August 12, 2018
If you didn’t know that National Middle Child Day is on August 12, chances are that the child who is second in birth order among your progeny will not be surprised. In fact, in families of five and more, it is not just folklore that the middle children tend to “slip between the cracks”—because attention continually is demanded by and directed to the oldest and youngest siblings in the household.
However, in recent years, there have been fewer children who are betwixt and between. In fact, researchers recently have pondered whether middle children have become an “endangered species,” according to a report by New York Magazine. Demographics show that, in the past few decades, nearly two-thirds of women have reacted to time and money crunches by having fewer offspring. Most women now have just one or two children—i.e., an oldest, a youngest, but no middle.
Yet new data on the number of children that Americans perceive as “ideal”—at least in theory, if not in practice—suggest that middle-child families could be making a comeback: Roughly four-in-ten U.S. adults (41%) think families of three or more children are ideal, a share rivaling that of around two decades ago, according to findings of a Gallup poll released on July 6.
When it comes to the number of children that U.S. women actually are having during their lifetime, it’s still much more common for women at the end of their childbearing years to have had one or two kids, rather than three or more, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. In 2016, about six-in-ten U.S. mothers ages 40 to 44 (62%) had given birth to one or two children, while just 38% had three or more. That’s roughly the inverse of 1976, when about two-thirds of mothers in this age range (65%) had three or more kids and 35% had one or two.
A sharp decrease in the share of mothers with four or more children has played a role in the long-term decline in larger families, according to the Census Bureau data. But, despite the dramatic decline of the four-child-plus family over the past few decades, the share of Americans who dream of four or more children as the ideal number is actually ticking upward.
In 2007, 9% of Americans said the ideal number of children is four or more, according to Gallup. That share grew following the Great Recession and now stands at 15%. In fact, since 2007, the increase in the average number of children Americans see as ideal is mainly due to a rise in the share of adults who think four or more kids is the ideal family size.
Among the factors affecting birth numbers is education: On average, the more education a mother has, the fewer children she will have in her lifetime, as previous Pew Research Center reports have shown. In combined data for 2014 and 2016, 46% of mothers ages 40 to 44 with a high school diploma or less had given birth to three or more children. By comparison, among mothers in the same age group with a postgraduate degree, 28% had given birth to three or more kids.
But the educational “gap” in fertility has somewhat narrowed in the past two decades, driven by declining childlessness and a rise in larger families among highly educated moms. The share of mothers ages 40 to 44 with at least a master’s degree and three or more children increased from two decades ago, as the share with just one child declined.
According to previous research by the Center, highly educated women are the only group with a declining share of one-child families and a rise in families of three or more.
When it comes to ideal family size, highly educated adults are again less likely to say having three or more children is ideal, according to Gallup. Among those with a postgraduate degree, 36% believe three or more kids are ideal, compared with 46% of those with no college education. However, since 2011, the share of Americans who see families of three or more children as ideal has risen among all levels of education.
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