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Are Big Families a Status Symbol?

Jon and Kate Plus 8When it comes to family size, bigger seems to be better these days — at least judging by celebrity couples like Heidi Klum and Seal (four kids) and Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt (six kids).

On television, large families dominate on reality shows like Jon & Kate Plus 8, 19 Kids and Counting and 9 By Design.

Do these shows send the message that parenting is cheaper by the dozen?

Of course, there have always been big families. But in the past, they were more common among religious groups and poorer, less educated women (presumably, with less access to birth control).

The big change is that nowadays, professional and wealthy moms are having bigger broods. In certain upscale neighborhoods in Manhattan, having a big family is seen as a status symbol — a sign that you can afford to send so many kids to private school. In some cases, families have a separate nanny assigned to each kid. Now that’s privilege!

Forbes.com recently asked the question, “Are professional women shattering the two-children, nuclear-family norm?”

The answer is: yes and no.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, fertility rates increased steadily until 2006 to 2.1 children per American woman, hitting a high since the baby boom in 1961. But because of the recession, there’s been a slight dip in the birth rate over the past few years.

So the average is still around 2 kids. But there is a trend towards wealthier families having bigger families. Forbes cites the Council on Contemporary Families which says there’s been a significant increase in three- and four-children families among the “super rich,” or the top-earning 2% of households — those with an annual household income of about $400,000 or more.

It’s not surprising that the super-rich are having more kids since these days, it seems that they’re the only ones who can afford them. A 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that  in 1960 the average middle-class family spent $25,000 per child, compared with a whopping $222,000 in 2009. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a 22% jump. The report also estimates that the current per-child cost can be as high as $370,000 from birth to age 17 (not including college tuition costs), or about $23,000 each year.

Back in the 1800s, it wasn’t unusual for families to have as many as eight kids, but, of course back then, infant mortality was high and kids were expected to work to help the family financially.

Forbes.com points out that times have changed and today “children are viewed as offering emotional value rather than practical value.” In fact, economist Ann Crittenden estimates that a college-educated woman loses about $1 million in lifetime earnings after having just one child.

So why have more kids? Are they just another accessory to a fabulous lifestyle? Despite the recent studies which show that kids don’t make us any happier, do we somehow expect more kids to make life better?

Photo: TLC

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