COMMENTARY: Smaller Families for a Healthy Environment

Why less is more when it comes to kids

If you’re concerned about overpopulation, it’s easy to get self-righteous about other peoples" growing families. But I think that’s shortsighted.

Recent studies show an only child is likely to be well adjusted and a high achiever.© Getty Image

Let’s face it—the best reason to care about our growing population is concern for future generations. People a generation or two from now will experience increasing effects of crowding and resource depletion. We should be concerned for our children and grandchildren, who will know a world very different from ours.

Most of us will be part of the problem by having our own children. We need to raise our kids to be conscious of population and environmental issues. The most important step we can take is to minimize our impact by having small families, or by not reproducing at all.

You might think that there is not much difference between a family of two children and one with three, but there is a large disparity after a few generations. If each of your three children has three kids, and so on, you will have 27 great grandchildren. In five generations there will be 243 progeny. If there had only been two per couple, there would only be eight great grandchildren, and 32 great, great, great grandchildren. So at the end of five generations we compare 243 with 32; the difference is over seven fold!

People used to believe that a single child would be spoiled and would not prosper, but recent studies have shown that this is not true. In fact, an only child is likely to be a high achiever and to be well adjusted. Some up-to-date information about only kids can be found in prolific author Bill McKibben’s book Maybe One.

If you are concerned that an only child will suffer from the lack of siblings, there are ways to ensure the advantages of socializing with other kids. If you parent a single child, try not to focus all of your attention on her. Have her spend time with cousins. Choose a neighborhood that has children of compatible ages. Find activities for your child to do with other children; a good preschool is an excellent way to get children together. You might trade cooperative "sitting," or be a day-care provider.

Those of us who choose not to bear children have a support group all our own: Childfree By Choice. If you are unsure about having kids, the group meets your needs with material for people still trying to make up their minds about being parents—there’s even a bunch of jokes about childlessness. More and more people are choosing the option to forego children. Now about one in five women will not bear any child, while a few years ago it was only one in six.

Happily, there are alternatives to giving birth. For those who want to participate in child rearing but not bear their own, and for those who enjoy a big family but don’t want to contribute to overpopulation, there are several possibilities.

Dr. Richard Grossman links environmental well-being with controlling population.© Richard Grossman

Adoption is one way to go. Those able to make a long-term commitment deserve congratulations. So many kids need love and stability, and many demand special care. Some have physical or mental problems, and require mature or experienced parents with many resources.

Not ready to make the commitment for adoption? Consider being a foster parent. There are kids of all ages who could use a short-term home. Some are newborns who need a cradle for a few days while awaiting permanent adoption. Others are teenagers in trouble who are sent to people able to provide nurture and discipline. Foster parenting can be especially challenging.

There are other, less extensive ways of being involved. For instance, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America is a nationwide agency that involves adults in the short-term care of kids. If you volunteer, you only need to spend a few hours a week with your child. Coaching, helping in a classroom, working with Scouts or a church group all allow you to help kids grow.

It’s definitely a paradox: We have children for the future, but if we have too many the future will be compromised. The solution is for people to have the right number of children—fewer than in the past. It also means that some people will forgo passing on their genes. Instead, they have the opportunity to pass on their wisdom and culture to future generations.

DR. RICHARD GROSSMAN is an obstetrician-gynecologist, a columnist in the Durango (Colorado) Herald (where versions of this piece first appeared) and a 2007 recipient of a Global Media Award from the Population Institute.

CONTACT: Big Brothers Big Sisters of America; Childfree By Choice; Planned Parenthood