When Will Children Be Regarded as ‘Regular People’ Again?
COMMENTARY: Children were once seen by society as a natural part of a normal life. Not so now.
In my single days, people used to tell me pretty often that they didn’t like kids. It’s the sort of thing ambitious young singles reveal to one another in intimate moments. Some find it comforting to bond over their lack of parental instinct.
“My mother keeps talking about her future grandchildren, but what can I say? I don’t like kids.”
Or it might be: “I think I might like to be married, but definitely no kids. I really don’t like kids.”
I don’t hear this so often anymore; presumably my progeny inhibit people from expressing their true feelings about the young. But I always found it remarkable that hating kids was, at least in some circles, socially acceptable. Some people view it as a lifestyle preference, on a level with “not being outdoorsy” or disliking country music.
Are there other whole swaths of humanity that we’re permitted to dismiss en masse as loathsome? In modern discourse, admitting to disliking women is effectively labeling oneself a monster. Misandry is more socially accepted, but most people at least try to sugarcoat it; even your more ardent feminists rarely admit to being man-haters. And imagine someone announcing, “Elderly people are so obnoxious. I would really prefer just not to be around them.” Who are you, Hitler? This would be an outrageous thing to say aloud.
Kids, though, are not universally regarded as regular people, of the sort one is obliged to tolerate. In some people’s eyes, they are projects. Pets. Accessories. They are extensions of the adults who have spawned them, and just as with any hobby, it is the builder’s responsibility to ensure that the project doesn’t inconvenience anyone else.
Not so long ago, children were seen as a natural part of a normal life. Their absence in a household aroused curiosity; their presence was simply expected. Contraceptives and abortion have turned this upside down, at least in many sectors of society. Children are now a family accessory that one can choose to have, or not. There is no presumption that parenting will normally follow on sex, or even on married sex. People have children if and when they want them. Some never want them.
When children are a choice, people become interested in justifying their choice. From there, it is a short step to viewing the children themselves as a commodity or pet. “I don’t like elderly people” seems like an awful thing to say, because our obligations to them are generally inherited, not chosen. Expressing disdain for the elderly marks a person as the sort who would put his parents in an institution and never visit. Hating kids, by contrast, doesn’t seem like a problem to many people. You can always just choose not to have any, right?
These trends go some way towards explaining why the United States has a multimillion-dollar organization claiming to specialize in “reproductive health care,” which offers no maternity care and almost no prenatal care.
In a healthy world, children would just be seen as a part of the community, to be enjoyed or tolerated along with people of every other age. When we fail to see integrate children into society in a natural way, kids themselves lose out, but so do parents. Modern parents are subjected to harsh judgment and ever-more-onerous legal requirements, although studies indicate that they are, in general, intensely interested in good parenting. This is what we might expect to see in a society that views children as a personal lifestyle choice. Piling on parents seems fairly reasonable if you start with the assumption that, after all, anyone who doesn’t feel up to the task is welcome to get fitted with an IUD.
On a personal level, my single-and-childless friends point out to me that childbearing can be hard on them, too. Single people often place a high value on friendship, and it’s hard not to take it personally when a good friend’s idea of getting together suddenly switches from “sushi bar” to “helping me amuse a fussy baby for two hours.” Relationships get strained, and resentment festers. It becomes easy just to conclude that, basically, kids are the worst.
Progressives sometimes suggest, derisively, that pro-lifers are interested in children only before they are born. When we consider how the culture of death has eroded our regard for children and families, we see how hollow this charge really is.
If there is a remedy to child-aversion, it will need to be rooted in an appreciation of children as such. Of course, the young can be loud, messy and lacking in social graces. Of course, they are demanding. As a mother of four, I can happily agree that children are precious, wonderful and an endless source of joy … and also that I get very excited for those (rare) occasions when I get a couple of hours away from the kids. But here’s the thing: Children are people. And people are both precious and burdensome, sometimes in the very same moment.
I humbly submit that many child-hating singles would probably find that they were able to re-discover the joy of childhood if they gave it half a chance. (I presume that they were all children themselves once. If they grew into professionally successful adults, it likely wasn’t an entirely bad experience.) But whether or not they’re willing to do that, they should at least curb their hostilities, for decency’s sake.
Not everyone can have children. Not everyone has to be adept at caring for children. But the sentiment “I don’t like kids” should be viewed on a level with a racist or sexist comment. Assuming you’re a human, children are the young of your own species. If you hate them, then, yes, there’s something wrong with you.
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the
University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.