The more children you have, the less you can give each one, and the worse they do. Right? Parents in pandemic isolation without the usual supports from schools, churches, and extended family will certainly resonate with the idea that their time, energy, and attention are split into ever-smaller slices with each child.

It’s also the tradeoff anthropologists and economists have assumed when studying modern fertility patterns. But when John Shaver came across projections during his graduate studies that Hispanic Catholics and Muslims were on track to surpass white Christian subgroups and Jews, respectively, by the midcentury, he was perplexed.

“It struck me as a puzzle,” said Shaver, who now teaches anthropology and religion at the University of Otago in New Zealand. “These groups may be growing rapidly, but if there’s not something there to mitigate the negative effects of large family size, these could be populations where the children in these groups are not functioning as well.”

But when Shaver investigated himself, he found that when families had support from religious communities, like churches, this negative scenario didn’t always play out.

Shaver and his colleagues recently published a paper exploring the effects of religious support on fertility and child development. They used ten years of data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, which recruited over 14,000 pregnant women in England in the early 1990s to track ever since—on measures such as children’s lead exposure to number of illnesses to developmental ups and downs. From this data they tested how church attendance and social support affected family size and child development.

Unsurprisingly, they found that religious families had more children. They also found that, on the whole, the more siblings a child had, the shorter the child was and the lower his scores on state standardized achievement tests. This “tradeoff” falls in line with previous studies showing that larger family sizes dilute parental resources and affect child outcomes. But the finding didn’t hold for families with support from religious communities. In fact, Shaver and his colleagues found that religious support sometimes correlated with higher test scores.

These findings, Shaver wrote, suggest that religious communities overcome the tradeoffs between number of children and child success by sharing resources, a practice anthropologists call “alloparenting.” While the term is erudite, it’s something humans have done throughout history. Only in recent decades, as social and family connections have frayed, has it become less common.

Article continues below

The practice of alloparenting dovetails with the mission of the church, said Emily McGowin, a scholar who studies the theology of large families. The fact that our faith could aid reproductive success and human survival by encouraging cooperation fits with her understanding that the gospel is for human flourishing. “If we’re claiming, as we do, that Jesus is alive and teaches us what it means to be human and how to live a fully human life now in the kingdom of God,” said McGowin, a Wheaton College theologian, “then there should be signs of that life now.” However, she added, sometimes that means challenging what human flourishing is.

Measures of child “success,” McGowin noted, are often more about performance than character. Test scores, college attendance, jobs, and salary may be part of the standard American definition of success, she said, but shouldn’t top the list of the church’s concerns. “If there is some sort of socioeconomic tradeoff for larger families, I’m not sure if that should be the first or even the most significant factor in how you determine the number of children to have.”

Cara Wall-Scheffler, an evolutionary biologist at Seattle Pacific University, notes that the whole question of a “tradeoff” is also culturally constrained. Data from Western societies may show such a phenomenon, “but it’s unusual in the world to see the issue in this way. Having more children increases the number of people who can help in a community, regardless of whether it is foraging or agricultural, and these children receive multiple levels of interactions from both adults and peers,” she said.

While we have always depended on those outside our immediate family, as we have become more mobile—uprooting for career opportunities—those ties we used to rely on have weakened. Shaver wonders whether it was social cooperation and cohesion that enabled previous generations to maintain larger family sizes, which also would explain why in recent decades fertility rates have steadily decreased, even among evangelicals. He suspects that in modern societies churches may fill a role that extended family did before—as sources of kinship, connection, and support.

Article continues below

“Church communities have the power to become the alloparenting community so integral to other cultures,” Wall-Scheffler said. “It is a consistent, chosen community with shared beliefs and a shared identity,” one that usually remains steady even if a family moves houses and as children grow out of different clubs and sports communities.

That is the power of religious communities beyond providing practical support—their meaning-making, identity-shaping ability. Shaver’s research found that mothers who received social support from nonreligious contexts, such as a running group or a community center, didn’t experience the same positive effects on child outcomes as mothers who received religious support.

Celeste Jones, a child psychologist at George Fox University, studies how adverse events for parents impact their children’s development downstream. How parents handle stress, Jones argued, may be more of a determining factor in child well-being than the number of children they have. If families can handle the stresses of their larger numbers well—and often religious communities help because they give meaning to hardship—then they can do just as well as families with fewer pressures.

While Christians may see the work of parenting as deeply meaningful (Genesis 1:28, anyone?), our churches don’t always bear this out in practice. Lorena Vidaurre, director of Biola University’s early childhood education program, has served for decades in churches where the paradigm of children’s ministry has been “babysitting” rather than making disciples. She calls for churches to see the work of discipling children as equally important as discipling adults—which might mean bringing children from rooms where they aren’t seen at all during a service into the heart of the congregation.

McGowin studied “Quiverfull” families, evangelical families defined by the practices of male headship, homeschooling, and having as many children as possible. She noted that those large families who were doing well were part of churches with other large families, while those that were more stressed and isolated felt such because they weren’t part of supportive churches.

Wealth also played a role in McGowin’s research. Poorer mothers, she noted, had less joy. They worried more and had more trouble coping than mothers with more resources. Her observations highlight the double standard among conservatives pushing for the renewal of the nuclear family. As columnist David Brooks states, “Affluent conservatives often pat themselves on the back for having stable nuclear families. They preach that everybody else should build stable families too. But then they ignore one of the main reasons their own families are stable: They can afford to purchase the support that extended family used to provide—and that the people they preach at, further down the income scale, cannot.”

Article continues below

If we care about the family, then, our actions must go beyond our own families or even our congregations. This is something that perplexed McGowin as she studied Quiverfull families. “As radical as they thought they were being, I didn’t think they were radical enough,” she said. They were focused on individual households, not pushing the questions about how we value children in the broader world. “Are there ways we do life in the church or neighborhood that would be more welcoming, life-giving to families, regardless of number of children?”

Wall-Scheffler notes that asking how Christians can serve neighborhood families doesn’t mean the church has to provide all the tutoring or childcare. But the church can serve as a point of connection where families can go when they need help. She added, “Churches don’t typically do a great job of understanding what people do outside of the church. What if a church actually has a bunch of educators and sociologists and social workers in their membership? Could they create a team of people who can figure out how to meet the needs of their specific community?”

Vidaurre is one of these support professionals already embedded in the church. She taught for a decade in a parent coaching program in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Parents in the disadvantaged Hispanic community she served were required to attend and resented it at first. But by the end of ten weeks of classes, parents insisted on continuing for a year. “Parents learned from each other,” Vidaurre said. “Their children made academic gains. The parents were empowered to use assets they already had to advocate and lead. It became a support group and a safety net.”

As evangelicals continue to emphasize the importance of family as society’s most basic institution—a value we model in our churches—it’s worth asking how we can influence wider policies that affect families’ ability to thrive, suggests author Katelyn Beaty. “Christian communities are well equipped to protect children and advocate in the public square for their flourishing, including addressing economic forces that deprive children of food, shelter, rest, and education and taking into account extended family separation due to parents’ work,” wrote Beaty, who coauthored a 2018 study for the Center for Public Justice on the need for pro-family workplace policies.

Article continues below

Beaty’s advocacy for paid family leave is one example of how Christians are living out a pro-family theology on all levels, not just at the household. Brooks, who has been deeply influenced by Christian thought, mentions other broad-level strategies in his Atlantic article: child tax credits, expanded parental leave, subsidized early education, and parent coaching programs.

In these pandemic days, our networks have shrunk. We know full well now that we were not made to live in isolated, nuclear family households. But the pause in our communal life may be a chance to rethink the possibilities. What has brought life into our families and communities? What hasn’t? Where do families really need support? If Vidaurre and the parents she coached were able to weave such deep, impactful bonds in one year, in a school-sponsored program, imagine what could happen through our churches.

Liuan Huska is a writer living in the Chicago area. Her new book on chronic illness, Hurting Yet Whole, released in December 2020 with InterVarsity Press.