Articles on Changing Family Size, 1903-1904
Another sign of the impact of the dawning consumer age was the reduction in family size. By 1903, family sizes had dropped enough to cause President Theodore Roosevelt to publicly lament this fact and to urge Americans to have large families. He characterized the advocate of birth control as "a criminal against the race . . . the object of contemptuous abhorrence by healthy people."1 This comment hepled trigger a national debate on family size.
In 1904, The American Ecclesiastical Review published Fr. John A. Ryan's position on the issue. One of ten children, a Catholic, and deeply affected by his mother's faith , Fr. Ryan strenuously defended the large family. A firm believer that self-discipline and denial built character, he argued that only the large family could provide the experiences and environment necessary for proper moral and character formation. In his view, the trend toward small families was a direct result of the rise of materialism and a manifestation of the selfishness pervading the culture.
Others saw it differently. They argued that the decision to have a small family was an appropriate response to the changing economic and cultural conditions in the United States. More parents saw secondary education, exposure to cultural events, and fashionable clothing as necessary for ensuring their children's financial future. The future they foresaw for their children did not include contributing to the family income, nor as adults, living payday to payday. They saw their children graduating from high school, if not college, and enjoying their lives.
As you read each article, reflect on your own childhood and what you foresee for your children when you are a parent.
- How do Fr. Ryan's and the small-family advocates' conceptions of the "good life" shape their views of an appropriate family size?
- Compare Fr. Ryan's criteria for determining family size with those who advocate small families, where do they differ?
- What does Fr. Ryan see as the primary duty of parents in regard to their children? What do his opponents see as the primary responsibility? How have these differing objectives shaped their concepts of the good life?