Does a Happy, Moral Life Require Having Children?

The questions below were asked by New York author, writer and long-time reader Joseph Kellard:

Q: What are your thoughts on parents who are everything from condescending to contemptuous toward individuals who choose to remain childless? One such person writes in USA Today: ‘I am sorry for those who swear off children. They pass through life without a defining, irreplaceable human experience. One cannot help from feeling sad for those who merely refrain from having children because they consider them ‘inconvenient.’ They do not begin to understand what they are giving up.’

Dr. Hurd: This statement represents the height of arrogance. Look at some of the premises involved in making this statement:

Flawed Premise #1: The only kind of defining, irreplaceable human experience one can enjoy is having a child. Presumably, vigorous pursuit of one’s career (or any number of other fulfilling accomplishments or experiences) does not count.

Flawed Premise #2: ‘Inconvenience’ is the only major reason one would not have children. Apparently, other reasons could not apply, such as: not being able to afford a child; having a demanding career which does not permit proper raising of a child; inability to find a romantic partner/spouse you could trust with whom to have a child; and various medical problems which make having a child difficult or dangerous. The list of objectively valid reasons could go on and on; yet the person who wrote this letter makes it sound as if only an adolescent whim could lead one to choose childlessness.

Flawed Premise #3: The choice not to have a child is automatically considered somehow wrong or neurotic. The burden of proof is on the childless individual for explaining why he will not have a child, rather than the other way around. All too often, parents-to-be fail to ask themselves (or their spouses) questions like: What is the nature of having a child? How up to the job am I? How ready am I to do this? Do I want to do it?

Flawed premise #4: It is impossible to understand something without first-hand knowledge. In other words, one cannot consider one’s experiences with younger siblings (including babies) while growing up; one’s observations of friends/relatives who are raising children; one’s gaining of extensive knowledge available through the media about positive and negative experiences with raising children; all the experiences related (in books, over the media/Internet) by adults who grew up with parents who were not up to the job; and so forth. The premise that only first-hand knowledge can give you any level of understanding about anything is patently wrong.

Q: I often find the critics of the childless believe because they have children, their lives are of greater value per se over the childless, and they dismiss the independent, individual reasons why people choose not to have kids. They condemn such people as ‘self-centered’ or ‘selfish’ and believe that a life without children is somehow hollow.

Dr. Hurd: People mistakenly (and sometimes resentfully) consider selfishness the primary reason—and a bad one, at that—for not having children. First of all, being ‘selfish’—valuing your life, valuing your time, and valuing your right and responsibility to make rational choices which are objectively correct for you—is not bad. Self-interest is good, and utterly necessary, in order to live at all. Try to imagine five minutes of life—especially as a parent—without rational self-interest and the responsibility which must accompany it.

Secondly, a child benefits far more from a rationally selfish parent as opposed to a resentful, self-sacrificing one. A parent who has children for reasons of neurotic guilt, out of a sense of bizarre tribal duty to procreate—or perhaps for no reason at all (‘It’s just the right thing to do!’)—will be an inadequate or terrible parent.

To illustrate my point, note the contrast between selfish and selfless mentalities about having children.

The selfless parent thinks or feels: ‘I don’t really want to do this; or at least, I’m not sure. But I must do it. I have to take on this responsibility whether I like to or not.’ Exactly what kind of call to excellence can this self-imposed slavery be expected to inspire? What would you think, for example, of an individual who approached bridge engineering this way? Or piloting a plane? Would you want to drive over his bridge, or fly in his airplane? If not, then what kind of child do you think this sort of mentality might turn out?

Now consider the motivation of the self-interested parent: ‘I take this responsibility on by choice. I take it on for my own personal fulfillment, with the full understanding that the ultimate objective purpose of parenting is to help this little person become independent from me. I will pursue this task not as a duty, but with the excellence I would put into any other important endeavor.’

From the point-of-view of a child just coming into existence, ask yourself this: which motivation would you prefer your parent to have?

Q: I observe that these critics are almost invariably women. The worst of them probably had children, not because of any rationally selfish reasons, but because they believed they had a duty to do so. Particularly because their families expected them to, or simply because they are female and it is considered ‘unnatural’ not to have children and without them their lives would be ‘incomplete.’

Dr. Hurd: This is likely to be true, because anyone who pushes self-sacrifice has generally endured some level of it on his/her own—and as a consequence feels (again, with some resentment) that you should have to do the same.

If you disagree with me, you might reply that somebody with this attitude genuinely loves having children, and therefore feels everyone should do it. Not so. When people really love what they’re doing, whether it’s being a parent or any other major endeavor in life, they feel no need to impose it on anyone else. They feel passionate about the job they love, but they don’t expect everyone else to feel passionate about it too.

Also, any genuinely good parent—motivated by excellence rather than martyrdom, duty and sacrifice—would grasp the incredible level of responsibility that comes with being a parent. They would easily see and understand that not everyone could or should be up to the job. If they’re mediocre at being parents, and some part of them resents being a parent, they will more likely feel: ‘You should be doing this too!’ (Read: ‘Misery loves company!’)

As far as women are concerned, I suspect your generalization has some validity to it. This might be part of the ‘soccer mom’ phenomenon we see today in politics and voting trends, to name one example. According to the ‘soccer mom’ mentality, ‘society’—which in actuality means: everyone else, especially the most productive who earn the most money (and sometimes don’t have children)—should be forced, out of duty and at the point of a government gun, to pay for everyone else’s child care, education, child health insurance, and all the rest.

The practical result of this mistaken but widely held premise? Neither conservatives nor liberals can now be elected unless they subscribe to this ugly form of middle-class, ‘minivan socialism.’ [Witness Obama’s and Romney’s competition to win over the average American woman by promising to ‘take care’ of the middle class, whatever that means.]

With rational selfishness comes personal responsibility. With martyrdom and self-sacrifice comes a sense that everyone else must take care of you. Having children can be a wonderful, satisfying and rationally selfish experience. My experience from years of doing family counseling shows that, sadly, precious few parents approach it this way.

Because so many view parenting as a duty or sacrifice, they will sometimes feel compelled to force it onto you. ‘Why should I have to sacrifice?’ they wail, ‘while you get away with not doing so?’ This is the awful undertone within the USA Today column you cite.

Let’s hope this sort of mentality never manages to pass a law requiring everyone to have children whether they want to or not. Given today’s cultural and political trends (‘We’ve got to pass this or that law—for the sake of the children’), it’s not as far-fetched as you may think. We’ve already passed a law forcing people to buy health insurance. Can a law mandating reproduction be far behind? It’s not as crazy as you think. Anti-abortion laws are the right wing’s version of the tyranny the left has already given us.


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