An Ode to Large Families

Preface: Why It’s Okay to Talk About Family Size

Family size is one of those hyper-sensitive issues that people gingerly tip toe around in the Church, and with good reason. First, it abuts with the kind of cultural touchstone gender role issues that the Church has kind of soft preferences around but has generally avoided hard positioning on. 

Second, it is directly tied to other highly personal areas such as mental and physical health, infertility, relationship quality, sex lives, and wealth. At an individual level, questioning why somebody has as few children as they do is a recipe for all sorts of interpersonal awkwardness and drama. 

However, while it would be completely inappropriate to critique any individual’s family size, commentary about the average number of children in a society or community is fair game. Each of the above variables vary from individual to individual, but it’s arguable to what extent they have changed across time for society. At the end of the day you can’t attribute the decline in family size in the Church to a rash of infertility, and while people are often quick to blame the economic situation, research on child incentives show that they at most have a marginal effect of childbearing, and fertility has declined among high-income families as well. No, it is clear that the preferences for family size themselves have changed. Church members simply don’t want to have ten kids anymore, even if they had a pitch perfect spouse, great schools, easy pregnancies, a great career, and all the things. 

While, again, it would be inappropriate to critique any individual decision, there is no reason critiquing general attitudes towards having large families is any more inappropriate than critiquing any other schema or set of societal priorities. While unapologetically and explicitly honoring and acclaiming the large family ideal risks otherizing those that do not meet the ideal, the same is true for virtually any good, but that does not prevent us from, say, honoring those with higher education degrees or successful careers. Indeed, society at large already honors people with those things, they have their reward, whereas the dutiful stay-at-home parent with eight children gets little else from the public but weird looks at the store and park. If there is a place where particular in-group Church norms could make a distinctive, unique difference it’s there, and I think what Spencer W. Kimball said in regards to families generally also applies to large families: 

We have no choice, dear sisters, but to continue to hold up the ideal of the Latter-day Saint family. The fact that some do not now have the privilege of living in such a family is not reason enough to stop talking about it. We do discuss family life with sensitivity, however, realizing that many sisters do not presently have the privilege of belonging or contributing to such a family. But we cannot set aside this standard, because so many other things depend upon it.

The Case for Big Families

I have already written in some detail about how central pronatalism is to the theological structure of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To wit, eternal reproduction is literally the defining feature that separates the Gods from the angels. In the celestial tier, the generative, creative impulse is taken to an eternal nth degree. Furthermore, it isn’t creation for creation’s sake, but the creation and multiplying of interpersonal relations that are “at the heart of everything that is worthy to be called happiness.” I suspect that the relatively high fertility levels among the Saints isn’t just a local manifestation of generic conservative ideals, but is a residue of the days of large kinship clans when the above theological premises had very real implications for framing this-worldly norms about the good life, with large earthly families reflecting the celestial archetype structured by the theology.  

For me personally, that framing is still operative. Growing up, both the Old Testament’s family-centered theology and its Nauvoo-era updates gradually settled the large-family ideal in my mind and outlook. (Indeed, I think part of authentically absorbing the spirit of the Old Testament is coming away with this kind of pronatalist, kin and family-centered perspective.)

I’m sure the fact that I had a sort of ideal large family existence myself also helped. (Although I recognize that not all big family experiences are as positive). A large family meant all the more fun, excitement, life, and emotions; all the things that make life life. It might not have been “eternal lives” but it was certainly more life and lives. 

To some extent the case for large families is ineffable. There is no formula that says that those supernal moments with children are peak existence: an infant child smiling at you for no reason, a toddler drifting off to sleep in the crook of your arm, sitting in the parlor talking with relatives late into the night, the obsessive concerns for people who aren’t you. If you don’t feel that then I suppose I don’t have a response any more than I would have a response to somebody not liking ice cream, but from a Latter-day Saint perspective those sorts of ideals are defining elements to the celestial existence, which is not true for hobbies, careerism, or whatever other thing we’re exchanging for the family-centered life that isn’t our sanity or health. God’s not going to care about your office suite (and probably neither will anybody else ten minutes after you retire, but that’s another matter). To some extent my pronatalism derives from my sense of nihilism about almost everything else; still, you don’t have to be as generically cynical as I am to recognize point the point here. 

Of course those numinous moments are counterpoised with the brawling, late night colic, and dysfunctional family drama.

However, there is something existentially heavy about the creation and raising of a human being that is greater than the balancing equation weighing the supernal moments against the stressful ones. With our theology of eternal continuation of that act of creation, outside of eternal ordinances I suspect there is nothing else of equal import worth investing our energy in.

A saying we had in our house growing up was “anything not eternal is too short.” It’s one thing if we’re all atoms with everything bound for the void, in that case by all means eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we return to the darkness, but from a believing Latter-day Saint perspective I’m constantly befuddled when otherwise believing members make an explicit choice to trade their birthrights as generative Gods in embryo for messes of pottage of…anything else, it doesn’t matter what the alternative is, whether it’s videogames or making partner, it all becomes maggot dung in the end anyway. (Of course that’s not to say that things in-the-moment aren’t important in themselves).  

If it’s legacy we’re seeking, most of our occupational or educational accolades and honors will be buried with us, if not sooner, whereas my youngest son will quite possibly live to see the year 2120. I have no idea what will be going on then, but I’m pretty sure whatever I’ve done outside of family by then will be a drop in a bucket buried in a landslide overgrown with jungle.

Of course, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t strive for our individual drops in our chosen fields; rather here I’m targeting the “you could have been a contender” message that society communicates to people who decide focus on families at the expense of the honors of men. There are very legitimate reasons for having fewer children such as difficult pregnancies, mental health, or financial security; however, I think I’m in safe territory believing that virtually any explicit exchange of children for occupational advantage per se (whether you’re a man or woman) is unprofitable in the eternal scheme of things. 

Finally, whatever spiritual, emotional, higher, or existential goods one receives from one child, you get double from two and triple from three. Again, this may seem harsh to those who have not been blessed with as many children, but it makes logical sense, and besides the logical implication of the converse is that children in larger families provide less of those ultimate relational goods per person than children in smaller families. 

With these premises: that the highest goods come from family relations, and that these benefits are linearly additive, the truly rich life as an earthly shadow of what we can expect in the celestial glory comes into focus. As a final note, in my mind that life is typified by a Haredi Jewish woman who passed away with over 2,000 descendants. She spent her days giving and marinating in family love, and I encourage readers to read the article about her life, which makes a better case for the good life than any syllogistic argument I could make.  

Innumerable as the Stars

32 comments for “An Ode to Large Families

  1. Since “commentary about the average number of children in a society or community is fair game,” it might be instructive to look at the number of children sired by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. Many of those men are parents of just two or three children. I think Latter-day Saints always follow trends in the larger society, even though we say “the world” is bad.

    In the old days, and speaking generally, everyone had large families, both among the righteous as well as among the unrighteous. These days (including going back several decades to when the men who are now in the church’s presiding councils were making these choices), speaking generally, everyone has smaller families, both among the righteous as well as among the unrighteous.

    Indeed, I see no correlation at all with family size and righteousness. I have thought that the commandment to be fruitful and replenish the earth applies to mankind generally rather than to each and every person personally and individually.

  2. I’m with you in that there is a case to be made for large families. They can be a beautiful thing and amazing experience. But you lost me when you said

    “With our theology of eternal continuation of that act of creation, outside of eternal ordinances I suspect there is nothing else of equal import worth investing our energy in”

    I would not want to worship at a church where everyone around me was so absorbed in their American nuclear family that they did not see community building and Christlike living as equally important and fulfilling. Producing children without finding equal value in creating nurturing communities and caring about other people’s children doesn’t sit well with me. I’m thankful that in my experience, our theology has not led my coreligionists down this path.

  3. JI: The Q15 is still a small enough group that any individual part making up the whole matter, but at the risk of violating the “don’t talk about individual cases” rule, it has seemed interesting to me that in cases where they do have smaller families there is often a very public reason (e.g. Sister Bednar had really hard pregnancies, the Hollands had infertility, and Sister Renlund almost died from cancer).

    I’m also open to the possibility that some for some people God wanted fewer children because he had something else particular in mind a la Eliza R. Snow. However, we have to be careful going down this road because it can quickly devolve into creating hierarchies between “breeders” and educated, worldly accomplished leaders, with more choosing the latter because it entails more honors of men, when the point is to affirm the childbearing option enough that they at least have as much esteem as the worldy, accomplished leader types.

    Tori: This is one of those “the poor you have with you always” things, just because something is important does not mean that 100% of our energy should be put into that thing. For example, my understanding is that according to the effective altruism people, the most effective thing that you can do to alleviate human suffering is donate money to buy malaria nets, but I don’t think any of them argue that the whole world should stop while we all produce malaria nets. Similarly, recognizing the relative primacy of bearing and rearing children not necessarily mean that we neglect all other spheres of life.

  4. I think when God asked those who made a covenant to “multiply” He was not expecting us to be like the animal world and crank out offspring until our bodies refuse to do it anymore. We are not rabbits. The culture in the church to “multiply” seemed to lean towards the theory that those with the most kids win the prize or by default are more righteous or holy or blessed in Gods eyes.

    Polygamy started this as we have all seen the pictures of the man sitting proudly in the center of his 30 kids and 6 wives. You might as well title each of those pictures “Righteous Manly Man” (I am sure StephenC could come up with a better title….)

    Do the “brethren” even talk about kid count anymore? Stay at home moms? My wife was a stay at home mom to our 5 kiddos. This doesn’t work for everyone or is even possible for everyone. When I hear the Gen RS pres say that her children were her #1 priority, but she worked as an attorney all her life and I think even made partner, to me that is lip service and takes away from the women who stayed home to raise their kids. Call me old fashion. I have no problem with women in the church working outside of the home, I was raised that way, but to say your children were your priority? My children were not my priority, my priority was to work to provide so my wife could stay home. I am not saying this is the “right way” I am saying it worked for what we wanted. I couldn’t honestly say to anyone that my kids were my #1 priority. If I used the angle that allowing my wife to not work made my kids my priority, I guess that might work.

    To me the “winner” of whatever family you create is not in the count but what kind of kids are being produced. I will honor the parent/parents that raised one righteous child over the family of 6 that are all dysfunctional in society. (of course I mean by bad parenting, not those who are not capable)

    Back in the day, the more kids you had meant more people to help with the farm and therefore a better chance of worldly survival or actual success. Today, it is the opposite. Kids cost!

  5. I am in the “accordion phase” with a couple of younger children who haven’t moved away yet, and several young adults who come and go. The household size goes in and out and in and out. It is notable how adding or taking away just one person from the household changes the dynamics within. One person’s presence or absence doubles or halves the number of pairs interacting with one another.

    Then there is the power set, the set of all possible subsets that grows (or shrinks) even faster; the power set of the natural numbers corresponds to the set of real numbers. This is experienced when considering the possibilities of who will be home together for dinner any given night. Beyond that is partitioning, all the ways a group can be subdivided, with the number of possible partitions growing even faster than the power set: 15 for a four member set, 52 for a five member set. This is all the possible teams that can be arranged for chores or other tasks.

    And then there is the expansion beyond one household. This goes in all directions: children forming new families, all the brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandparents, cousins we work to stay connected with, to care about, help and pray for. Comparing all that to stars in night sky is not a stretch if I limit myself to those visible without a telescope (only about 6,000), and I can glimpse comparing it to the sands of the seashore.

    Twenty-five years back I was working at UCLA on a project that also involved researchers at Caltech, and our occasional meetings caused me to wonder in which decade travel between Pasadena and Santa Monica on a Tuesday afternoon required the fewest hours. I used to hear speculation about Heavenly Grandparents and Great-Grandparents, but what I wondered about was the never even hinted at Heavenly Uncles, Aunts, and Cousins.

  6. I’m not married myself yet, though I would like to be, but I have 6 siblings, and boy does it get lively at family gatherings! Since I’m one of the youngest, there’s a passel of nieces and nephews to show up for; my youngest brother has a mission in life to be the best uncle ever, and he gets mobbed at every family event. My parents are retired, but busier than ever as they go to games, concerts, and other big events. One of my sisters lives next to a favorite cousin a few hours away, and most of us live geographically closer, so we end up doing things together. My youngest brother is one of my best friends.
    What I’m getting at is that as a fairly normal family, we have a much richer life because my parents decided to make the sacrifices that come with more children. And so while I would never pry, shame, or try to make decisions for other people, I certainly would advocate for larger families if asked.
    I watched as my paternal grandmother died where she wished, at home, cared for by family instead of strangers, because she created a home where her children wanted to be, and where they were willing to make sacrifices for one another. I see my siblings rally around those in our family with challenges, and wonder where they would get that level of support if not from family. Sure, there’s sometimes chaos and hurt feelings and painful struggles, but a larger family can be a blessing in itself. I see people dying lonely and alone because they decided family was too great a sacrifice; I also see others who have large families who hate them and are only interested in inheritance. But the ideal of a large family who will rise up and call their elders blessed is one that I both see and desire, and that is all too often mocked by the world at large.

  7. This emphasis on procreation/large families leaves me confused. It is very true that a large progeny was important to Abraham and his society. Today we live in a culture and society which values family in a different way. It was so important to Abraham to have progeny that he had children with women he wasn’t married to. Possibly with women who had no voice in the relationship. I have never heard of people being encouraged to have children with maids or co-workers if one’s wife is not able to have children. But Abraham and his society saw women as property, as something that they owned, and set up a value system where a man’s value was measured in progeny. Without children Abraham had no real wealth. Since I don’t believe that we ought to yearn for those days, and obviously because we value our spouses as equals and not as property, then our understanding of what kind of behavior and family structure is important has changed. In this setting the value of children has changed. We also don’t consider children as our property, while Abraham felt differently and even felt justified apparently to sacrifice one of his children.

    So, this all makes me grumpy as we force Abraham’s understanding of family values, which I believe is deeply different than ours today (certainly different than mine), onto our understanding of the value of family.

    Joseph Smith’s polygamy, as I understand it, was partly geared towards seeing that everyone was adopted into a post-world family. Thus he was sealed to women married to other men, and sealed to women he never apparently “knew.” Of course others he knew, but not all of them. Add to that the sealing of Joseph to women after Joseph’s death. All of this is still hard for us to understand but I believe that some of it was motivated by the desire to see every covenant person be a part of Abrham’s legacy. And it has nothing to do with the size of our own families.

    Aren’t we all heirs to Abraham? Whether we are single, married, have one child, or have eleven, we partake in “all that the Father has.” I doubt that God has any interest in our family size. Rather God wants us, as I understand it, to love, nurture, and value our children. The size of our families has become moot.

    We may get hung up on selfishness. It can be selfish, I guess, to have a small family. So we ought not to be selfish, and we ought to be generous to others. But this is true if we have one children or twelve.

    I don’t believe that someone with eleven children will be more happy eternally than someone who has but one. No matter the reason.

  8. I have a small family. I have one son whom I adopted. My wife experienced miscarriage but not live birth. Yes, some (many?) Latter-day Saints will say I am selfish for having a small family, and they will pat themselves on the back because their families are larger, but sadly I don’t see much charity in those people. I want to hope we can celebrate all families, large and small, and that we can appreciate all fellow members of the church without regard to family situation. I’ll never amount to anything in the church because of my family status — but I understand that God’s ways and thinking are different than man’s and that He is not a respecter of persons so I have hope of a better reception with Him one day.

  9. @John Mansfields: I’m in the thick of a lot of those combinatorial facets you describe; they’re very visceral but I hadn’t been able to articulate or frame them as well as you.

    @E.C.: Those are beautiful thoughts. Thank you.

    @stephenchardy: There’s no reason to throw out the baby with the bath water. Yes, we can assume that everything Bronze Age is bad, but if we’re going to read the Old Testament as speaking to our day there has to be something redeemable in that age, and the offspring theology is as good as any as a candidate.

    We tend to focus on the number of wives the Nauvoo leaders had out of prurient interest, but what we forget is that the number of sealed children was also quite important and connected to their exaltation and glory (I believe Brigham Young had many more people sealed to him as children than as wives, but somebody might have to fact check me on that). Agree with or not the spirit of Nauvoo sealings was very much tied to the number of kinship connections.

    @JI: FWIW, people who pat themselves on the back because of their own righteousness seem to always get their comeuppance. If by “amount to anything” you mean hold a high Church position, then the vast majority of people reading this won’t
    “amount to anything” either, but regardless that’s one reason why it’s good to have both an Elder Renlund with his one daughter and a President Nelson with his 9 (?) daughters. Also, years ago when I was perusing the now-defunct “Grandpa Bill’s GA Pages” I ran across one General Authority who had one child who died very young, so for nearly all of his life he was childless, but for the life of me I can’t remember who it was or find his info, so I don’t know if it’s a false/fuzzy memory.

  10. Leaving aside the religious aspect of the family-size debate, the real Elephant In The Room is exemplified by this snippet from a post of American cartoonist Dan Piraro, who is currently on a well-earned vacation in Italy:

    “After two weeks in two of the most popular tourist cities in the world, I am conflicted. The sheer number of people milling about the streets is depressing. They are like a plague of two-hundred-pound gnats, inside and outside of every old building or church. Swatting at them does no good. And most of them, the ones from the U.S. primarily, are poorly dressed and clueless.

    I cannot help but feel that tourists have ruined these cities and I cannot escape the reality that Olive and I are contributing to the problem as much as any person I silently curse for being here. I find it impossible to avoid thinking that there are simply too many people on this planet and that most of them are in Italy right now. We should all just go elsewhere.

    One thing that greatly accentuates this feeling of overpopulation to the point of disease is that this was not the case when I was here for the first time in 1979. In those days, a person could walk up to a church or museum and walk inside. Most were free and none were charging exorbitant fees to “skip the line.” There were no lines to skip. But now, everywhere you go is a madhouse of rude humanity that makes Black Friday shopping in the U.S. look like a quick pop into the corner shop for a pack of gum.

    Sadly, our home city in Mexico is becoming the same. Month by month, the traffic gets worse and after seven years there, we dread and avoid going into Centro, the old part of the city that we fell in love with when we decided to move there. It’s just too crowded with Americans. And, god forbid, many are falling in love with our town and looking to buy a home there. Just like we did. I curse them all and us, too. ”

    In a word: overpopulation is rapidly becoming a part of the equation.

  11. Stephen C: Perhaps I don’t view the poor in high enough esteem too understand your response?

    Community building is not a side gig. It’s a central aspect of the atonement in that inter personal relationships and drawing people together so they can be drawn to Christ is fundamental to our existence. Part of that is certainly caring for the poor, but that is a small part of what I am talking about. Building lives, building cities and economies and positive environments that allow children to not only be birthed but to also grow to adulthood and take their place in society is very important.

    I would not say it should be 100% of one’s energies because nothing should or could be 100%.
    I pointed out where you lost me because at that point your argument (for a very valid thing I agree with – large families) seemed to go from raising families to birthing numbers and not caring about what happens next.

  12. I come from a family of 8 children, my wife from a family of 10. We originally wanted a large family but have settled at 2 with no plans for more.

    “the highest goods come from family relations”

    I believe this is more accurately expressed as, “the highest goods come from [close, sincere] relations.” Your “family” need not include only your biologic and adopted relatives. Many relationships you invest in will pay dividends, familial or not.

    “these benefits are linearly additive”

    Well, perhaps the gross benefits are linearly additive, but the “costs” are not, and so the “profit” from increasing children is not monotonic. For every individual, the costs and benefits are different. For me, the “costs” began to outweigh the benefits after our second child. Additionally, ( and this may sound callous) I have observed in my own and my wife’s families that as the family size increases, the probability increases that you’ll have a child (or children) who break your heart and diminish your happiness in excess of the normal “costs”associated with children.

  13. Tori:

    By using that reference I was just making the point that just because thing X nominally ranked higher than thing Y, that doesn’t mean that we never do Y. Generally speaking selling super expensive perfume and giving the proceeds to the poor is probably a better use of perfume, but that doesn’t mean people should never wear perfume.

    Dr. Cocoa:

    I’ve thought about that quite a bit. More children= more likely that you’ll have a catastrophe case that will break your heart: a suicide, accident causing lifelong pain and disability, drug addiction, jail. That’s part of our existence here. The Haredi woman cited lost two children in the Holocaust and one in an accident. But in the end I doubt she regrets having her large family. Plus more children spreads the risk, so the chance of having a catastrophe case are higher, but you chance of that being the primary experience with your children are lower.

    Raymond Winn:

    Overpopulation in the long run isn’t really an issue anymore. Yes, in the medium run because of population momentum we will continue to add people, but then we’ll peak and it will start to decline with no end in sight. Lowering birth rates in high growth countries is relatively easy; increasingly them in countries whose populations are cratering is quite difficult, with very few examples of the latter.

  14. @Tori C. As a mother to seven, if anything my children make it so I am constantly building community. I am required to be less individualistic because I am busy trying to develop my kids which requires constant interaction with community. The existence of my children has made it so communities continue (a local youth band, play group, and critical mass for our small youth programs at church.) I no longer live near Utah, but I get the sense when I visit that there is less community now that families are smaller, not more. Sure, I am not able to do all I would like in this season when my kids are small, but that is temporary and my children will give me insight to be better when that time comes.

    @Stephen C. I think it’s an attitude of love of children and life. It’s connected to number only so much as more of a good thing can only be better, but doesn’t mean a small family doesn’t have it. Right?

  15. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the odds that a child will break your heart are 100%, and independent of family size.

  16. I don’t remember where I read this, but back in the early 1800s, in rural America, there was an incident where a man accidentally trampled to death a young boy with his horse and carriage. He was convicted of manslaughter, and his punishment was to be fined the amount of money the boy’s father lost from having to a hire a new farm hand that year to replace his son’s help.

    The incident was illustrative of how, throughout the super-majority of human history, having children was seen as an economic investment—to get free farm help, or as a retirement plan to care for you in old age—whereas today children are an economic liability. You spend roughly a quarter million dollars on average raising a child to adulthood, money you’ll likely never see again. Hence why even the wealthy who can afford to don’t have more children: there’s no strong return on investment. (And if there’s one thing rich people prioritize…)

    Not that economics are the sole motivator to have children, obviously; in fact, that’s just my point—given how much economics is still a factor in family size, what’s incredible isn’t that average family sizes have shrunk, but that so many people still choose to have children as it is. (The negative birth rate in America could be so much worse!)

    Yet I’m also curious as to whether there are LDS specific reasons for the trend towards smaller families and later family starts, and I don’t have nearly as clear of answer to that. Because here’s my experience: I didn’t get married till I was 33, and it absolutely was not from lack of trying. I attended a church school and started dating in earnest shortly after my mission, and had every cultural pressure and expectation that I would at a bare minimum be married by my mid-20s. My consternation was real as I crept into my late 20s still single; and though I outwardly tried not to let it bother me, how could it not?

    But here’s the thing: I wasn’t alone! Far from it! Every YSA ward I attended in three states was filled to the brim with attractive, intelligent, charming, gregarious, educated, ambitious, accomplished young people with promising careers trying to get married and similarly flummoxed that they weren’t. While I could self-deprecatingly look myself in the mirror and say, “ok, I get why *I’m* not married,” that still didn’t solve the puzzle of why all these other beautiful people were not yet either. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of thriftless layabouts too purposefully putting off marriage, but that’s not who the majority were. Overall, it defied reason how we could have an entire church theology, cultural pressure, and YSA ward system specifically geared towards early marriage that is failing so widely at their intended purposes.

    One by one, most of those beautiful people I had scratched my head about (at least, the ones who hadn’t gone inactive in frustration, or come out of the closet, or what have you) finally got married, and got right to work having kids. But by then most were in their 30s too, and their window to have a large family, even if they’d sincerely wanted one, had closed. This is not how they’d envisioned their life going, mind you, it’s just how it worked out. And again, this is now a widespread phenomena! As M. Russel Ballard recently let slip, single adults are now the majority of the church.

    And what I really want to emphasize is that *no one knows why this is happening.* Not even an educated guess. Our YSA Bishoprics, no matter how well intentioned, didn’t have a clue how to counsel us, and though the GAs seem aware of the issue, they seem pretty helpless too. We’re gaping at each other from across an immense generational divide, both baffled by why this is happening.

    Maybe there are other economic pressures we haven’t noticed yet. Maybe the Lord Himself no longer wants us to have large families, and so is preventing us. That last one sounds heretical, but it would at least explain why we are all collectively failing to achieve something we all individually want.

  17. @JB – I think the “brethren” caused the late marriage issue in the church by pushing group dating. In my day we did not group date. We were told not to date until 16 but typically we went out on our 16th birthday. We were allowed to have relationships and full on boyfriend/girlfriend ones! This is all healthy for a 16 to 19 year old to experience. This is the time to let those hormones be attracted to the opposite sex! Having a girlfriend caused me to get a job so I could afford to go out with her. It caused me to get brave and ask girls out and socially learn how to act around them. Once I had that experience, I did not want to not have that experience!

    I am guessing at least 50% of us had steady girlfriends when we went on our missions. So half the return missionaries were very comfortable in the social aspects of dating/courting. Girls were asked out. We went out with multiple people at the same time until we settled on just one. If that didn’t work out we repeated the process. Lots came home from missions and married their girlfriends.

    Group dating and the idea of not getting into a serious relationship until after your mission basically killed all this. People had no skills when it counted. They pursued work, education and selfishness because they didn’t know what they were missing.

    I would have hated to have to get friends to find dates just so I could go on a date! Would have not worked for me. I dont think the church meant for us to group date that long either. “When you begin dating, date in groups.” After the 3rd date your not a beginner so start single dating…Thank heavens that is removed from the manuals now. Might be to late tho. Society now is so different, it is amazing anyone gets and stays married now.

  18. REC911, respectfully, you’re still falling into the same trap of assuming this issue has a simple explanation with a simple answer. Plenty of the youth of my generation blew off the counsel to only do group dates pre-college (just as we also blew off the counsel to never watch R-rated movies), so I’m skeptical that that’s the primary cause here. Likewise, if the problem were simply that RMs and LDS college students now have a few less years of dating experience than older generations, then the median marriage age would have only bumped up a few years to the mid-20s, not late-20s or 30s or indefinitely. It frankly does not take that long to get experienced at dating, and it’s not a skill you can only ever learn when you’re 16.

    Also, you have it backwards when you write “They pursued work, education and selfishness because they didn’t know what they were missing.” No, LDS youth pursue work and education *because* they are trying to attract a partner. Gordon B. Hinckley among others lectured us repeatedly on the importance of getting a degree and well-earning career for the sake of our future spouse, so we pursued education and careers on top of all our dating, both to help attract a partner and be responsible to our future families. Then, when we turned 30 and had post-graduate degrees and careers but still no spouse, we got labeled as “selfish.” Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

  19. @ A bearer of bad news. True

    @Leslie: I do feel that as child numbers have decreased we’ve switched from a “let the street/neighborhood/community” help raise our kids to more insular and focused approach. More strategically planned and selected playdates and less spontaneous street soccer.

    @ JB: I wonder if the paradox of choice is at play here. If you had your choice of three women in the local village and they had their choice of three men, and not getting married wasn’t an option, you and just about everybody else would probably be married. And if the literature on arranged marriages is any indication, you’d probably be happy. Of course I don’t think we should go back to that, but we’re in the situation we’re in.

    As far as the children as common economic assets argument: that was probably true during a brief period during the industrial revolution, but anthropological evidence from hunter-gatherers suggests that even in those societies teenagers don’t contribute as many calories as they consume. Children have always been a sacrifice, although pre-contraception it was less of an intentional one.

    @ REC911: I agree completely in regards to the unintended consequences of group dating (although I agree with JB that that’s not the main reason for lower marriage rates). We went from the problem being too-soon dating to too-late or not at all dating. My wife and I have talked about how we think it would be good for our kids to have a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship pre-mission for the reasons you outline.

  20. JB, You are correct that I should not say its all one issue. I think its a majority of the issue that causes all types of additional issues that leads to the main issue. I share just one answer IMO, to a simple problem. Not everyone is going to fit into everything. Throw in pursuit/obsession of sports or hobbies or education or video games or social media or YSA dances going away so youth dont have a venue to easily ask people out to new social norms that make you a “player” if you date (go out with) more than one girl at a time.

    Add mission presidents telling missionaries to go home and pursue education and careers instead of marriage like they did in my day. Add the push for YW to serve missions and get educations. In my day Bishops and Stake presidents told YW who had boyfriends to NOT serve missions but pursue the relationship. Mingle in the cost to get married today and start a family. Lots of reasons people are delaying marriage.

    I also know lots of LDS that never figured out how to date and are still single. I know lots of LDS men that are not pursuing marriage at all for various reasons. I know lots that are socially inept and afraid to even start dating. I know many beautiful LDS women in their 30’s + that have never even been in a relationship let alone get married. This would have been super rare in my day.

    The simple problem IMO is that men are not doing their part. If a YW in the church gets asked out and “dated” from 16 to her early 20’s, I am guessing she will have many opportunities to learn what she even wants in a husband and have a better chance to even pick a husband. If she doesn’t, she will move on, as she should, and dating/marriage will not be a priority either. We may even see a shift to where women ask the men out as the norm.

    Most of the youth today actually suck at relationships for lots of reasons. This alone will help delay the marriage process. Ask your single women friends what backward male idiots they meet. Hey but they have an education and a career! But they cant attract a partner because they think like you that dating is so simple anyone can do it! It takes work, effort and skills to be dateable and date! Not a ton, but enough to be successful!

    We can go into the societal shift that women dont need a man. Men are afraid to ask out successful women. Men dont want the responsibility to be the sole supporter of wife and family. On and on. (generally speaking not everyone)

    I stand by my original belief that the sooner we start the process the better chance we have of success. The time before temple promises is the perfect time to figure all this out. If they screw up, its not as bad as after the temple.

  21. REC911: As a woman who attended BYU in the days when mission presidents told missionaries to go home and get married, I’m delighted if those days are actually gone.

    I had a high school classmate who returned late spring. The first time I saw him that summer, he told me he was getting married on a specific day in October. He didn’t have a woman in mind, and he definitely meant 4 months in the future. He had been told that he should get married, and he was going to follow that instruction no matter what. He did get married on that day, but I simply cannot imagine what it would do to me if I were a wife chosen with that kind of impersonal disregard.

    My student ward at BYU had a newly returned RM who cycled through all the women in the ward, dating each of us 3 or 4 times, asking each to marry him, then going on to the next one when he was turned down. Honestly, we were interchangeable bodies to him.

    I and many others could share a lot more stories.

    This is not a point in our history that I remember fondly. It was not healthy, either for those returned missionaries or the women they dated.

  22. PWS: No normal person thinks the scenarios that you shared/experienced are good. Clearly these RM’s didn’t learn social norms of dating before their missions and were “one offs” and that’s always going to happen. They should have learned this from age 16 to 19 so they had it figured out when it counted IMO. I would never advocate unhealthy actions like you described but I sure wouldn’t stop telling missionaries to focus on marriage when they got home because some are clueless regarding the proper way to do it.

    How did that RM cycle through all the girls in the same ward without getting a reputation to stay away from? I thought girls talked to each other…

  23. What creates a satisfying, healthy, loving, happy life as a parent isn’t quantity but quality. It’s the relationships themselves that strengthen us, change us. The number count of those relationships is irrelevant. A parent with six kids is not going to be three times happier/satisfied than a person with two kids. A parent who works hard at parenting and developing strong relationships with their kids will absolutely be happier and more satisfied than a parent that takes a distant or lackadaisical approach.

    The flip-side of that is that the middle children in some of the huge LDS families in my ward seem really, really lost. I can kind of pick them out, and it’s sad. I wouldn’t say it’s because the Moms and Dads aren’t good people and trying. There’s just not enough of them to go around. I’m sure some families do better than others, and some family situations can be really hard on siblings.

    My spouse and I stopped when we realized we couldn’t handle more, that we were at 100% (each) with the kids we had. I wish more parents thought that way.

  24. @ ReTx: As the middle child of a rather larger family, I’m going to push back a little on the implicit premises involved in invoking a quantity/quality tradeoff, and with the implied correspondence between lackadaisical parenting and family size. 

    If the sum total of the child benefit is derived from your personal moments with them, then yes, there is only so much time in the day, and reading to one child for one hour is perfectly equivalent to reading to three children for 20 minutes each, but even if I was in jail I would love and cherish and derive benefit from the existence of a child that I knew and love as my child, and that function is additive and is in no way derivative of how much time I was able to spend drilling them on their times tables. And sorry to go all John Rawls here, and I know what I’m about to invoke has all sorts of implications that we don’t have time to unpack, but would a hypothetical child rather not exist or have 20 fewer minutes of reading with a parent per day? So you don’t think that slightly awkward middle child in your ward should exist? Now, this sort of Rawlsian logic, when taken to an extreme, can have all sorts of arguably bad implications further along the Malthusian continuum, but when we’re just talking about the slightly awkward middle child I think it’s sound. 

    There’s also a lot of other things to say here about the cult of high intensity parenting and its attendant expectations, and how the higher parent-to-child ratio doesn’t seem to be doing wonders for the current crop of youth, but that’s a whole other discussion. 

  25. I think looking for reasons inside the church is error — this is not a church problem — I am not sure it is a problem at all, but if it is, it is a societal problem. Latter-day Saints are members of larger societies, and are affected by the same matters that affect non-Latter-day Saints.

    Think back to the 1950s and 1960s, seen by many as the best days for the church. The dating patterns of teenage Mormon Utah, seen as holy by today’s General Authorities, were common in all of the other states in the union — there was nothing holy about Mormon dating practices in those days, and those practices weren’t instituted by church leaders — those practices were common across the country, and are remembered fondly by old people everywhere, both Mormon and non-Mormon.

  26. “I would love and cherish and derive benefit from the existence of a child that I knew and love as my child, and that function is additive”

    Are you arguing that you have a sum total higher love/happiness/satisfaction by having more children? So a parent with six is Y times happier than a parent with two?

    Trying to tie quality parenting to 60 minutes reading vs 20 minutes reading doesn’t work for me. Limiting parenting to time spent with the child doesn’t either, although of course it’s important. Parenting is complex, and each child’s needs are different. Seems like efforts to figure out a kid’s individual need and fulfill it would be a good measure.

    I also agree that not all middle kids are lost-in-the-shuffle. Each family is different. But I do see these kids and feel so badly for them. I can’t go so far as to say it would be better that they didn’t exist, because that would be cruel. But I do believe in couples making conscious choices based on their abilities and resources rather than just popping out as many kids as possible.

  27. Stephen C, I appreciate this post and wish I had time this week to respond to it in more depth. I agree with a lot of it, but am just not sure about the main point.

    When Church leadership decides something that was taught in the past doesn’t really qualify as “doctrine” they generally don’t come out and say so. They just stop teaching it. Elder Haynie nodded at this last conference when he said “prophetic teachings do not become more valuable with age.” Some related examples might be “Mothers should not work outside the home” or “Birth control is bad.” You’ve given some good reasons why Church leaders might not want to come out and say “In general, the Lord wants members to have large families rather than small ones” even if they believe it’s true, but it’s hard for members to distinguish between that and “We definitely believe members should marry and have children if at all possible, but we no longer think what past leaders said about the Lord preferring large families was doctrine.”

    Fortunately, individual members don’t need to decipher the general doctrine–they just need to know what the Lord wants them to do. And I know the Lord answers prayers about that. I mentioned in the previous post that my parents planned to have two children but ended up with eight because the Lord kept prompting them to have one more. My wife and I only have two due to health problems, but I’m grateful the Lord prompted us to start our family right away rather than waiting until we had settled into our marriage like we had planned, or we might not have those two. And I know that in our case two children is the size the Lord intended for our family.

    So if any young couples are reading this and wondering how many children to have, don’t worry too much about the abstract discussions. Go to the Lord and find out what he wants you to do. You may end up with a big family like Stephen C or my parents, or a small one like mine, but whatever it is it will be right.

  28. Thank you @Leslie May for the thoughtful response.
    One of my ode’s to large families, in addition to how they can, if we choose, keep us invested in community and building up everyone around us

    Is that I appreciate how kids can learn a lot from mixing with family members of various ages. The middle kids are in a position to benefit the most but it can be hugely helpful to have role models older than you and also to see how far you’ve come and the various stages you’ve been through by watching younger siblings grow up.

    @Stephen C: I didn’t do a good job explaining my issue above so I’ll try one last time because I think it’s at the heart of why so many comments seem defensive.
    In the gospel and in life, most people have a variety of priorities and while it is possible to force rank them, at the end of the day, most people are more comfortable ranking their priorities into tiers with a top tier filled with a few priorities that are integral to one’s moral and religious values. The values in the top tier are usually nonnegotiable for a person.

    Your original defense seemed to place large families not just in the top tier. But as a stand alone value, relegating everything else to lower tiers. Not only that, but the sweeping idea was suggested that the gospel justifies placing large families above all else.

    While I can agree with you on placing families in a top tier, I personally also add building community/building Zion into that top tier. For me it is how the atonement (something I hold dear) manifests itself in my life. Everyone has their own strongly held experience with their own priorities. I think that is beautiful and wonderful and what makes knowing a wider range of people (and seeing a large number of children you love grown up and have their own experiences with Christ) so valuable.

    Obviously there are other tiers in all of our priority lists. But that is irrelevant. And defending large families over lower tier priorities makes for straw man arguments.

    To summarize, the point I want to make is that placing large families in a tier of their own is not scripturally or doctrinally supported because the scriptures and doctrine don’t force rank our priorities. I don’t mean to take anything away from valuing large families or to suggest they shouldn’t be a top tier priority. Just that most people have at least one other value they add to the top tier.

    Somewhere the post changed from an ode to large families to an insistence that they are the gospel ideal and the one and only source of true joy in life. The off topic and defensive comments naturally followed.

  29. I personally feel that somewhere around the fifth or sixth child the household starts becoming less of a family and more of a factory.
    In the scriptures, where we are given the commandment to multiply and replenish the earth, it’s also the point in the scriptures where we are instructed that we are to be stewards of the earth. I believe that earthly stewardship needs to be taken into account when practicing the multiply and replenish command. Pre-Industrial Revolution, additional humans probably weren’t having a noticeable impact on the health of our planet. But in the modern world, that’s no longer the case. Each new human living in an industrial society absolutely is having a negative impact on the earth. The very thing we’ve been commanded to have stewardship over. I don’t believe that these are two independent commandments which don’t affect each other, but both need to be considered throughout our lifetimes. I’m not arguing for a zero-child policy, but a moderation in all things policy.

  30. I know it’s late and few people will see this, but it turns out President and Sister Oaks addressed some of the topics I was uncertain about in their 5/21 fireside for Young Single adults. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this post.

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