Who would have thought that a TV show about a guy named "Jim Bob" with 19 kids would make Arkansas look good? But that’s been the case with "19 Kids and Counting," the TLC show about the daily lives of the Duggars of Springdale: Jim Bob, Michelle, Josh, Jana, and 17 other "J’s," plus Josh’s wife Anna and their three children.
This is not the modern day version of "The Beverly Hillbillies." The family was prosperous before it got its own show and, while it might be poked, it’s never mocked by the show’s producers. The family’s Christianity and other life choices – they homeschool; they do not date or dance; they don’t watch TV or spend much time on the internet – are presented in a positive light.
The Duggars have made different choices than many Americans, and their lifestyle makes some people uncomfortable. But they are nice people, and the contrast between them and other so-called reality TV stars is striking. Viewers never see anyone throw a fit or conspire to undermine another "character." Maybe they are on their best behavior because the cameras are rolling, but as my wife put it, you can’t get 19 children to pose for a photo, much less put on airs for TV. You never get the sense that their lives are much different when the cameras are off.
This is a reality show that’s actually about reality. Many episodes focus simply on how the family navigates its way through life. ("The Duggars go bowling!") At other times, the cameras have followed the family during highly personal moments, such as the death of Jim Bob’s father and the miscarriage of their baby, Jubilee. In good times and in bad, no one in that household ever has to wonder if they are loved.
The Duggars have opened their lives to viewers across America because – well, because they are paid is part of the reason. But they also have a mission to express their faith and to show the world that children are a blessing from God, not a burden.
That’s an important message these days. Various studies comparing the happiness of parents to non-parents have come to different conclusions. Some researchers say having children makes us less happy, and that would not be surprising. Children are a massive inconvenience, a huge expense, and often messy. Moreover, today’s "good" parent is expected to race from activity to activity and spare no expense to meet a child’s every need. Who has time to have dinner as a family when the kids must go to soccer practice to help them develop character?
On the other hand, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2006 that 94 percent of Americans ages 15-44 agreed that being a parent is worth it. Studies recently published in the journal Psychological Science found parents, especially fathers, report greater levels of happiness and more meaning in life than nonparents. A study published in Social Psychological & Personality Science said that, not surprisingly, child-centered parents who put their children’s needs above their own enjoy greater satisfaction from parenting than those parents who still try to live for themselves.
Finally, there’s this, scientists from Ohio State recently reported that children from big families are less likely to get divorced, perhaps because, as a rule, they learn to deal with complex interpersonal situations. Each additional sibling, up to seven, reduced the chances of divorce by 2 percent.
Lots of only children grow up to have healthy families, of course, but maybe the Duggars and other big families are on to something. The Duggars’ lives involve one adjustment after another. Unless they are the world’s greatest actors, they take joy in those adjustments. In fact, they consider them surprises, not inconveniences.
For parents, that distinction can be the difference between happiness and unhappiness. And so maybe we all can learn a lot from this family’s priorities and expectations, even if we don’t have 19 kids.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.