motor works in Schenectady….about an hour south)

  4. ‘One reason why was that, back then, children were considered an economic asset: with enough kids, parents could rest assured that at least some would survive and care for them in old age.’

    Sounds like what it was like before things like social security and medicare existed.

    ‘In addition, the culture dictated that a woman’s place was in the home, and her fulfillment was found there, where she served her husband and raised her children. ‘

    And now women don’t…and their reward is that they are more unhappy now than they ever were.

    ‘From 1920, large American families began to dwindle. Ferrante says that American women stopped having many kids at that point due to industrialization, which created work for women outside the home and transformed children into economic liabilities rather than assets; the more kids in a family, the harder it was for a mother to go out and work.’

    They saw kids as burdens to their ‘I’m empowered by a career’ thought rather than being empowered because they are a mother.

  5. Children are liabilities only because government decrees it. They aren’t allowed to do paid work until age 18 which can easily be a strain on a single paycheck. Odd that the general public would lose its mind if you pimped your kids out as tech support or manual labor then pocketed their paycheck, yet they smile and nod when you make them do unpaid farm labor at 5 in the morning.

  6. Dear Derek:

    No, not really, just saying that your graph is highly deceptive and it would be a shame if you or your readers drew the wrong conclusion from it, because the obvious conclusion is not factual. It’s really terrible work and if someone wanted to debate your point, they could attack your credibility by pointing out that your supporting evidence is junk.

    To begin with, it’s not “my” graph. I gave credit for its source. Moreover, what is the point you’re labeling as mine?

    I’ve made a couple of explicit claims. One is that the average North American family size has gone down in the last 150 years. You don’t seem to dispute this. Another is that children from large families tend to be better adjusted as adults. A third is that in 1850, families were less mobile than contemporary families, and one had a much greater chance to settle in the same town as his grandparents. I could post supporting evidence for such a thing, but it seems obvious, as the jet plane has replaced the stagecoach, people tend to move further afield to maximize opportunities.

    Of the three things I’ve claimed, the second is anecdotal, but I admitted that from the get.

    I also made an implicit claim that the historical process is undertheorized. I don’t ever see Dalrock or any other traditionalist discussing such stuff. If you’ve done so in the past, I’d love a link.

    My great-grandfather, who had two wives, had 15 total children. At the time of the 1910 census, he had had 7 children with his first wife and 4 with his second. His first wife and first child was deceased and his eldest living was a girl of 15 years old. While he had 10 living children, only 6 were listed on the census record, a mix of children from both spouses. All were listed as sons and daughters. There was no indication that the children were not all from the wife listed.

    Did those children immediately separate into competing, matrilineal camps at adulthood, or did they consider each other to be siblings, and help each other out accordingly? If the latter tends to happen, then what difference does it make?

    Best,

    Boxer

    1. “congratulations on successfully raising an intact family.”

      The wife is big on kids. I’m big on marriage and anti-divorce. See the last paragraph.

      “what is the point you’re labeling as mine?”

      Using a graph that is factually incorrect is ‘yours’ in the sense that you posted it. Unless all your readers are going to double check the sources (yeah right), then it’s deceptive. It’s not really helping or harming any of your written points, but it is misinformation.

      “Did those children immediately separate into competing, matrilineal camps at adulthood, or did they consider each other to be siblings, and help each other out accordingly?”

      They were close knit until they passed in their 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. The tight bond of the highly devout large Christian family is amazing. That legacy still lives on in many of their offspring and their families.

      “I also made an implicit claim that the historical process is undertheorized. I don’t ever see Dalrock or any other traditionalist discussing such stuff. If you’ve done so in the past, I’d love a link.”

      This is a fascinating topic. Thank you for raising the issue. I had never noticed the inverse connection between family size and alienation. It’s ironic, considering my view on internet anonymity: lack of family/community/personal leads to the same alienation and social fabric destruction.

      I write on my blog as a hobby and/or for myself, so I’ve never publicly written about these issues except in comment sections, but it has long been a personal meatspace topic. As for theory and links, I suggest this list of ten items. It never occurred to me to consider family size.

      Outside the Mormons and Anabaptists, of which Dalrock is disinterested and not a member, I haven’t been able to find other Christian groups that are interested in this type of traditionalism. Mormons seem to emphasize family size, but their divorce rates are too high. I don’t know enough about Mormons to explain that. Anabaptists are the most anti-divorce group of Christians I’ve met, but they don’t emphasize large families much anymore. It happens, but it isn’t pushed. I think both of these groups hold important keys (large close-knit families or strict anti-divorce). I just don’t see other evangelical or mainstream Christian denominations being effective in either area.

      1. Dear Derek:

        Using a graph that is factually incorrect is ‘yours’ in the sense that you posted it. Unless all your readers are going to double check the sources (yeah right), then it’s deceptive.

        Well, Earl and Gunner Q have apparently been to the source, because they both criticized it (independent of my disagreement) with specific citations.

        I’m still unclear on how it’s factually incorrect, specifically. It’s clearly a not-entirely-serious illustration, with little standard normal curves standing in for specific figures; but I don’t think it gives one the wrong idea about the general trend. Even so, I’m not a statistician, and ain’t qualified to debate specifics. My claim (five kid families were much more common in 1850 than they were in 2010) doesn’t seem to be too controversial.

        I had never noticed the inverse connection between family size and alienation. It’s ironic, considering my view on internet anonymity: lack of family/community/personal leads to the same alienation and social fabric destruction.

        Sort of another topic that I’ve done to death with Scott (of American Dad), but, I don’t think the internet provides the possibility for community. I realize why you guys take the position that it does, and your position is understandable. I think the internet provides for a dangerous simulacra of community (in the Beaudrillard sense of that term). Internet relationships have the potential to disguise themselves as truth-events, when they aren’t, really.

        Focusing on internet friendships burns time and energy that would often be better spent on developing a core of real friends in the immediate environment. There are distinct advantages to internet acquaintances, but they arise from the fact that you can bounce outrageous ideas off each other without much fear of social sanction. In short, your internet friends are most useful because they aren’t people you can have any community interaction with.

        This is a fascinating topic. Thank you for raising the issue.

        Occasionally I’ve seen it mildly touched upon in a peripheral way, but this only happens in a place like Salo or MPC. It’s surprising that nobody sees this facet of “progress” as a part of the problem.

        I write on my blog as a hobby and/or for myself, so I’ve never publicly written about these issues except in comment sections, but it has long been a personal meatspace topic. As for theory and links, I suggest this list of ten items. It never occurred to me to consider family size.

        The ten items are in the comment section of the link. I’m reposting them here:

        (1) Don’t have sex before age 18.
        (2) Don’t have sex before marriage; Don’t get pregnant before marriage; Don’t have multiple sexual partners
        (3) Don’t cohabitate.
        (4) Get married in the 20s.
        (5) Graduate from high school. If possible get a Bachelor’s degree or learn a skilled trade, but don’t drop out.
        (6) Find stable full-time work and learn how to manage money.
        (7) The man should have the higher income.
        (8) Don’t have divorced parents.
        (9) Be a devout Christian. Attend church regularly.
        (10) Don’t live in the Bible Belt

        I can’t really argue with any of that.

        Outside the Mormons and Anabaptists, of which Dalrock is disinterested and not a member, I haven’t been able to find other Christian groups that are interested in this type of traditionalism. Mormons seem to emphasize family size, but their divorce rates are too high. I don’t know enough about Mormons to explain that.

        Mormons aren’t really Christians, and among ourselves, we pride ourselves on it. We pass as Christians because it’s convenient and safe, and because it helps us in business and politics. From an early age I was taught that Christians were polytheists who worshipped idols like Jesus and Mary (and in the case of Catholics, hundreds of saints to boot). Those of us who are religious don’t consider the New Testament to be scripture. We will quote it in mixed company, but among ourselves it’s just a pack of lies, written by Satan, in an attempt to deceive the gullible.

        For that matter, Mormons aren’t really a religion. We’re an ethnic group, with several competing versions of a folk religion. The largest two are well known, as LDS and Community of Christ. The first is the Utah based church, made famous by political scum like Mitt Romney and Harry Reid. The second is a Missouri based church, led by a direct descendant of Joseph Smith, which is much closer to liberal, mainstream Christianity. There are several others, some quite insane, and some mainstream. Then of course there’s Mormons like me: totally secular. Morris Udall was the first out-and-proud secular Mormon, and he lost the chance to be the Democratic nominee for president to Jimmy Carter, because he wouldn’t recant his godless atheism.

        Specific to the divorce question, if we took a more traditional stance on that, it would deprecate our own prophets. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were bigamists, who married multiple women, and divorced many of them. You don’t want to impugn the prophets, do you? I didn’t think so. Therefore, divorce is cool. Thus saith GOD himself.

        Best,

        Boxer

      2. “I’m still unclear on how it’s factually incorrect, specifically.”

        The heading is wrong: “The number of her own children currently in a 40-year old woman’s household”.

        The numbers show all children in a household as being a woman’s, even if she didn’t give birth to them. 40-years old is selected is because births to woman in that age group constitute less than 5% of all births: i.e. it implies that it is trying to count a woman’s natural born children (i.e.
        “her own”). In the more recent years, family size is almost exclusively limited to one woman’s natural born children (divorce and remarriage shuffle children, but it’s a statistical wash). It’s an apples and oranges comparison. Add in all the methodology problems with census taking that I mentioned, and the decade-to-decade numbers are not quite comparable to each other either.

        “Earl and Gunner Q have apparently been to the source”

        Some rare skills your readers have.

        “I think the internet provides for a dangerous simulacra of community”

        I mostly have to agree with you. That said, most of the time (~90%) I dated and was engaged to my future wife, it was a remote, online relationship. Also, I became close friends with someone online and only met in real life about 6 years later. Still friends two decades later. Bit crazy, but I was never normal.

        “It’s surprising that nobody sees this facet of “progress” as a part of the problem.”

        I wouldn’t say nobody sees this. For those sociologists and politicians who pay attention to inverted population pyramids, it’s a huge, huge issue. A healthy population has less and less people in each age group as you increase in age. In most of the developed world it is inverting because family sizes are too small. In places like China, it is probably past critical. In the next 10-30 years there are going to be some major social, economic, and health consequences. It’s not going to be pretty and I’m not looking forward to it. Ironically it will be immigrants (illegal and legal) with their high fertility rates who ultimately keep America from crashing as hard as other developed countries.

        Some people, like myself, see the decline in (or lack of) Christianity as a primary driver behind the unhealthy population makeup.

        “Mormons aren’t really Christians”

        And yet their emphasis on large families has a very healthy influence on society. I’m not suggesting that anyone should convert, just that they are doing something right when it comes to marriage that others should emulate.

        “You don’t want to impugn the prophets, do you? I didn’t think so. Therefore, divorce is cool.”

        That’s… irreconcilable. And disappointing.

        (Thanks for your insight into Mormons. That’s helpful.)

  7. Mom would have had 10 kids .. Dad was down with four .. Four it was .. all his siblings had 3+. I have a bunch of cousins. It made for a great time as a kid.

    My brothers had 2 each .. me .. zero .. my cousins had at least 2 each .. except one cousin she wanted 10 plus kids .. she got’em .. she just had to find a few different guys cuz .. I don’t think they were down for that .. heh.

    Anyway my grandparents grew-up in households of 12 kids each. It was different back then .. and it was expected in rural life .. so it wasn’t abnormal.

    Now I’m more normal .. no kids.

    BTW .. my brothers and cousins did want more kids .. they just made choices based on finances / mate preference of enough is enough. To say .. they don’t make women like they used to .. they just don’t desire large families like just one generation prior.

    YMWV

    1. That was totally hilarious. It’s a shame I can’t embed the video without sending ad revenue to Zuckerberg’s mind-control project.

  8. My dad was one of 14. My mother one of three. Just me and my brother and my older brother has Downs Syndrome with profound medical and mental handicaps. It was down to me……..and I am now pushing fifty and I have not fathered any children. My family line ends with me. Of all my cousins with my last name……none, I was the only boy.

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