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The Case Against Kids




Are children going out of style? Most American women still say they want and expect to become mothers, and a majority of them surely will. Yet even now, the number who will not give birth is at an all-time high. The most recent fertility survey, conducted in 1998, found that among women who had reached the age of forty, 19 percent had not yet had a child. And when childless women of all ages were asked how many children they expected to have in the future, 21.3 percent said they did not anticipate having any at all. At the same time, those who do become mothers are having smaller families. A generation ago, in 1970, among women aged forty, more than half—53.4 percent—had had three or more children. For women of that age in 1995, only 27.8 percent had that many.1

Declines in fertility are becoming common around the globe, from Latvia and Portugal to Barbados and Singapore. As can be seen in Table A (see page 14), a broad array of countries have rates below replacement levels. Among the least fecund are Spain and Italy, despite their Catholic histories. Ireland and Malta also have subzero growth, even though they ban abortion and limit access to reliable contraception. On islands like Mauritius and Guadeloupe, with rates below replacement, reproduction is no longer a result of habit or pressure. There and elsewhere, it is increasingly a choice, and one that fewer adults are making. True, it will be some years before Yemen and Uganda get to zero growth. But if it can happen in Sri Lanka and Azerbaijan, as it has, the possibility should not be dismissed.

As it happens, fertility rates in the United States have taken a somewhat different tack. In 1960, at the peak of the baby boom, each 100 women averaged 365 children, greater than the current level in India. By 1976, America’s fertility had plummeted to 174 per 100 women, about where Thailand’s is today. But since then, unlike in other countries, America’s fertility has been edging upward: last year it stood at 208, just short of the replacement rate. The chief cause has been the rising Hispanic population, whose rate of 298 means it now accounts for 25.3 percent of the nation’s births. Americans of European ancestry, with a rate of 185, are contributing only 59.4 percent of new babies, although they account for 71.6 percent of the population. In fact, 1971 was the last year when white Americans had enough children to replace themselves.


Elinor Burkett claims to speak for a growing group of adults: men and women who are choosing not to have children. On first reading, she seems to have a reasonable complaint. On the job, she tells us, she has to put in overtime for her colleagues, so that they can take “leave from work to watch Susi dance Swan Lake.” And while her employer offers liberal child-based benefits, there are no similar perquisites for people like herself. Whether intended or not, we now have “affirmative action for mothers,” which results in “equal pay for unequal work.” Moreover, it is the affluent who come out ahead. Because the IRS allows deductions for nannies, “the six-figure income crowd is receiving multi-thousand dollar tax breaks while the childless poor are losing their public benefits.”

How serious are these grievances? After all, among persons who have equivalent earnings, those without children generally end up with a lot more to spend on themselves. (Witness the spurts in spending by parents once they no longer have to support their offspring.) Still, Burkett is right to stress that less support is given to adults looking after their aged parents. And she is understandably bothered by writers like Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West, who would give families with children extra votes. Or the proposal of Heidi Hartmann, of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, that generous stipends be given to all single mothers, “whether or not dad hands over a dime.”

However, The Baby Boon has another purpose, even if it is not explicitly stated. It seeks to give voice to men and women who, like W.C. Fields, simply do not like children. (Not surprisingly, German has a word for it: Kinderfeindlichkeit.) Burkett calls her mode of life “childfree,” and sympathizes with those who speak of parents as “breeders.” Some of her proposals have a reasonable ring; yet in conveying them, she reveals her animus. Many will agree that having “adults-only” times and places can often make sense. But she wants them so that adults are able to “shop, dine, or swim without being drowned out by wailing infants or rammed into by rambunctious toddlers.” Is the need for childfree shopping really that great? It is for Burkett, who wants youngsters banned from supermarkets at posted hours, so adults may “push their carts through the aisles without having to maneuver around a bunch of six-year-olds playing hide-and-seek behind the cereal.” Grinchlike comments like these can give nonparenthood a bad name.

Sometimes, her statistics are misleading. She says the Census found that “as many as 19 percent of married couples choose not to have children.” But the figure is only that high among younger couples and older remarrieds. The study by the National Center for Health Statistics cited earlier reported that 93.9 percent of married women either already had a child or expected to have one. She is on firmer ground when she says that the “Kid-Free Zone” is “the fastest-growing segment of the nation’s population.” Not only that, many are enforcing her “kid-free” stricture. A graphic example can be found in retirement communities which have ruled that grandchildren can only stay for brief visits. This includes barring, say, a recently divorced daughter who might want to bring her own child for a few months while she straightens out her life.

What Burkett doesn’t explain is why more people are deciding to forego parenthood. Nor does she reveal her own reasons for believing that staying childless has given her a better life.2 Not so very long ago, adults who chose not to have children were accused of being selfish. However, the reasoning behind the charge was seldom spelled out. Thus adults were told that they had a duty to reproduce: to strengthen the nation, to perpetuate a family or a faith, even to ensure the survival of the species. And in parts of the world, the command to be fruitful and multiply is still pronounced and heeded. Those who demur are seen as shirking a responsibility and placing their personal desires over pursuing a greater good. On the whole, though, far fewer people than in the past believe they have an obligation to become parents.

There are couples who feel their lives will be more enjoyable or more productive if they are not encumbered by children. Are they selfish? In reply, it may be asked if their choice brings harm to anyone. It does not. Even if they are self-absorbed, foregoing parenthood need not mean they are taking more from the world than they are putting in. Does this mean the decision to raise children should be viewed as an altruistic act? This view has become common among economists, largely inspired by Gary Becker’s Treatise on the Family, which as much as any of his other works led to his award of the Nobel Prize in economics.3

In reducing such choices as marriage and childbearing to rational calculations, Becker’s approach has little appreciation of the intimate experiences of personal and family life. Neither complex feelings of love, tenderness, and hate, nor the ambivalence of people’s changing perceptions, have much place in his theories. The reader may find himself thinking that Becker and his school would benefit from a long season of reading imaginative literature, beginning perhaps with the works of Chekhov, in order to gain a different kind of understanding of the nuances of family experience. Still, by insisting that a calculus of benefits underlies many choices we make, Becker can be coolly suggestive. Following his approach, the contributors to The Economics of Reciprocity, Giving and Altruism look upon parent-child relations as a nexus of investments and repayments, with mutually beneficial outcomes. As Alessandro Cigno and Furio Rosati put it, parents are being “altruistic if all they obtain [by] doing something for others is the pleasure of making those others happy.” So good parents need not be selfless, or deprive themselves for their children’s well-being. As Anne Laferrère puts it, “altruistic persons maximizing their utility”—i.e., their own well-being—“are just as ‘selfish’ as any Homo economicus. Their utility is enhanced by raising another person’s utility, with whatever motivation.”

To construe families as economic units requires some suspension of disbelief. While parents pay most of the bills, Laferrère suggests that there will also be “services given by the child,” whether in the present or an anticipated future. When youngsters say they love their parents, this “service” can be regarded as reimbursement for some of the outlays their parents have made. It comes as a relief when the book’s contributors grant that not all family exchanges can be expressed in monetary terms, not least because of the changes in the reasons for having children.

In the past, additional children were welcomed as more hands to work the farm. If parents today stop at one or two, it is because, as Becker put it, they hope to improve the “quality” of the few they have. True, parents in earlier times wanted their offspring to be at least moderately successful, so they could care for them in their old age. But the services wanted from “quality” children are less tangible. For one thing, modern parents are less likely to look to their children for economic support. According to economists influenced by Becker, they often want the children in order to have visible achievements that can be cited in their social circle. Acceptance by an elite college is an obvious example, as is success in a recognized profession. According to this economic perception of altruism, members of both generations win—except perhaps children who lack the capacity or inclination to pursue the goals their parents set for them.

Adults who choose to raise children do so because they believe it will bring them more pleasure than would be the case if they were childless. Of course, there are no guarantees. (Becker added a “Rotten Child Theorem” to his analysis.) On the whole, most who have taken on parenthood would probably say that its benefits predominated and they would do it again. And most would add that those gains outweigh whatever they might have done had they not had children. At the same time, when parents assume extra burdens to aid their offspring, they are often praised for making sacrifices. In the same vein, children are told they should be grateful for all that was done for them. Imposing this psychological burden can cause harm, fostering guilt or even hatred for their parents. (Of course there should be exchanges of “thank yous” on suitable occasions.) Here the economic model clearly seems preferable: whatever parents do are choices they willingly make, whether in the hope of acclaim from others or simply to feel they have done their best to help children realize their possibilities.

  1. 1

    Fertility of American Women (Bureau of the Census, 2000). True, some women who are childless at forty may give birth later, as 87,205 did last year, but that cohort accounted for only 2.2 percent of all births; see Fertility, Family Planning, and Women’s Health (National Center for Health Statistics, 1997). Recent increases in multiple births, due mainly to fertility treatments, in fact add only about 35,000 more births each year; see Trends in Twin and Triplet Births (National Center for Health Statistics, 1999).

  2. 2

    Nathan Keyfitz put the position succinctly: “Childbearing as an activity is less able to compete in attractiveness either with work or with leisure, and the child as a product is of insufficient value to the parents to cause them to give up alternative commodities.” In Below-Replacement Fertility in Industrial Societies, edited by Kingsley Davis et al. (Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 148.

  3. 3

    Harvard University Press, 1981.

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