Religion & Liberty Online

Making the World Safe for Children—Lots of Them

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Families are getting smaller even as many parents wish they had more children. What are their fears? And how can we craft a world where it’s safe to have big families again?

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In nearly every era prior to our own, the links between sex, marriage, and children were considered a given, not a state of affairs to be questioned, let alone altered. Not so today, as the widespread availability of contraception and related changes in mores have enabled men and women to engage in sex without commitment—and, in many cases, to pursue both sex and marriage without any necessary connection to parenthood.

In this brave new world, considerations of when to have children and how many children to have are a matter of much consternation. No longer do we all agree that parents can or even should have more than one or possibly two children, or even that it is a good thing to have children at all.

It is in this context that Timothy P. Carney has written his new book, Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be. His argument is multifaceted but easy to grasp. Carney sets out to study a very particular phenomenon: most Americans say they want more children than they actually end up having. Why is that?

A book on this topic could easily devolve into a sanctimonious tract or little more than a laundry list of mind-numbing statistics. Family Unfriendly is neither. Carney is upfront about how his beliefs, values, and lifestyle have shaped his perspective on parenthood and children: he’s a practicing Roman Catholic and an involved father to six kids. This is a bias of a sort, but it does nothing to undermine his argument. Instead, it enables him to offer his countercultural personal experience as an instructive foil to the standard operating procedure of modern society.

And while the author’s grasp of economics and statistics clarifies his argument throughout, this isn’t a textbook peppered with enough graphs and figures to make your eyes cross. Family Unfriendly makes good use of data to illustrate that we can’t afford a baby bust, but the book is readable, even conversational, both in tone and quite literally. Carney’s discussions with more than a hundred Americans from across the country bolster the book with instructive anecdotes—some amusing, some poignant, some disconcerting.

Carney makes helpful contributions to the family-policy debate, but this is not primarily a book about how government might encourage people to have more kids or support those who are already parents. It’s in large part a book about what it looks like to build your life, and our shared life as a society, around the fact that children are good.

Carney suggests that the way many Americans are raising their kids might be exacerbating the general sense that having a larger-than-average family requires far more time, work, and money than the average adult has to spare. Sharing liberally from his experiences as a father, Carney argues that being a parent—while one of the most challenging things a person can do—doesn’t need to be as difficult as we’re making it. “A leading cause of America’s parenting headache,” he writes, “is the belief that we need to do so much.”

In fact, in the very first chapter, he decries “overly ambitious parenting” and the prevailing culture in which parents seem to “think that raising kids requires you to hire personal trainers and drive every weekend to lacrosse tournaments three counties away, or that you need to pull every possible lever to get your daughter into Cornell.” If this is your view of what you must do to be a successful parent, he argues, “you will believe that you cannot possibly have more than one or two kids.” In contrast, he advocates having reasonable ambitions for your children; far fewer kids in Little League are headed for the major leagues than some parents seem inclined to believe, to take just one example.

An essential way to avoid this mindset, he argues, is simply to do less, choosing a lifestyle for your family that lowers the unnecessary demands Americans tend to place on themselves as parents. Avoid what he calls the “Travel Team Trap,” a phrase he uses as a stand-in for any kids’ activity that becomes more about seeking accomplishments than enjoying the activity for its own sake. He offers a memorable image to drive the point home: “Raising kids is a bit like smoking a pork shoulder: it’s not going to be quick, and you do need to check the thermometer from time to time, but you’ll get the best outcome if you avoid constantly lifting the lid and prodding the meat.” This is in contrast to “helicopter parenting,” in which parental anxiety and an unrealistic level of risk aversion prevent kids from figuring out how to handle at least some adversity on their own.

But not all modern parenting headaches can be solved by rearranging your perspective or making countercultural choices for your kids. Much of the book examines how policy, infrastructure, and urban planning could be more family-oriented, making parenthood more attractive and less taxing. Carney’s argument here is particularly strong when he advocates walkability as an antidote to what he earlier describes as “Car Hell,” in which driving kids to and fro can occupy several hours of nearly every day. While those familiar with the urbanist debate will be well aware of the benefits of walkable communities, Carney offers a new value to consider: kid walkability.

Not only should we advocate urban arrangements that allow adults to avoid Car Hell, but we should also consider what it would look like to arrange communities in a way that permits children to roam without being in danger: “Sidewalks should be wide. Roads should be narrow. Speed limits should be low. Long blocks should be interrupted by cut-throughs that work for strollers and tricycles. That is, we should build places for people. As of now, much of America is built for cars rather than for people, and so we’re getting more cars and fewer people.”

When it comes to family policy at the corporate or governmental level, Carney’s argument might best be summed up by one of his most interesting observations: policies aimed at financially assisting parents—such as daycare subsidies or corporate childcare assistance—typically give parents money to enable time away from their kids rather than money to make it easier to spend time with their kids. He argues it should be the other way around, or at least that policy should leave room for those who want more family time: “If Montgomery County can afford a few millions to subsidize daycare, it can afford to just hand that same few million to parents and say ‘spend this on daycare if you want, or use it as a cushion so you can switch to part-time work—or heck, hire the neighbor’s kid to mow your lawn so you can take your kids to the zoo.’”

He offers several practical examples for how employers might do the same thing, noting a study showing that “helping parents spend time with their children helps make them happier workers, which makes them better workers.” One especially interesting study he cites found that while childcare ranks quite low on a list of pleasurable activities, commuting and working ranked even lower. The same study found that mothers tend to prefer time with their children to time with their employer, co-workers, and clients. In other words, while caring for your kids may not be the most pleasant way to spend the day, most people enjoy it more than their average workday. Restructuring family benefits around these realities, he argues, would be good for parents and families and would make it easier for Americans to have as many children as they say they want, which tends to be more than they end up having.

A common thread runs throughout the book, an argument that appears either implicitly or explicitly on nearly every page: building a world friendly to families will require a renewed belief in the beauty and goodness of every human life. In his final chapter, Carney quotes a woman he met at a bar, who echoes a sentiment present in many of the book’s interviews and statistics: “In general, do I think people are good? No, I don’t. I think we’re the cancer of the Earth.”

Though the book offers a compelling rebuttal of this perspective, Carney clearly understands it well and realizes that it’s a common and popular explanation for the choice to have only a couple of kids or to have no kids at all. At root, Carney argues, this worldview stems from the fear, increasingly entrenched in our culture, that people aren’t good. “Achievements, success, brilliance, speed, strength, nimbleness, and beauty are all good things, wonderful to behold and worthy of celebration,” he writes in the first chapter. “But in our modern age, we confuse these good things with the Good. We wrongly believe that the good things about other people are the things that make them good.”

In contrast, Family Unfriendly presents a case for the inherent value of human beings, “a value independent of their accomplishments and instead rooted in their very nature.” And, as he puts it at one point, “kids fertilize our world,” opening us up to the fulfillment we can find in a life full of unpredictability, imagination, flexibility, serendipity, and even surrender, so often miscast as a killer of joy.

The deep sadness present in so much of modern life comes from a lack of meaning, and one powerful antidote to that listlessness and purposelessness, Carney argues, is children: “If you aspire to anything beyond a life of self-satisfaction, if your guiding star is a higher one then hedonism—that is, if you aspire to a good life, and to become a man or a woman of virtue—then there is no easier road than the road of parenthood.”

Family Unfriendly is, ultimately, a love letter to parenthood, in all its painful and beautiful complexity. It’s a book written by a man who loves being a father and who has experienced the deep meaning that active fatherhood brings to his life, not in spite of but because of the sacrifices he and his wife have made to build their family. His argument is strong on many counts, but the book’s most valuable contribution to this debate is its brilliant depiction of the joy and purpose found in bringing children into the world.

Alexandra DeSanctis Marr

Alexandra DeSanctis Marr is a fellow in the Life & Family Initiative of the Ethics & Public Policy Center and coauthor, with Ryan T. Anderson, of Tearing Us Apart: How Abortion Harms Everything and Solves Nothing.