On Being Family (Un)Friendly

On Being Family (Un)Friendly April 28, 2024

A family painting effort

Tim Carney has a new book out, Family Unfriendly, with, as usual for books these days, a subtitle that explains what the book is about:  “How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be.”  And, in an effort to think more about the book before it goes back to the library, I’m going to blog about it.

Before I get into the content, a brief why-it-matters:  having parents who are stressed and unhappy matters for a couple reasons.  First, just because it’s a bad thing for people to be unhappy.  Second, it’s not just a matter of parents sacrificing themselves to enable their children to be better off, but that outcome doesn’t even occur.  And, third, of course, it leads to the low birth rates which are ultimately bad for our society.

As a further bit of context:  Carney’s target audience is middle class and much of his focus is on the experiences of those families. Although he addresses broader issues, the social trends he focuses on are not necessarily as applicable to poor families.  In particular, many of the key components of family unfriendliness are related to middle/upper middle class individuals treating child-rearing as a “hobby,” no more worthy of social support than woodworking or marathon-running.  That leads to a greater willingness of people to criticize parents and parenting and talk about children as germy, and dirty, and too loud to be in public, or to push for places to be “child-free,” and that leads to a growing undercurrent that children are fundamentally “bad” by causing climate change or causing the spread of illness through their endlessly runny noses and inability to keep their hands to themselves or sufficiently sanitized.  On top of that, the pressure parents experience to parent their children intensively is relentless, including the demands of specializing in a sport young and of travel sports (and the difficulty of finding sports opportunities that are more low-key), the need to chauffeur children everywhere because of neighborhoods built without walkability, the punishment exacted by the broader community for parents who don’t except the new rules to constantly supervise children, and more.  Then there’s the narrative of “parenting is hell” — the very idea that parenting is relentless suffering from birth until adulthood.  And on top of that, there’s a growing narrative — well-intended, perhaps, in its effort to try to erase the idea that women who never marry have no value to the world or themselves — that it is success in employment which matters most in life, not marriage and family.

Of course, there are also financial issues, and the costs of raising children are non-trivial.  But Carney points out that it is objectively not the cost, in some absolute sense, which deters people, because wealthier couples are less likely to have children, or likely to have fewer of them, than relatively poorer families.

Carney also features neighborhoods/regions/countries with higher birth rates, and points out that there is a certain amount of self-reinforcement:  if you live in an area with lots of children, then having children is just “what you do.”  That’s true in Utah and among observant Jewish families in part because of their religion but also because of their communities, and he explains that in Israel, even non-religious families have higher-than-typical-“Western” birthrates (even if not as high as Orthodox families) because of the overall environment, in which children are a normal part of the community rather than perceived of as a burden.

And in the end, Carney’s final chapter addresses “civilizational sadness.”  I’m not sure if that’s a term he coined, but I don’t see it in a quick online search other than with respect to Carney’s ideas.  The idea here is that the lack of desire to have children comes from a sense, within a society/culture/civilization, that are not worthy of reproducing ourselves and continuing our society.  Hence, Germany’s longstanding low birthrate, he pairs with their losses in World War I & World War II; while Germany had a “Baby Boom” after the war, it was very small relative to elsewhere, and he pairs the dramatic fertility rate decline with the reckoning that Germans had with their deeds in the War, in the 60s.  In the U.S., on the other hand, the Baby Boom of the 50s and 60s was paired with a national mood of optimism, and the dramatic decline now is paired with the relentlessness with which the young, childbearing-age generation has been fed narratives of doom, both in terms of environmental collapse and societal harms (the new narrative that racism is worse than ever or that democracy will collapse at any moment).  In that respect, those groups which still have relatively higher birth rates are those which propose a counter-narrative, that is, religions which promote an optimism about the future and about the value of humanity.

So what’s Carney’s bottom line?  He does not really have a lot to say in the way of government policies, except to voice criticism of those policies which push mothers (or, more generally, both parents in a two-income household) into the workforce for the purpose of expanding GDP numbers.  His book ends up being focused more on encouragement for parents or future parents.  But I am asking myself what the takeaways are for those of us who believe we should consider how we ourselves can be more “family friendly.”  Can we, as regular churchgoers, or as residents of suburbs, or as [fill in the blank] do things to support families or change society’s expectations for parents?


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