Tuesday, 18 August 2009
The August 3rd cover of Maclean's blares out The Case Against Having Kids. Inside, the headline of the article, written by Anne Kingston, is "No Kids, No Grief". The sub-title gives a good summary of the content: "A new manifesto argues that parenting is bad for your career, your marriage, your bank book and your love life." Granted, Maclean's' is at liberty to sell magazines with controversial content, and not to give a balanced view. But I am still disturbed by the article for several reasons.
Despite the fact that Maclean's is not required to argue the pros as well as the cons, the absence of such makes it an prime piece of sophistry - clever argumentation of a fundamentally flawed position. It transforms a description of what is true for some people into a prescription for how everyone should act - saying in effect that the new reality is such and such, therefore we should all accept its inevitability, and adapt our behaviour - i.e. stop having kids.
Kingston's message is not merely that people should have a choice whether to have kids and not be made to feel bad if that's what they decide. Rather it is the dramatic, extreme proposition that having kids is a stupid idea, the very opposite prejudice. The closing paragraph, which asks for respect for those who choose not to have children, does not overcome the tenor and the bulk of the article's content, which is overtly anti-child - e.g. citing sensationalist Corinne Maier's description of children "If you really want to be host to a parasite, get a gigolo." with the prefacing words "Among Maier's hard-won advice" transforms what could, in a comedy show, be a funny line to parents who love their kids, into a straightforward statement of hate. In the No Kids Debate Continues rebuttal, Kingston acknowledges that Maier herself meant the quote to be ironic and provocative. (I hope Maier's own kids know she was being intentionally silly). Well Ms Kingston, you need to work on your writing craft because your preface to the quote gave no clue to its real intent.
Other problems in the use of language are found in her description of the term "child-free" versus "childless". Instead of merely portraying those who don't want kids in a neutral light, Kingston and those who don't want kids use the suffix "-free", which is used in advertising products without harmful ingredients like sugar-free, smoke-free, fat-free, caffeine-free. Implication: child = harmful. The original adjective for a person without children - childless - Kingston says conveys a "void" (accurate enough, but is a void always bad?) or "handicap" (not accurate, that's a value judgment added by some people upon learning the factual reality). The suffix -less means merely "devoid of" and depending on the word to which it is attached, can have a positive - selfless, blameless - or a negative meaning - witless, valueless - or a neutral, factual meaning - treeless, cloudless, waterless, childless. Please stop transforming and condemning perfectly good words. People who think it is a deficiency or a poor choice will still do so whether the label is childless or childfree. If there is any problem, it is with the word childfree, whose Wikipedia description includes a raft of complicating political and economic viewpoints.
Over at MercatorNet, Barbara Lilley does a pretty good job countering the emotional arguments that kids are inevitably bad for your love life and for your marriage in her post Children are Worth Having.
Maclean's and writer Kingston have also been deluged by considerable negative reaction and are backing off the universal prescription by saying that the article only portrays the point of view of a small minority: "the point of the article: to examine the small but growing strata of people who are choosing not to have children" in "The 'No Kids' debate continues". Kingston's rebuttal suddenly de-emphasizes the selfish motives and emphasizes the positive reasons people some adults choose not to have children - not feeling capable of coping, feeling they contribute more to society in other ways, taking pressure off the environment (really?!) etc.
Children do cost a lot to raise to the point of being productive members of society able to fend for themselves and pay taxes to help others too. And it is true that families bear a lot of cost (whatever amount or proportion the government currently bears, it's still a lot for individual families). The economic force does reduce people's willingness to have children at all or more of them. That's the way it is, but the discouraging automatic psychological implication of the article, a mistake in my opinion, is that it can only be that way.
It is discouraging because it doesn't have to be that way. Governments, especially, and companies, to some extent, can provide programs and incentives that make having children much more viable. And when governments and companies do, people have more kids, proving that when the money is there, people naturally gravitate to the kids option. A previous, and much better, Maclean's article in 2007 by Lianne George Making moms: Can we feed the need to breed? described such initiatives in France and Québec that have evidently (rising birth rates are the proof) successfully removed the monetary barrier to children.
It is also discouraging because on a societal level, the promotion of an anti-having children mindset will exacerbate the problems of increasing longevity and a birth rate in Canada that is far below population replacement levels. If too many decide not to have kids, then eventually there won't be enough people to do the work, or alternately, work will shrink to fit. That will put pressure on taxes, government spending programs, economic growth, investment values, pensions as the pitter-patter of little feet gives way to the shuffle of walkers.
Not only are children well worth the effort on the whole in their own right, we need them for our future.
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