Are the Duggars a family of 20 or an industry?

What compels parents to have so many children?

Posted Jan 16, 2009

I was interviewed last week about the Duggars-the Arkansas family who had their 18th child on December 18, 2008. After Michelle Duggar gave birth to Jordyn-Grace, their eighth daughter joining their ten sons, papa Jim Bob Duggar, said, ""We both would love to have more."

In asking me, a person who has been studying only children and small families since the mid-1980s, the reporter was going to the extreme opposite end of the family size spectrum. I talked about personal preference and the ability to parent so many children effectively. Little of what I said questioned the Duggar's decision to bear children at this alarming rate.

Many women adore being pregnant, thrive on it, and have what is generally considered a large family by today's standards-four to six children. In Michelle Duggar's case, one would think that so many pregnancies have to eventually turn into a health hazard, in the least, a high risk.

I didn't know much about the Duggars at the time of the interview, but have since been looking into their lifestyle, their living arrangements, and wondering why 18 offspring or if it's wise. The Duggars report being self-sufficient, have a lovely home, and are not on any public assistance... they say. I would guess that income from their Learning Channel TV show and commercial product donations allow them financial freedom right now. BUT, no mother-or father-can reasonably be expected to care for 18 children herself in the way that most of us believe is desirable, positive parenting.

Years ago I asked elementary school children ranging in age from 5 to 12 to finish this sentence: "My mother is special because..." Here, a smattering of responses:
...she gives me lots of hugs and kisses
...she helps me when I'm stuck on something
...she washes my clothes
...she reads me a bedtime story
...she plays games with me
...she helps me with my homework
...she makes my problems her problems
...she's like a backdrop with padded velvet to comfort me
...she lets me get in her bed every night
...she knows what I'm thinking
...she cheers me up when I am sad
...she does everything with me

It is these one-on-one actions and feelings, cultivated over years of interaction, that bond parent and child and create enduring closeness. Realistically, the burden of caring for and "parenting" the younger Duggar children falls to the the older ones-to help with homework, to bathe, to dress, to feed, to kiss and hug.

When researching my books,The Case for the Only Child and Parenting an Only Child, several participants who came from large families told me quite adamantly that they had or planned to have one child, two at the most, solely because of the care they were required to give their younger brothers and/or sisters. Will the older Duggar children feel the same way?

One has to question if these older children are being exploited? For their weekly television show cameras follow the Duggar clan, even going to the mother's prenatal visits. Who is nurturing and loving the children? Is there enough time in a day, a week, a year, for a parent to pay attention to the needs of 18 children? But, maybe I'm wrong. In 2004, Michelle Duggar won the "Young Mother of the Year" award in Arkansas, presented by American Mothers Incorporated. At the time, she had 14 children.

Some in the Duggar brood, or perhaps many of them, must feel neglected or at best, overlooked. The lack of intimate parental attention on a regular basis is more important than the issues raised by those who watch the Duggar show or negatively comment on what has been called the cult aspect of their breeding or their disregard for environmental issues.

What we see on the Duggar website or The Learning Channel TV show is happiness and seeming contentment: two adults and 18 children "work" on the screen; it's highly probable the show has an excellent editor. At this point in time, with all the media attention and perks the family receives, it feels like an industry, a celebrity promotion, rather than a close knit family no matter what the producer and editor choose to show us or Michelle and Jim Bob write in their book or discuss in their seminars.

Tune in five or ten years going forward when the 18 (who knows, by then the number could be higher) children unite at a family reunion. How many children are the Duggar offspring going to have? How much resentment will they feel in the future for the lack of individual parental attention and loss of childhood now being spent cooking, washing, and caring for their younger siblings? Joshua, the oldest Duggar child married recently. It will be interesting to see how many children he has...and how many Duggars follow their parents' model.

UPDATE: The Duggars had their 19th child in 2009. See: When Will the Duggars Stop?

Copyright by Susan Newman