Associated Press

July 2, 1997

MADRID, Spain - The laughter of children still spills over the walls of St. John the Baptist School.

But it's not quite as loud these days. There are fewer children at the Madrid school -- just like at other schools all across Spain.

Births in Spain have gone from boom -- when couples commonly had a half-dozen children and dictator Francisco Franco rewarded the largest families -- to bust.

Spaniards are having fewer babies than women of any other country in the world -- an average of 1.24 per woman, according to a 1996 report by the Council of Europe. Spanish demographers say the rate has since fallen to 1.21.

Indeed, many European countries have low birth rates, giving the Continent an overall average of 1.5 births per woman. Italy is not far behind Spain, with a rate of 1.26. Germany and Greece follow at 1.35 and Austria and Russia at 1.4. The birth rate is 2.1 in the United States.

Experts say an economic crunch, the increase of women getting jobs, and society's distancing from the Roman Catholic Church and its ban on contraception are behind Spain having the world's lowest birth rate.

For 4-year-old Daniel Benito, an energetic boy with dark, sparkling eyes, it means he eats breakfast and lunch at St. John the Baptist because both his parents go to work early. And he has no brothers or sisters to play with at home.

On the plus side, as an only child, Daniel gets lots of toys and new clothes. In fact as Spain's birth rate slides to new lows, sales of toys, children's clothes and baby food are increasing.

``There are fewer kids, but now they are richer kids,'' said sociologist Alfredo Campo. ``Before, mothers used to make food for their babies. Now, nobody makes their own baby food; they all buy ready-to-eat baby food. And mothers don't have the time to be knitting baby booties.''

Parents note that when they grew up in large families, they often wore hand-me-down clothes, received gifts only once or twice a year and used their imagination to make up games.

The new generation may be getting somewhat spoiled.

``The children come to school with their toys from home. If the toy breaks, they really don't mind,'' said Sagrario Pinto, director of St. John the Baptist's preschool and kindergarten. ``Their attitude is, `Oh well, mommy will buy me a new one.' They don't value what they have.''

Pinto admits indulging most of the whims of her 7-year-old daughter, an only child.

``Dance classes, birthday parties, new clothes. Whatever it is she wants, she gets if we can afford it,'' Pinto said. ``We can't tell her `no.' My husband and I want to provide her with the best of everything.''

With more women joining the work force, it appears the days of Spaniards having large families is a thing of the past.

After working long hours, journalist Sylvia Carrasco rushes home week nights from work to spend precious moments with her only child, 5-year-old Manuel, before his bedtime.

Like many women, Carrasco was torn between having more children and her career. After much thought, she and her husband decided they did not have enough time to devote to a second child.

``As it is, we barely have the time to play with Manuel,'' she said. ``I can't stay home full time. I like to work outside the home -- I'd never give it up.''

One woman who climbed the career ladder in government complains that fathers with working wives don't do enough to help care for the children.

``In a chauvinistic society, the incorporation of a woman into the work force means double work for that woman,'' said Amalia Gomez, secretary-general of the Social Affairs Ministry and a mother of two. ``If women can go to work and count on the man to shoulder some of the responsibility of the home, they'll have more children.''

One advantage for the scant up-and-coming generation is the likelihood of a wider job market when they get older.

And so far, the drop in school enrollment -- from just over 2 million in 1987 to 1.5 million today -- has meant improved student-teacher ratios. But with Spain loosening laws that made it difficult and costly to fire employees, the decrease in students may soon translate into teacher layoffs.

The government also warns that the social security system could be overburdened within 25 years, with the number of retirees increasing and fewer workers paying into the system.

The government is already allocating more money to social security because of Spain's graying population. But the government no longer encourages women to have more babies, as Franco did during his 1939-1975 rule.

Some observers predict a swing back to couples having more babies, although not as many as before.

``I believe in cycles,'' Gomez said. ``Eventually it always comes around.''