Joseph Shaw

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How society creates challenges for large families at every turn – but why it’s still worth it

The financial disincentives to having children are bad enough. Let’s not create social challenges
Thu Dec 17, 2020 - 11:25 am EST
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December 17, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) —There has been a bit of chatter recently about the idea of ‘car seats as contraception’: the direct and indirect cost of children’s car seats, which were unheard of in my own childhood (was it really so long ago?) and are now required for older and older children, and take up so much space that parents of a growing family quickly have to transition to a huge car or indeed a minibus. A couple of researchers have actually done a study of the effect this has had in the USA. From the abstract:

We estimate that these laws prevented only 57 car crash fatalities of children nationwide in 2017. Simultaneously, they led to a permanent reduction of approximately 8,000 births in the same year, and 145,000 fewer births since 1980, with 90% of this decline being since 2000.

That’s a pretty vivid result, but it is just one factor in the economic disincentives to have children today. It is difficult to find larger homes: many big old houses are divided into flats. Air travel is ruinously expensive with a large family. No preference for married men with children to support is allowed in hiring or promotion, as it was in the past. And so on.

The car-seat issue is a consequence of the exaggerated risk-aversion of modern society, which can make looking after young children socially crippling. If they can’t walk or cycle on their own to an outdoor play area, you either have to accompany them, or not let them go. If everyone around you has hysterics if a small child goes close to a road-side or cliff, climbs a tree or clambers around on historic ruins, then you can find yourself adopting a parenting style which is not what you want for yourself or your children, or risk people ringing the police.

I’ve met people—and I’ve also read this online and in books—suggesting that parents shouldn’t bring small children to church. This issue has arisen in a new context with the coronavirus regulations: try explaining to a three-year old that he’s not allowed to come within six feet of non-family members. Parents who have three children at three-year intervals will have a child under five for ten years: are they supposed to not attend Mass as a family for a decade?

The financial disincentive to having children runs deep. It starts with compulsory education and universal pensions: children are transformed from eager helpers round the house, farm, and workshop, who’ll provide for you in your old age, into investments from which you’ll never see a financial return. This is why birth-rates fall so predictably when incomes rise in developing countries: it’s not really an issue of income per se, and the idea that countries which suppress birth-rates with contraceptive propaganda and compulsory sterilisations can thereby increase their economic output puts the cart before the horse. As a matter of fact birth rates are rising among wealthier people in rich countries, since those people can afford them—children can even be a display of wealth. 

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There’s not much we can do about the underlying economic factors. What we can and should do is avoid making things worse in our own communities by piling on the social costs of having children. We must let children be children—especially other people’s children. We must let them take reasonable risks and be prepared to put up with a reasonable amount of disturbance. 

We should also resist making social life revolve around events which parents can’t attend without their children. It is difficult to find a baby-sitter prepared to look after more than three children for a day, as well as extremely expensive. Wedding invitations which exclude children are downright strange: what does the couple think marriage is for? If you can’t cope with small children on your wedding day, are you ready to get married?

But I shouldn’t say that. People not being “ready” for marriage is one of the plagues of our times, along with divorce. The two things go together. A mental image of marriage based on an ego-centric conception of self-fulfilment leads people both to delay it unreasonably, because everything has to be perfect for “my special day”, and to divorce, when the married state itself turns out to be imperfect. 

In reality marriage is a joint venture, where we find self-fulfilment in what we do and suffer together: and above all in having children. That is why being unable to have children is a sadness, and having many children a blessing. With all due regard for careful discernment, we should prefer to start early, and be determined to see it through, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health. Modern society may add to our difficulties, but it cannot subtract from our sanctification.


  economics, large families

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