The Evolving Social Context of Parenting

February 15, 2019 Updated: February 15, 2019

Procreation has been one of the few constants throughout history. Indeed, it is the sine qua non of human existence—no procreation, no human race.

For centuries, it wasn’t unusual for a wife to be pregnant a dozen times or more. It involved little planning, but was more like a biological imperative, impelled by the survival instinct. It was a numbers game: A certain percentage of pregnancies did not culminate in live births, and due to malnutrition, poor sanitation, and the ravages of disease, many children didn’t survive until adulthood. The hope was that two or three children would make it to adulthood and be able to care for their parents during their senior years.

Multiple developments in the last few centuries have radically altered the parental calculus. In America, the land of opportunity and individual freedom, economic progress elevated standards of living higher and higher, resulting in declining death rates and increased longevity. Twentieth-century medical advances against disease gave longevity an additional boost, raising life expectancy from the mid-40s in 1900 to the upper-70s by 2000. With higher survival rates, the incentives to have many children were reduced.

The steadily increasing prosperity of the 19th and 20th centuries had a profound impact on family life. As the productivity of parents’ labor increased, and incomes rose, children were liberated from the necessity to work. Instead, they could go to school. Economic progress enabled “childhood” to become a period in which children were increasingly exempt from the responsibilities of adulthood. They could be “children” as we think of them today, not just little people working alongside big people (adults) in the grim struggle for survival. Eventually, the productivity of labor grew to the point where a father could earn enough to become his family’s sole breadwinner, enabling the mother to stay home as a full-time mother.

This sociological phenomenon—sometimes called the “Ozzie and Harriet ideal,” after a popular TV show—peaked in the 1950s. While still the basis of our society today, starting in the 1960s, the nuclear family consisting of a working dad, a stay-at-home mom, and kids was buffeted by several major challenges.

In the early 1960s, the birth control pill came on the scene. A wedge was driven between sex and procreation; family ties started to loosen. By the late ’60s, the emerging environmentalist movement popularized the notion that a human population explosion, resulting from plummeting death rates and too-high birth rates, would quickly engulf the world in lethal disasters. According to groups like Zero Population Growth (ZPG), human survival depended on us having fewer babies.

In the 1970s, abortion was legalized, making it even easier to separate sex from parenthood and obviously reducing the number of live births. Concurrently, the women’s liberation movement was rebelling against the Ozzie and Harriet model, arguing that women should no longer feel obligated to have babies, but instead should pursue whatever vocation they wanted to and not take a back seat to men in the economic life of our society.

(For the record, I am glad that females today feel free to pursue whatever goals they set for themselves. My own daughter, as a matter of fact, is making her way in one of the most male-dominated professions. But please remember, ladies, our society depends on enough of you having enough children to keep us going. That isn’t a matter of ideology or personal preference; it is simply a statement of a biological reality: Unless we switch over to having test-tube babies, only women can bear children.)

The Economic Factor

Impacted by these developments, the birth rate in the United States fell dramatically throughout the ’60s. The decline continued until 1975, when it more or less leveled off for a generation before starting to tail off gradually in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008. The concurrence of a falling birth rate with an economic phenomenon like the Great Recession is no irrelevant coincidence.

Yes, technological change (the pill), legal change (abortion), sociological change (feminist movement), and ideological influence (fears of population explosion) have all contributed to fewer adults choosing to have fewer children, but don’t underestimate the economic factor.

I’ve told my environmentalist friends for decades that capitalism is the cure for overpopulation. The explanation is simple: Capitalism generates prosperity, and very few people who have tasted prosperity will procreate their way out of prosperity. Given the choice between having two children and enjoying an affluent middle-class standard of living, and having six children and struggling to scrape by, rational adults will opt for fewer children. Indeed, this underlying economic reality was already in play before the convulsive changes of the ’60s and ’70s—remember: Ozzie and Harriet had only two children.

Unfortunately, I believe that America’s affluence and resulting desire for material ease has gone too far, with some ominous implications. Americans (like people in other affluent countries around the world) are opting for parenthood less and less. Couples are having children at a rate lower than the “replacement” rate needed to maintain a level population. The danger today is not from a population explosion, but a population implosion.

The State as Caretaker

In the modern welfare state, government retirement and health care programs have replaced children as the primary caretakers of senior citizens. Knowing this, many citizens were “liberated” from the traditional reliance on their children to care for them in their senior years. (The exception is seen among my Amish neighbors, who continue to have more children, on average, than non-Amish Americans, and who still faithfully care for their aged parents instead of depositing them in homes where strangers tend to them.)

The problem is, so many citizens in our country and abroad have counted on the state to be their financial support in their senior years that they did not bother to have and raise enough children to produce enough workers to supply the state with enough revenue to be able to pay for sufficient eldercare when the welfare state Ponzi schemes eventually break down.

Sadly, a “who needs kids?” mentality has taken hold. Many adults refuse to have children because they want to enjoy the good life that modern affluence provides. They don’t want what they consider the distraction or expense of raising children to get in the way of their “self-fulfillment.”

In extreme cases, the animus against having children is pathological. About a decade ago, I wrote an article titled “Sex, Life, and Death” that was prompted by hearing the statistic that the second-most common cause of death among pregnant American women was homicide. It turns out that some men murder their lovers for getting pregnant. Those stunted males so intensely want to avoid being saddled with the responsibility of parenthood that they murder their own children and the women bearing them. In their warped mentality, a woman is a sex toy with no right to get pregnant.

Fortunately for all of us, enough Americans are still opting for parenthood in spite of all the cultural and societal headwinds they face. One formidable challenge American parents face today is from those who should be most supportive of children: their teachers—or more precisely, from certain powerful elements within the public school establishment. Let me hasten to say that there are many wonderful, talented teachers in our schools who are real blessings to the children fortunate enough to be enrolled in their classes. Hats off to all of those good people.

The problem is the progressive ideological mindset that permeates public education. When I went back to college after earning my bachelor’s degree to add a teaching certificate, I can honestly state that I was never taught a single thing that would make me a better teacher.

All I ever got were steady doses of thinly disguised collectivist doctrines about how the purpose of education was to “socialize” kids, to make them malleable, compliant, and willing to accept a place in the social order that supposedly enlightened leaders would plan for society. I know of teachers active in teachers unions who believe fervently that parents should surrender their children to public education starting at two years of age, because the “experts” employed by the state know much more about proper child-rearing than parents themselves do.

And then there are the many children in poor neighborhoods, often minorities, who want desperately to escape dysfunctional schools that cripple their intellectual development, but the teachers union and their progressive political allies conspire to deny these children the freedom to attend a better school. That monstrous policy shows that the political establishment doesn’t give a hoot about children, but has become a cynical, oppressive alliance willing to ruin children’s lives for their own self-serving purposes. No wonder so many American parents opt for homeschooling.

One more peek of gloom before I close on an encouraging note: Being a parent in the future isn’t going to get any easier. I am thinking of the potential issues pertaining to genetic engineering. Think of the decisions would-be parents will have to make if the technology of genetic modification gets to the point where humans can customize designer babies. Will couples planning to have children want to equip them with genius IQs? What if you believe that nature shouldn’t be meddled with, but other parents are choosing to use genetic engineering to boost their child’s intelligence (or any other desirable characteristic)? Would you choose to leave your child relatively inferior? And what if the state starts regulating who and how many babies can be genetically enhanced? Then our society would be on the threshold of something akin to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” with the state, not parents, making life-altering decisions about their children.

The Joys of Parenthood

OK, let’s walk back from that peek into potential darkness and close by celebrating the joy of having children. For those of you reading this who are parents or planning to become parents, God bless you. You are hugely important and much to be respected. You are the ones perpetuating our society and giving us a future, and given some of the challenges swirling around us today, you are to be commended for your courage and strength.

The rewards of parenthood are considerable and incalculable. Think of all you can accomplish as a parent—to give the gifts of life and love and then to be repaid with the priceless reward of a child’s love.

Thank you for all you are doing for society by teaching your children right from wrong. If you are religious, you have the joyous privilege of sharing with your children the good news of a loving God—a just God who will give a full reward for goodness—if not in this world, then in the next. What a sublime accomplishment it is to impart to your children the ability to feel comfortable in their own skin and to gain confidence and a sense of self-worth and security. What a rich reward you will deservedly receive for sharing a love with your children that is so special that, when they grow up, they will want to recreate that love by starting a family of their own.

The bottom line is that parenting—like everything else in this world—is confronted by challenges and pitfalls, but it can bring a joy unmatched by anything else this world has to offer. Again, God bless you parents—and your children.

Mark Hendrickson is an adjunct professor of economics and sociology at Grove City College. He is the author of several books, including “The Big Picture: The Science, Politics, and Economics of Climate Change.”