Jim Gaffigan plays himself in his self-titled, TV Land show, complete with a television family that, at least numerically, reflects his real-life family of a wife and five children. Much of the show’s humor, as well as that of Gaffigan’s own stand-up routine, revolves around the peculiar circumstance of being a family of seven living in a two-bedroom apartment in the center of New York City. But transport the Gaffigan clan to any other city in America and the peculiarity remains. Large families have become something of a curiosity.
Big families are in short supply these days. We could posit many reasons for this, from financial restrictions to personal preference to physical limitation. Each individual couple and family is built and gifted differently and a certain charity towards those with different inclinations on the subject would be helpful. Nevertheless, it is not an uncommon occurrence for those with large families to garner vaguely disapproving glares from others in public or, at least, to have the wisdom of their choices called into question.
Underlying our culture’s distaste for large families is, among other things, the assumption that couples should only bring enough children into our overcrowded world to replace themselves. That is to say, no family really needs to have more than two children.
Our Overblown Fears
We can make at least two arguments in response to this assumption. The first is multi-faceted, but it boils down to the fact that society’s fears of overpopulation are a bit overblown.
First, God has given us plenty of land to go around. The approximate population of the world (as of summer, 2016) is more than 7.3 billion. This number of people could fit fairly comfortably within the landmass of Texas, with room not only to live, but to farm a small plot of land. The idea that the world is overcrowded is based primarily on the overcrowding within the large cities of our planet, which is indeed a problem. But to suggest that the overcrowding of cities is a sign of the overpopulation of the planet is like concluding that there must be an epidemic of killer whales in our nation’s swimming pools after seeing Shamu at SeaWorld. It simply doesn’t hold water.
Second, God has given us plenty of food to go around. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization reports that “enough food is being produced to feed the world’s population.” The problem with people going hungry around the world is not the supply of food, but the distribution of it. Corrupt governmental leaders and others hijack food supply for their own ends. In light of this, we could argue that focusing on an imagined problem of overpopulation actually distracts us from attending to the very real problem of getting the available food to those who need it.
What if we concede, for the sake of argument, that the world is overpopulated? Let’s assume that the responsible thing to do in this situation is to ensure that the earth’s population will not grow more than it already has. The general assumption, given these parameters, is that we should reproduce right at the demographic “replacement rate” — this curbs population growth while still providing for the replacement of the current generation for the sake of ongoing global productivity. The replacement rate is currently estimated to be 2.1 children per family. Thus we arrive at the popular dictum articulated by many: couples should only have enough children to replace themselves — no more than two per family.
Applying the replacement rate figure in this way, however, misunderstands its purpose. The 2.1 figure is an average, applied across populations with generally low child-mortality rates. That means that just as there are some couples and singles who have zero children or only one child, there are also those who have more than two. That’s how averages work. It would be an interesting case study to see if the same people who berate big families for creating a strain on future resources also chastise adults with less than two children for creating a strain on future productivity.
But all of this matters only if we’re pretending that overpopulation is a legitimate problem.
Our Underwhelming Hopes
We have a second argument though, against this notion that we need to carefully limit our number of offspring in order to limit overpopulation and its corresponding problems. That is that people (when fulfilling their God-given roles) do not add to the problems of the world; they help provide the solutions. Human beings are not primarily burdens; they are burden-lifters. They are not the cancer on the surface of our planet; they are its cure.
“Human beings are not primarily burdens; they are burden-lifters.”
It is our children who will become the farmers who will grow more food, the architects who will design better cities, the inventors who will create more efficient transportation, and the scientists who will discover more promising cures. They will be the authors and actors and chefs and musicians and artists and poets who will make life more beautiful. They will be philosophers and theologians and pastors and teachers who will help us understand. They will be the leaders who will show a better way. And they will become mothers and fathers who will pass on their tasks to their children after them.
This is precisely why the divinely optimistic Hebrew poet counseled his people to stop worrying about the problems of the world — because God gives us children to help solve them.
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. (Psalm 127:2–3)