In September 2004 the Learning Channel ran a feature on the Duggars, a family that at the time had fourteen children. In the four years since, the Duggars have added three more children to their brood (and expect another in January 2009) and appeared on a number of other television shows, including one as far away as Italy . The family has captured the popular imagination, bringing on themselves praise, criticism, and plain interest.
First of all, who are the Duggars? The family consists of a father and mother – Jim-Bob and Michelle – and ten sons and seven daughters. The children range in age from one year to twenty and include two sets of twins. All the kids’ names begin with the letter “J:” the name of one girl, “Jinger,” is pronounced as “ginger” and does not rhyme with “singer” or “ringer.” The entire clan lives in Springdale , Arkansas , where the children are home schooled by their mother. Though on account of their family size they are often thought to be either Mormon or Catholic, the Duggars are actually Baptist. They do not attend a church in the community however but practise what is called “home churching,” with religious services held in their own house.
Michelle and Jim-Bob did not originally set out to, as one commentator put it, create their own baseball team. When they first married, Michelle took the birth control pill. They had their first child, a boy named Joshua, four years later. Afterwards Michelle went back on the pill but got pregnant anyway and miscarried. Upset, she and her husband came to believe that the pill was actually an abortifacient and had caused the loss of the fetus. They then resolved to let God decide the size of their family and stopped using contraception altogether. The rest is history: they now have a total of seventeen children, one more on the way, and two dogs.
The Duggars are part of a trend called the Quiverfull movement. Members of this movement have, like the Duggars, decided to leave their family size up to God and thus avoid contraception. They oppose induced abortion as well. They cite the Bible’s Psalm 127:3-5 in support of their choice: “Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.” They have sometimes been described as more Catholic than the Catholics, as the Catholic Church, while at least in theory against artificial birth control, allows so-called natural family planning, which Quiverfull adherents also reject. The only protection from pregnancy “full quiver” women would get is that afforded by breastfeeding, which is not foolproof past about six months (Michelle Duggar herself mentions in an article in Parents Magazine that she was pregnant and nursing a child at the same time). The Quiverfull, most of whom live in the United States , are not a denomination in themselves but generally belong to various Protestant fundamentalist churches.
I have read a great deal about the Duggars and watched them on television. My feelings about this family generally run on the neutral to positive side. Though I myself would not have seventeen kids, what is right for me might be wrong for somebody else and vice versa. The family seems to be very close and loving and the children extremely well-behaved without being “little robots.” Their closeness is shown by the fact that even when they moved to a larger house the girls and boys still chose to stay in a single room respectively. The Duggars are not collecting any money from the public purse (I am not against welfare per se in the case of, for instance, a mother of preschoolers who leaves an abusive husband and cannot pay for day care, but I do consider it irresponsible to deliberately have children while on social assistance). Nor despite their religious fundamentalism are the Duggars “holier than thou:” for example, in her Parents article Michelle states that her life is not for everyone.
Some things I am less comfortable with about the Duggars: their “buddy system,” whereby an older child is given responsibility for dressing, feeding and otherwise helping a younger sibling. Some believe the job of taking care of the kids should fall to the parents themselves, not a brother or sister. In theory, I agree – though the Duggar “buddies” claim not to mind this role and though such a situation could arise in a two-child family as well. I also wonder whether the parents have enough time to spend with each individual child. Of course one might state that what the children lack in parental attention they compensate in time with their siblings. Moreover, look at how many kids in small families today are starved for their parents’ attention because the latter are too busy doing other things or are spaced out on alcohol or drugs. I am not saying that the buddy system or the reduction in one-on-one time is wrong; perhaps I am just projecting what I would want for myself and my own family.
How do I see the Duggar family theologically? Within my own denomination, there is a group of Lutherans known as the Laestadians (after their founder, a man named Lars Laestadius) who eschew modern forms of birth control. Most of them live in Scandinavia, particularly Finland . They frequently have big families, sometimes over ten children. Interestingly, Laestadian children appear to be very well-adjusted. A study in the journal Acta Paediatrica found that Finnish children in 10+ families had a lower rate of psychological problems than their peers with fewer siblings. Thus a large family size per se does not seem to hurt children.
As I stated above, the Duggars and other Quiverfull followers cite Psalm 127:3-5 for their decision to shun contraception. I personally don’t believe that verse necessarily implies that all couples should choose to have as many children as they are physically capable of having. It must be remembered that in Biblical times children were prized for reasons typically not held today. More children guaranteed the survival of the nation of Israel at a time when war, famine and epidemic diseases threatened its numbers. In a largely agricultural society, kids also could contribute to the family economically by doing chores on a farm. Some pro-choice advocates point out that the Bible never mentions induced abortion directly. However, this does not mean that the Israelites condoned the procedure. Rather, abortion probably was not widely practised by Hebrew women because they had great motivation to have children. (Note: in my opinion the Bible on its own can’t really be used to justify either a pro-life or pro-choice position.)
While I myself would never follow the Duggars’ path, I respect them. I find it ironic that some people who talk about a woman’s right to have an abortion, use birth control, not have children at all, etcetera, are not always so tolerant of women who make choices like Michelle Duggar’s. From what I hear about the Duggars and read about big families in journals like Acta Paediatrica, the Quiverfull folks aren’t spawning a bunch of delinquents or psychopaths. Their children in some ways seem to enjoy more love, structure and concern than average from their families. So I think the Duggars and the Quiverfull movement as a whole are a force for good in today’s society.