Friday, January 18, 2013

Why responsible parents are having fewer children...

...while irresponsible parents are still turning them out.

Per Glenn Reynolds:

Parenting was always hard work, of course. But aside from the economic payoffs, parents used to get a lot of social benefits, too. But in recent decades, a collection of parenting "experts" and safety-fascist types have extinguished some of the benefits while raising the costs, to the point where what's amazing isn't that people are having fewer kids, but that people are having kids at all.

This occurred to me recently while reading Caitlin Flanagan's new book, To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife.Flanagan's book is mostly a comparison of her own housewifely and maternal life with that of her mother, and one thing that struck me is how much of what counted as acceptable -- or even exemplary -- parenting a generation ago would now be considered abuse and neglect. Here's an example:

"My mother was by no means indifferent about me: I was her pet, the baby of the family. But back then children were not under constant adult supervision, even if their mothers were housewives. By the time I was five, I was allowed to wander away from the house as long as I didn't cross any big streets. I had the run of the neighborhood at six. . . . A nine-year-old could be trusted with a key; a nine-year-old knew how to work a telephone if anything went wrong. Moreover, anxiety as a precondition of the maternal experience had not yet been invented."
Nowadays, of course, children don't get the same treatment. (I have heard repeatedly that my state's Department of Children's Services considers it neglect to leave a nine-year-old alone in the house for any time at all). Today's middle-class kids are always under the adult eye. It's not clear that the kids are better off for all this supervision -- and they're certainly fatter, perhaps because they get around less outside -- but the burden on parents is much, much higher. And it's exacted in a million tiny yet irritating other ways. Some are worthwhile -- car seats, for example, are probably a net gain in safety -- but even there the cost is high: I heard a radio host in Knoxville making fun of SUVs and minivans: When he was a kid, he boasted, his parents took their five children cross-country in an Impala sedan. Nowadays, you'd never make it without being cited for neglect. And you can't get five kids in a sedan if they all have to have car seats, which these days they seem to require until they're 18.

Likewise, Flanagan notes the pressure to take children for a seemingly endless array of after-school activities, most of which require parental chauffering. Add to this the increasing amount of parental responsibility for things their children do wrong, coupled with steady legal diminution of parental authority (Flanagan mentions an incident in which Caroline Kennedy was spanked for running off and notes that today it might result in jail time -- an exaggeration, perhaps, but not by much.) You're responsible for your kids in ways previous generations weren't, but your ability to discipline them is much reduced, and as my wife (a forensic psychologist) notes, the bad kids know that they can cow most adults by threatening to call 911 and make a bogus abuse charge. And forget disciplining your child, even with a harsh word, in a public place: At the very least, if you do you'll be looked on not as a virtuous parent helping to preserve the social fabric, but as that worst of all sinners in contemporary American culture: a meanie. And schools, anxious for parental "involvement," place far more demands on parents than they did when I was a kid.

There's also the decline in parental prestige over generations. My mother reports that when she was a newlywed (she was married in 1959) you weren't seen as fully a member of the adult world until you had kids. Nowadays to have kids means something closer to an expulsion from the adult world. People in the suburbs buy SUVs instead of minivans not because they need the four-wheel-drive capabilities, but because the SUVs lack the minivan's close association with low-prestige activities like parenting, and instead provide the aura of high-prestige activities like whitewater kayaking. Why should kayaking be more prestigious than parenting? Because parenting isn't prestigious in our society. If it were, childless people would drive minivans just to partake of the aura.

In these sorts of ways, parenting has become more expensive in non-financial as well as financial terms. It takes up more time and emotional energy than it used to, and there's less reward in terms of social approbation. This is like a big social tax on parenting and, as we all know, when things are taxed we get less of them. Yes, people still have children, and some people even have big families. But at the margin, which is where change occurs, people are less likely to do things as they grow more expensive and less rewarded.

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