Asking How Many Children Your Mother Has is a Complicated Survey Question!

I am teaching a Population class here in Chico, California, this semester. Sometime during the class, I generally  ask students about how many children there are in their families, and what their own fertility intentions are.  To avoid the complications of the modern family, divorce, remarriage, and so forth, I break it into three questions, which are:

1)  How many children does your mother have?

2)  How many children does your mother’s mother have?

3)  How many children do you intend to have?

Framing it this way has up to now kept the classroom discussion relatively precise, and on track.  In keeping with the traditions of population science, framing the question keeps things relatively biological–which is appropriate in this type of class.  Until now–when I was again reminded that definitions are always generated from a broader social context.

Anyway, about three days after this semester’s class, I had an apologetic Saudi student come to my office.  He had written on his (anonymous) survey that his mother had nine children.

Him: “I’m sorry that I lied on your question—I really come from a family of 29 children.”

Me: “So your father has more than one wife?”

Him: “Yes, I have four mothers.”

Me: “So you didn’t lie, since I had asked only about your own mother.”

Him: “Yes I did lie, and I’m sorry for it; my mother gave birth to nine children, but she of course has 29 children.”

Me: “No, you didn’t lie because your mother has nine children.”

Him: “Yes, I did lie, my mother has 29 children…”

It went back and forth in a friendly way for a few minutes, both of us somehow satisfied. He told me about his home in Saudi Arabia.  His father died a couple of years ago, but his mothers were still living there.  He had a great deal of affection for his siblings, or course, who he remembers as being a rambunctious lot.

I think it took me about four days to realize that despite the friendly conversation, we were still talking past each other with respect to the definition of what “mother,” “wife,” and probably “father” is.  Not to mention the relationship between “giving birth,” and being a “mother.”  Next time I give this survey I will have to think things through a bit more carefully!

Originally posted November 2013