Academic journal article Communication Studies

Don't You Know What Causes That? Advice, Celebration, and Justification in a Large Families Bulletin Board

Academic journal article Communication Studies

Don't You Know What Causes That? Advice, Celebration, and Justification in a Large Families Bulletin Board

Article excerpt

Most pregnant women have had the experience of having a stranger touch their stomachs, or tell them what to eat and drink (or not eat and drink), or what to do (or not do). Most parents of a newborn have had someone tell them to "put a hat on the baby," or that the baby is too warm in that outfit, or the baby needs to be fed, or if you hold him or her that much you will spoil him or her. Most parents of toddlers have had someone look askance as their child throws a tantrum, eats candy, etc. There is something about the parenting process that seems to open an invitation for comment, advice, and criticism. Parents of large families get all of that again, and again, and again. But, they also get people asking if they are "done yet" or if they "know what causes that" or if they "really need that many children" or how they can afford that many children.

The diversity of family forms in the United States means that the majority of people do not live in the family often presented as the standard (married heterosexual parents with two or three children) in media and public images. Today, large families are considered unusual in the U.S. However, understanding communication both within and about diverse family forms is an important part of the study of family. The interpretive research described here focused on an Internet bulletin board for members of large families. Analysis of the talk from that board suggests that the board provides these individuals with social support, in relation to their family lives, that they may not be receiving in other domains.

In this paper, I will first briefly consider the extant scholarly research related to large families. Second, I will discuss social support and its effects on individuals and families. Third, I will provide a brief background of bulletin boards in general and this on-line community specifically. Next, I will discuss the main rhetorical patterns I saw on this bulletin board during the 18 months under analysis. And finally, I will consider some of the implications of such discourse.

Large Family Research

Large families, while more common in the past and in less industrialized countries, have become rare in much of the Western world. In the U.S., the average number of children in a family (as of the 2000 census) is 1.87 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002). Families with more than six children are so rare that the census no longer tracks that data (Hartill, 2001). In Canada, as of 1996, only 1% of all families had five or more children (Ko, 1999). In the UK, the average family has two children and less than 30% of women have three or more children (Office of National Statistics, 2004). In New Zealand, Australia, France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the Netherlands the average birth rate for women is under two children (Statistics New Zealand, 2003). While large families have become rarer in many countries, they do still exist. Thus, it is important that such families remain a part of family communication research.

A very small amount of research has been done concerning communication in or about large families per se. A group of studies exists in the fields of population studies, anthropology, sociology, and medicine related to communication specifically about contraception and family planning (principally as related to unindustrialized nations) (e.g., Feyisetan, 2000; Isiugo-Abanihe, 1994). However, there is little extant work on the other communicative issues of, or about, large families. Additionally, most of that work has been devoted to family size more generally, with large families at one end of the continuum of findings. Kiesler (1977), for example, considered how parents engage in justification of family size after the family is complete. In this research, Kiesler found that women with more than the "normative" number of children (two) are more likely to engage in post hoc justification of their family size and have more positive attitudes about their own family size. …

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