Are You Morally Bad If You Don’t Have Kids?

There he goes again. Pope Francis, that is.

First, he endears himself to American “progressives” by semi-tolerating homosexuality and blasting capitalism.

Now he’s morally condemning people who choose not to have kids. He recently said,

You can go explore the world, go on holiday, you can have a villa in the countryside, you can be care-free … it might be better — more comfortable — to have a dog, two cats, and the love goes to the two cats and the dog. Is this true or is this not? Have you seen it? Then, in the end this marriage comes to old age in solitude, with the bitterness of loneliness.

Pope Francis has obviously not met people with grown kids who have sorely disappointed them. He seems to assume that merely having children — any children, regardless of the grown adults’ characters, choices or actions — is an antidote for loneliness.

Not true. Some of the loneliest people you’ll ever meet are people in loveless marriages. The same principle applies with one’s grown children. Just because they exist doesn’t mean you feel visible to them. Even if you do, getting old — losing one’s spouse, losing one’s ability to drive, losing the full functioning of one’s senses, or even one’s brain — can be highly difficult for a whole host of reasons grown children cannot solve.

Interestingly, the Pope tries to motivate people to have children for selfish reasons. “If you don’t have children, you’ll be lonely in old age.” This is a selfish case for having kids. But the Pope’s whole intention here — as with most moralists — is to condemn people for selfishness. “Don’t be selfish. Have children!”

A bit contradictory of the Pope, don’t you think?

Of course, people who try to motivate via self-sacrifice always run up against this brick wall. In the iron-fisted reality of confronting daily life, self-preservation is what it’s all about. If you found yourself on a desert island after a plane crash or boat wreck, it would be all about self-preservation. In that context, it would be an ethics of self-preservation — or certain death.

In most of normal life, especially in the twenty-first century, the quest for self-preservation is more subtle; yet just as pressing. Today, self-preservation is about making choices involving your lifestyle, including the very significant decision about whether (or when) to have children, and how many to have.

The Pope, like a lot of people, feels uneasy with people having this choice. Wherever he might stand politically (and we already know he dislikes economic freedom), he certainly wishes to inspire guilt in people in order to foster a feeling of compulsion to have children. In that respect, he’s a good old fashioned Pope. At the same time, he’s a bit of a modernist in that he appeals to self-interest: “You’ll be lonely in old age if you don’t have children.”

I’ve heard people say, “If you don’t have children, nobody will take care of you in old age.” What makes you assume that your grown child will be able or willing to do so? The world I see is one dominated by the entitlement mentality. The politics of this are well known, but that’s merely the surface. In the day to day life of real families everywhere, you’re finding grown kids unwilling or unable to fully (or even partially) take care of themselves.

When I first trained as a family therapist in the late 1980s, you almost never saw this phenomenon other than the case of a drug addict sponging off his parents. But nowadays it’s commonplace — maybe not the norm, but still not unusual — to find grown kids in their 20s or 30s who demand or in some other way depend on their parents (even grandparents) for basic expenses.

I’m leaving aside temporary issues such as a divorce, a business failure or working towards college/graduate school; I’m talking about a chronic dependence, fueled by a sense of entitlement, along with a profound sense of anxiety (“I can’t take care of myself but we’ll never say it aloud — I’ll guilt you into giving me money instead!”) I’m talking here about the difference between someone who temporarily needs family help and who perhaps reluctantly takes it, as opposed to someone who sees that help as a basic, natural right to be provided on a continuing basis.

What about the absurdity of being lectured to by a man committed to celibacy — who will never have children — regarding the virtue and requirement to have children? Does he know what it’s like to be a parent? Won’t he be lonely and bitter in old age since he’ll never have children? If not, why is he so superior to the rest of us, and why does his one-size-fits-all prescription apply to everyone but himself?

I recognize that most people want to have children, and most people will always want to have children. That’s fine. But if I were a child (and we all have been one at one time), I’d want my parent to be interested in doing so. “Selfless” means you have no interest in the matter; if anything, you’re doing it precisely because you don’t want to do it. I wouldn’t want to be born into a context where someone is having a child because some old bachelor has guilted them into doing it. I’d want them to have me because they want to create a life, and help that life actualize itself into self-responsible, intelligent existence.

It has been my observation that the parents most qualified for the job are those who really want the job in the first place. They usually possess a sense that they’ve done most of want they want in their youth, that their career or “job security” is more or less on the right track, and they’re really into the purposeful activity of raising a child right — that is to say, towards independence, maturity and adulthood. This is not to imply that people who get pregnant by accident, and do their best to rise to the occasion, do not ever do so. You have a wide variety of cases, I realize, and we should not oversimplify as the Pope has done.

Raising a child with the right attitude is an accomplishment just as other things — writing a book, getting a medical degree, starting a successful business — all represent accomplishments. Done intelligently, it is honorable and productive work. People who engage in having children just because “it’s the thing to do” are not nearly so equipped to take on the massive responsibility intelligent child-rearing requires. Yet it’s this very unreasoned, unenlightened attitude about childrearing that the Pope (intentionally or not) encourages in his moralism.

And yes, I recognize there are neurotic reasons as well as healthy reasons for personally wanting to have children. The neurotic reasons are ones of wanting to be needed. When you perpetually need to be needed, you will foster a young adult who perpetually needs and even feels entitled. That’s a lot of what’s happening today. Parents-to-be are well-advised to introspect on their true motives for having a child before doing so. Wanting — depending, in a way — on that child’s existence and neediness in order for you to feel useful, visible and important: These are not good reasons to have children, and they’ll come back to bite you as the child inevitably grows into young adulthood and both needs and wants to pull away from you.

The root of this whole issue is the answer to this question: Is your life an end in itself? Is your life your responsibility and your decision about how to lead it — including whether to have children, or not?

I think we all know the Pope’s answer. But there’s another way — philosophically, speaking — to view life. Much depends on how you answer it.

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