family research header in shades of orange and brown

An Ideal Family? The Words and Actions Don’t Match Up

Jun 03 2024
By Staff
Source Princeton School of Public and International Affairs

Princeton SPIA Researchers Find Similar Responses Despite Significant Differences in Geography, Culture

When prompted on what an ideal family looks like, people consider a range of desirable characteristics, including whether it includes children, and if so, how many. This is an increasingly important question as the number of births in the United States and major Western (and increasingly non-Western) countries declines.

When asked directly about their ideal number of children, most people in these countries respond they would like to have two children. Yet the number of children women in most of these countries end up having by the end of their childbearing years is well under two, and decreasing. This is below the number that would sustain the population in the absence of migration.

Little research exists on what constitutes an ideal family. Looking to learn more, two Princeton SPIA researchers joined with colleagues from other universities to survey 10,000 people in eight countries on these and other issues. They published their findings recently in a paper, “Family ideals in an era of low fertility,” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Survey respondents were from the U.S., (urban) China, Japan, Singapore, Korea, Italy, Spain, and Norway.

“Fertility is extremely low in most countries in the study,” said coauthor Alícia Adserà, a senior research scholar at SPIA and the Office of Population Research (OPR). “For example, the total fertility rate in Korea is around 0.7 kids, and it is barely over 1.2 children per woman in many others.”

Adserà; James Raymo, co-director of graduate studies at OPR, professor of sociology and the Henry Wendt III Professor of East Asian Studies; and their colleagues embedded experiments in the survey to elicit respondents’ views about what an ideal family looks like. Each respondent was shown six descriptions of different families, with half of the respondents seeing families with and without children, and the other half seeing families with one, two, or three children. In addition to the number of children, these family depictions varied along many other dimensions, including family income, the degree of communication between partners and the extended family, work, gender roles (whether egalitarian or traditional), and investment in children.

Respondents were asked to rate how successful these hypothetical families were on a scale from one to ten.

“Despite marked geographic, cultural, and institutional differences, such as social policies and labor markets, we found that respondent preferences were remarkably similar across the eight countries in the study,” Adserà said.

Specifically, having children was universally valued over childlessness. However, the exact number of children did not matter, provided that families had at least one child.

“This result is important and surprising because, in standard surveys, respondents generally say that their ideal number of children is two,” Adserà said.

The study also showed that, besides parenthood, good communication within the family was a fundamental feature of success. Within a family, people search for strong emotional support and a space in which to communicate easily. In addition, egalitarian work arrangements and avoiding work–family conflict were highly valued features, while divorce in the presence of children was evaluated negatively in all eight countries.

“These results allow us to understand the relative importance that individuals attach to different characteristics when assessing family success or desirability,” Adserà said. “When choosing the ideal number of children, individuals are often confronted with the need to make tradeoffs with respect to other characteristics. Individuals cannot achieve the optimal outcomes on all dimensions of what they view as an ideal family and may have to compromise on some characteristics in favor of others, such as women’s work arrangements, household income, or the amount of investment in children.”