Why do we have children?

A Yezidi child who was trapped in the Sinjar mountains for days without food or water due to ISIS, arrived in the Syrian city of Haseki Aug. 10, 2014. Photo by Feriq Ferec, Anodulu Agency/Getty Images
A Yezidi child who was trapped in the Sinjar mountains (near the border of Syria and Iraq) for days without food or water due to ISIS, arrived in the Syrian city of Haseki Aug. 10, 2014. Photo by Feriq Ferec, Anodulu Agency/Getty Images

 

What do children mean to you? Under what conditions would you have a child, or not have a child? How should we think about children?

These questions have been on my mind lately, not just because of violence and unrest around the world, but because we need to make a decision about whether to have a third child. It might affect job opportunities and make us a little poorer, but I kind of like the idea of large family gatherings. Here are some initial thoughts. I’m struggling with them, and they are a work in progress.

As a Canadian  Gen-X’er living in a highly developed and privileged society, the majority of my friends and acquaintances think of two children as the perfect family. “My, what a large family you have!” someone said to my brother, who has but three children. While Canadians enjoy a universal child benefit (at $200 a kid), a larger family means a lower standard of living, less travel, and less programs and sports (you would be amazed what parents pay in cash and opportunity costs for their kids to play hockey). But should we think like policy analysts when it comes to our family and make our decision based on a cost-benefit analysis?

There are always countless reasons not to have a child, and I think they’re pretty revealing about how we think of life as a whole. Here are the top five, in no particular order:

1. The environment. We don’t want to degrade the planet by expanding our carbon footprint, especially North American footprints. The reason China is polluting so badly is that it needs to keep up with the pressure of providing jobs for its comrades.

2. The economy. We can’t afford to have more children. The job market, plus the fact that wages haven’t kept up with cost of living, mean that both parents have to work to “keep up with the Joneses”. It will limit my job opportunities. Would I have to buy a bigger house? Could I afford day-care? How many cars do I need?

3. Too much work. I’m done having children. They’re too much work, too stressful, and they drive me crazy. I want to be an adult once again. I want to sleep again. I want to stop thinking Samuel Jackson’s rendition of “Go the F.. to sleep” on Youtube is the funniest thing ever. Plus, we know from psychology that the first five years are crucial to development. Will I have enough time to devote to each one the more children I have? Maybe I’m too old to be having more kids.

4. It’s less fun. We won’t be able to travel to Mexico as often. Every time we have a baby we spend so much time being overweight and unattractive. Less partying.

5. Peer pressure. Will I distance myself from my friends by having more kids, be part of a slightly lower socio-economic class, and have different priorities? Will I still be driving kids to soccer games while my friends are out golfing? Will everyone think I’m destroying the planet carelessly?

 

Each of these has passed through my mind at some point or other. So let’s break them down a little more. In order to do that, l want to lay out a couple ways we can think about children.

A. We could think about children not just as individuals, but as what they add or detract from society as a whole. We could be consistent utilitarians and think of children from a global perspective. Will it hurt society as a whole if I have a child? This position sees the ability to have children not as a right or a gift, but as a way to benefit or harm society. We’re not thinking of our own family per se, but of every family and whether their overall pleasure is reduced by adding another child to the world. To be consistent with this principle, we’d have to agree that the Chinese one-child policy (and all its side-effects) is actually more humane than the alternative.

B. We could think of children as projects, as something that we wish to bequeath to the world. We could limit the amount of children we have in order to give each one a better education, better opportunities, and more attention. Perhaps we could live in the ‘burbs, send them to private school, and give them music lessons and tutoring if we only have two kids. We’ll be less stressed with less kids, and we know that stress is bad for kids.

C. We could think of children as beings who’s primary need is to be loved. Children are gifts, and love is a gift. Love should be seen not just in materialistic terms, like “will I be able to afford an iphone for my teenager?” but in the more phenomenological sense of care, attentiveness, and consistency. Having more kids may stress us out, but when it comes down to it, the kind of life I want to live is one where love, not abstract reasoning, is the most important thing.

 

OK – there are probably more ways to think about children, and more objections, but how should we reply to the objections 1-5? By now it seems fair to say that objections 1-5 have to do with various ways children detract from overall life happiness, and that reasons A,B,C are views of what would make us most happy (keeping in mind we were also children at one point).

1. The environment. I’m not sure I could live with myself knowing that I didn’t have kids because of an abstract hypothetical scenario – that having less children will somehow allow us to solve human produced global warming. Who is to say we won’t fail anyway (or have already failed), or won’t develop new technology to mitigate global warming? I’m not sure how long that smug feeling of superiority would last. Also, the utilitarian gamble, that happiness is a measure of material benefits to society as a whole, should be taken into consideration with current real world scenarios like China’s one-child policy. Can you really weigh present discomfort and misery (poverty/lack of jobs) against unknown future states of happiness (political/economic stability)? Is the family unit not really as important as political stability?

2. The economy. Psychologists know that more money at a certain threshold doesn’t equal more happiness, and that only at a certain level of poverty do people complain of a lower “happiness.” But that’s not a good enough reason to reject #2. If I have 10 kids on a single income, it’s very likely I’ll dip into the poverty zone. At some point I would have to reject reason B, the notion that my kids are a project, and that I need to optimize every possible avenue of success. This is a very difficult thing to reject, given our evolutionary inclinations to further our bloodlines. Why should the sheltering of our children stop at providing only the basics of security, health, and education? Why not provide the best possible security, health, and education?

This is a much more difficult reason to ignore, especially given that I’m an educator and always want the best education for my own children, and my students. This is why there is an underground network of public school teachers who secretly homeschool their kids.

The main argument against reason B is that seeing children as projects tends to make them into another abstract instrument that can “fail,” rather than act as an ends in themselves. If you are an evolutionary materialist, are your children a failure if they fail to reproduce? You would secretly have to believe so. But say I’m not a materialist, just a liberal arts junkie who wants to pass on the crowning glories of western civilization. Would I have failed this mission if my children decided to get MBAs instead? Are your children an investment in the future? These are all ways in which an abstract ideal overtakes the present individual.

Looking back at the original reason for not having kids – the economy, I think abstract reasoning also serves as a convenient cover for reasons 3, 4, and 5, which all have to do with pleasure. Giving my children more also allows me to have more.

3. Too much work. Children are always too much work. It’s tough to say whether anyone would have kids if they were first given a contract specifying exactly how much work they would have to do. This is a cop-out reason, unless you really couldn’t spend time with your child or care for it in a significant way. Reason 3 stems from confusing different notions of happiness – that the opposite of sacrifice is pleasure and therefore must be good, or that being 20 for the rest of your life would be good for you, and that not experiencing pain is a kind of happiness. This is the kind of week-kneed materialism that Nietzsche called “enervating.”

4. It’s less fun. Lately I’ve really just wanted to go out for once. No expensive babysitter, no negotiations with spouse, just get away from it all and enjoy life. That’s great, but not as a principle on which to base your life. One of our band teachers has a saying – “you gotta work hard to have fun.” This is just as true in a family as it is in music. The rewards of putting in the hours do not come immediately.

5. Peer pressure. This is probably the lamest, but also the most effective reason for convincing people not to have kids. In the absence of strong principles, people go with the flow, and the current flow are reasons 1, 2, 3, and 4. The strongest peer pressure comes with needing to live up to the American dream of a big house, two cars, vacations, and a great retirement package. Also, giving in to peer pressure is a kind of pleasure itself – recognition.

These last three reasons seem especially distant from reason C – that children are not abstract ideals, but ends in themselves that deserve to be loved. Having children is a way of learning how to love. Love almost always means giving up material comforts and pleasures for others.

Anyhow, I am still struggling to see how B and C go together – how we can desire the absolute best for our children (and thus need the resources to do so), and also want to live life as if love is the most important thing. Perhaps it has to do with adjusting our idea of success or comfort. Do we really need a bigger house, more cars, cellphones, smart baby monitors, a “safe” neighborhood, travel opportunities, or tons of books to be happy? Reason B can easily be reduced to material benefits that turn out not to be that necessary. Perhaps education is the one commodity that is truly invaluable because it leads to a better kind of freedom. But do you need the best school in town? Are you willing to have less kids in order to provide a better education to a few? Any thoughts?

 

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