To the casual observer, Costa Rican family life appears similar to that of North America: couples share in household duties; parents raise their children with love; and, while marriage is the most traditional union, more and more couples are choosing to live together before marriage. However, a closer look reveals that family life in Costa Rica is unique in many aspects.
In general, Costa Rican families are very tightly knit. Many households are multigenerational – grandparents, parents and grandchildren comprise a common family unit, but great-grandchildren, cousins, and other close family members may live together, as well. Children often live at home until they get married. It is important to note that there is little to no social stigma associated with living at home, even for adults in their 20's, 30's or 40's who have steady jobs.
While living in close quarters may be challenging at times, this practice promotes family unity, and Costa Rican family members enjoy each other's company. Weekends are often spent with relatives, and young children count their siblings and cousins as their best friends and favorite playmates. Adults are close with their parents, and grandparents are involved in their children and grandchildren's lives.
With so much time spent among family members of all ages, it is not surprising that children can be very compassionate with older and younger family members. It is common to witness a 14-year-old boy rocking his baby sister to sleep or a young girl carrying her younger brother around on her hip. Likewise, children often help their grandparents with household chores, or lend them a supportive arm to cross the street or board the bus. Even the embarrassment factor seems lesser in Costa Rica: school-age and even teenage youth, both boys and girls, often hold hands with their parents, and kiss them goodbye before heading off to school.
Marriage remains the most traditional – and common – way to start a family. Some
Costa Ricans consider only Catholic Church marriages to be official, but civil marriages, whether by lawyer or with a non-Catholic religious leader, are also commonplace. Common law marriages occur when a couple has lived together in a public manner for more than three years, and incurs all the same rights as a Catholic or civil marriage. The Costa Rican divorce rate hovers around 50% – similar to that of the United States.
In Costa Rica, children are highly valued. Costa Ricans love babies, and are full of well-intentioned advice regarding every aspect of parenting an infant – sleep routines, appropriate outerwear, first foods, bath time, and more. Additionally, Costa Ricans seem to have infinite patience with crying babes – even in restaurants or movie theaters. Instead of throwing accusatory glances, people try to pacify a crying child with silly faces or clucks of comfort, and complete strangers may offer to hold a fussy baby to give his or her mother time to complete her transaction.
Traditionally, Costa Ricans have started their families at young ages. However, as more women pursue higher education and out-of-home work, they have also postponed starting families. One result is a declining fertility rate – from 7.31 births per woman in 1960 to 3.46 in 1985, and now, 1.88 children per woman in 2009. The 2000 census revealed that approximately 53% of babies are born to single mothers, but strict laws exist to hold a father financially responsible for his offspring.
Educational equality has also led to more women in professional positions – such as the current president of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla. Many households now depend on dual incomes, and women increasingly are the breadwinners. When both parents work, they often hire a housekeeper to take care of young children. Nannies or daycare for school-age children is uncommon. In traditional households, when parents are not home, children go home to grandparents, older siblings or other family caretakers.