Parents under pressure: Economics and growing individualism will reinforce a trend towards fewer children, writes David Nicholson-Lord

FAMILIES with three or more children will become increasingly rare because of the costs and pressures of parenting, according to a report published yesterday.

Today's parents, it says, 'do not see themselves solely as 'Mum' or 'Dad', but are aware of the need to keep in touch with the person they were before they became parents'. More mothers are working and see their self-esteem bound up with their job. Children, meanwhile, are viewed as more materialistic.

According to Family Lifestyles 1993, from the market research organisation Mintel, the trend towards smaller families - the average number of dependent children is now 1.8 - is a product of economic pressures coupled with growing individualism among would-be parents.

The average age of a mother when her first child is born has risen from 24 in 1971 to 27.5 in 1991, leaving less time for larger families. Not only are more women working, but working mothers place as much importance on their jobs as men do.

Surveys by Mintel show that 34 per cent of working mothers with children aged 11 to 16 feel that their job performance is 'central' to how they feel about themselves - the same figure as men. Among working mothers, 47 per cent would carry on working if they did not need the money, compared with 46 per cent of men.

Yet many parents see children as costly. Eight out of ten households with children have been forced to cut back on spending because of the recession, compared with six in ten childless households. Half of the parents questioned also think today's children are too materialistic.

Angela Hughes, Mintel's consumer research manager, said recent surveys had indicated that younger children cost pounds 2,000- pounds 3,000 a year to bring up, rising to pounds 4,000- pounds 5,000 at the age of 10.

She added: 'The social, emotional and financial pressures of family life are making families with three or more children rare. Individuals want to fulfil all sides. For a lot of parents two children would probably fulfil their requirements in terms of family, and there are a lot of other elements of their life they want to participate in, be it working or leisure.'

Families with three or more children have declined steadily from 8 per cent in 1961 to 4 per cent in 1991. Parents display an 'exceptionally high degree of interest' in their children - four-fifths said children would be the last to suffer from financial hardship - but more parents (88 per cent) think it is important to do things without their children than express enjoyment at spending leisure time with them (80 per cent).

Nearly a quarter of parents with children under 16 at home say they would enjoy freedom from the res ponsibility of bringing them up. 'Clearly parents need the opportunity to express themselves as people in their own right rather than as simply mothers or fathers: this is especially true of mothers, who are still in the greatest danger of losing their identity amid the demands of motherhood,' the report says.

It also finds that households with children read and listen to the radio less, watch videos and use home computers more, camp or caravan more and tend to take their main holiday in the UK. Parents drink and smoke more than adults without children but also exercise more and are more likely to engage in creative pastimes.

Family Lifestyles 1993; Mintel; pounds 795.

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