There is a phrase that my wife and I hear frequently these days. One that slightly irritates us, but is not particularly offensive. It is a phrase that represents decades of social and value changes during the late twentieth century. The phrase is, "You have your hands full." Sounds amicable and harmless. We are often told this when some one sees that we have two small children, or when we tell some one that we have a three year old and an eight month old.
There was a time not so long ago when telling someone that you have two children would have been more likely to initiate a conversation about when you are having more children, rather than a commentary on how you already have too many children. Do not get me wrong. There are still portions of our society that frequently have more children. However, the United States is beginning to follow a trend that is frequently seen in developed nations of Europe and Japan. That of having one or no children. Many European nations and Japan have hit a point or soon will where there are far more older adults than children. This has a number of social consequences which including an inability to maintain pension funds and the age at which we can allow older adults to retire and expect to be able to support them.
Changing family values and expectations
There are a number of social institutions and practices which have contributed to this change in attitude toward having children. Among these is the practice of no fault divorce. Since the beginning of this practice in the US it has become easier to end it than to mend it. It is usually easier in the short term to walk away from a problem rather than facing it, but far more costly in the long term. We live in a myopic society. The judicial facilitation of avoidance of working towards a successful relationship has resulted in a sharp increase in divorce. Divorce is associated with higher rates of child poverty. This is not to say that there is no reason to allow divorce. On the contrary the reverse of the argument is that many women being oppressed by abusive husbands have been able to get out of these oppressive situations and save their children the heart ache of growing up in a destructive environment. However, more often than not, divorce is the result one or two selfish adults not being willing to sacrifice something for the success of the family. For children growing up in families where divorce occurred have a harder time learning the skills of working through tough times together from the example of their parents. Before you begin to pick these last few statements to pieces, we can all think of exceptions, but that does not make these exceptions the rule.
Beyond divorce, and likely partially as a result of the increase in divorce, there has been a general acceptance of premarital relations and child bearing outside of matrimony. As many as 40% of children are now born to unwed mothers. This means it is even easier for dad to leave and not be present, because there are no consequences of ending a marriage that does not exist. Yes, laws are in place to try to ensure that parents take care of their children. But lets be honest, these laws are less than effective in ensuring child support is always paid one time and in full. In addition to the influence of divorce laws on attitude on premarital relations and child bearing outside of wed lock is the feminist movement. This movement again has had positive effects of fighting for equal pay and rights for women. Equal rights; however, does not mean that men and women have to fulfill the same roles. This does not mean that women cannot play an important role in providing for the family, but it is acceptable and often effective for parents to work out separate roles in caring for the family financial needs and the emotional and child care needs of a family with multiple children. A negative consequence of the feminist movement has been the diminution of the role of motherhood and stay at home mothers. There was a shift in perspective where the contribution to the family was measured by the paycheck one brought home. Women fighting for "equality" began to frame the stay at home mother as lazy and of little value to society, where as the revers is true.
Traditionally different roles were that the father was the primary financial bread winner, and the mother stayed at home to care for the children and run the household. It is estimated that a stay at home mother may work over 90 hours a week, which work would be worth 100,000-140,000 dollars a year. A stay at home mother provides a valuable contribution to the family finances and function. A stay at home mother is also present to teach her children according to the values that she and the children's father see appropriate. Many families find that it makes more financial sense for both parents to work. This is the type of family that I grew up in. Both my mother and father worked every day. When we were young however they found ways to work different schedules to maximize their time with us and to minimize child care costs. The demise of the stay at home mother has in my opinion contributed to the decrease in number of children, and the attitudes towards child care, with increased negative attitude towards families with many children. The necessity to provide child care when working increases costs of working outside of the home for mothers with each child. Therefore, less children equal less childcare cost, and more money made in income.
The question that must be asked as we view divorce, permissive sexual attitudes, and changes in family roles, is what do we value most. Do we value money, do we value personal pleasures, or do we value family life and child rearing which tends to provide a stabilizing influence on society. I would argue that a greater focus on hedonistic pleasures and a bank roll have, through changes in attitudes and laws regarding marriage, have facilitated the decline in the number of children people have.
What is the average number of children per family in the US?
As of the 2010 Census there were 1.91 children per family with children under the age of 18. This is the average for families with children now. So admittedly, my two children is above average, but I'm not sure how to have .91 of a child. Fertility rates declined from the mid twentieth century to the late twentieth century. Fertility rates are calculated as number of children per woman in a country, which automatically will be lower that the number per family I just reported. Fertility raters currently in the US are at 1.88 children per woman in the us. The average age of mother hood is also increasing over the last twenty years. Women 20-24 have decreased in the proportion of births for which they account, and women 35-44 have increased the proportion of births for which they account. This is likely due to the greater emphasis on college education and career in early adulthood. This general trend of starting families later due to a greater emphasis on career has turned general life focus of a large portion of the population away from family and child rearing to financial success, and taken away some of the most fertile years of a woman's life. There is nothing that says you cannot be successful and have children, but generally more financially successful families have less children. This does not mean that children are prohibitive to success, but rather that those who choose to focus on financial success generally focus less into having many children. This is part of what make me so odd. I have several children and am in graduate school.
Why have more children if you cannot feed them?
The argument that the world is over populated, and cannot support more people has been made for a long time. This is not true. Here is a great documentary that talks about demographic changes in various countries and the social consequences, and discusses food production to a small degree. With advancements in technology has come huge increases in agricultural production. Furthermore nations that have the biggest problems with hunger, are among the most corrupt governments. Where the rule of law exists, and where a general feeling of social responsibility for others is present, fewer people go hungry. There are a large number of complex variable that interact to increase levels of hunger among which are finances, mental health, physical health, and social structures, and resources. The argument that I should not have children because someone in Africa is starving has never resonated with me due to these complex causes, most of which are the doing of corrupt men a world away. I can feed my children, and I can provide them with what they NEED.
Need has also taken on a new meaning in our entitled society. I see the needs of a child as food, shelter, love, and basic education. It is my job to keep the kid alive, relatively happy, and prepare them for that magic age where they take responsibility for their own actions. Many of you may disagree with my view of need, but I do not think that my children need fancy things, a cell phone, a car, or for me to pay for their college education. To the best of my ability I will aid my children to be successful in all that they do, by teaching them to work hard and achieve their own success. The fact that they will have two college educated parents will be to their favor. But there is a large space between what a child needs and what society will teach them that they are entitled to.
In closing I would like to sum up my points saying that a combination of social changes have led to the point where we value having children less as a society. This means that because I have two children I have a larger than average family. I am an anomaly, and will be a bigger anomaly when I have more children. In a graduate program of close to a hundred people I am the only student with children. There are social consequences for this change. Our society will be increasingly unable to support itself as there are fewer young working people to support the aging population. Beyond the broad financial consequences, as we move away from a society centered on raising families and family values, we change from the thing that made our nation great. A dedication to hard work to support others was what lead to the rise of the US as a superpower, and it is our turn away from families that will lead to our nation's decline. We are moving away from the stabilizing linch pin that holds our society together. That is what I hear when I hear you say, "You have your hands full."
By Joshua Kirton
Other Posts: The Capitol Building, Stewards of Spiritual Learning, Do You Know Where Your Children are at?