Recently, while at a local snow park, I saw a luxury SUV with a decal of a baby and the proclamation, “Huge Financial Burden on Board”. While the child exiting the vehicle appeared well-loved and cared for, I had to wonder about the mindset of an adult who announces to the world her negative feelings about her own offspring’s impact on her finances. Clearly, she believed the message was a clever and ironic—and socially acceptable—reference to the ubiquitous “Baby On Board” signs of the Eighties. And certainly, with all the horrors perpetrated against children on a daily basis in our society, placing a snarky sticker on the back of your car is a pretty tame action.
But the message got me thinking: what happens when a child realizes the meaning of such a sticker? Will he see the humor in it? Will she feel guilty for being such a burden to her parents? Will he feel privileged that they crunched the numbers and grudgingly decided that having a child was barely worth more to them than whatever else they might have spent their money on? Will she wonder if any of her siblings were aborted to pay for him?
I have zero knowledge, of course, about this particular family’s circumstances, but when such personal matters are placed on a public placard, it’s hard to overlook certain trains of thought.
There are many valid and pressing reasons—financial, physical or psychological—that a couple may choose to limit their family, and I don’t intend to address those here. My concern is about the reasons for having few children (or none at all) that have been loudly trumpeted in our society for many decades now. Whether we want them to or not, certain tropes have become a part of our subconscious landscape. Once women in the workplace became more common, a propaganda war against children seemed to ramp up, as corporations decided that double-income households should spend a bigger portion of that income on status-conferring possessions rather than on the next generation. Society as a whole were apparently infected by the upper-middle class model, trying to match the trust-fund life of enrolling their child in exclusive private schools, clothing him in designer brands, showering her with expensive toys, then sending said child to a prestigious college or university. And all while dining out regularly and vacationing at popular destinations numerous times a year.
This pattern sets an almost impossible standard for families who wish to survive on one normal income or welcome more than one or two children into their lives. The pervasive Neverland-mirror of social media exacerbates this situation by shoving comparisons at us and constantly stirring envy, even if we make conscious efforts to avoid it. In this environment, how can the average family expect to thrive if they have more than 1.9 kids?
What are the actual numbers on the cost of raising a child in the United States? Given how easily data can be manipulated or shaded by biases, the truth can be difficult to find. However, a recent article in Forbes, drawing on numbers from the USDA, estimates the average price tag of raising a child to age 18 is $284,570.00—not including college expenses. That is a truly daunting figure. However, there is an interesting aside in the article: “The higher a family’s income, the more it spends on a child, specifically education and miscellaneous expenses. The standard of living a child enjoys increases exponentially the greater the income of the parents.” The unacknowledged message here is that resources which could have sustained two or more children in a family, were instead concentrated on one—which suggests there are likely quite a few people who know how to live within their means and provide for larger numbers of children, but they choose not to. And those who support more on smaller resources don’t get much positive publicity.
The implication that more can be done with less also calls to mind anecdotal evidence that appeared in the news a few years ago regarding the consequences of China’s former “One Child Policy”. The term “Little Emperor Syndrome” appeared in the early 2000s to describe the sense of entitlement, among other psychological issues, beginning to appear in a generation of spoiled only-children. And the phenomenon was not unique to China. A 2009 article in Daily Mail sounded the alarm regarding unprecedented numbers of only children, and wondered what the cultural implications might be. Would these children grow up self-centered and unable to work in groups, having had no opportunity to navigate the sometimes rough-and-tumble, sometimes complex and nuanced culture of a larger family?
Recently, some experts weighed in on the issue and a number of them assured us that the data indicates there will be no harm to speak of; that is, the benefits of an (intentional) single-child household more than balance out the negatives. But to argue that the upcoming generations of only-children will be well-adjusted seems overly optimistic to me, given the rampant self-absorption and mindless cruelty one sees among young people on social media and the sense of entitlement so openly on display on college campuses.
Despite this, the blatantly consumerist message of the aforementioned SUV decal seems quaintly outdated and old-fashioned. Another worldview is being pushed through the culture, one that loudly rejects shameless materialism. But it also brands kids—and even pets—as beings who consume more than their fair share of resources and that contribute to the destruction of earth itself. In large swathes of American society, the pendulum of crass consumerism has swung past the mid-point and is fast approaching the zealotry of “moderation-to-save-the-planet”, which is coincidentally not unmixed with a heavy dose of politics. “Having kids is terrible for the environment, and that’s why I’m not having any,” is a typical headline inspired by dire predictions of overpopulation and rapidly depleting resources.
The irony of ending future generations in order to save future generations is not lost on many of these advocates; in fact, the contradiction is flaunted as a perverse form of self-sacrifice, and often served up with an unmistakable air of intentional fatalism. But these are the same hoary scare tactics that were popular fifty years ago—never mind that researchers now have five decades more of data to study and can convincingly argue for the opposite conclusion, as David Harsanyi does: “Have lots of children, it’s good for the planet.”
These conflicting narratives—materialism and environmentalism—demand that modern couples choose very different paths: either be enticed and trapped by a consumerist lifestyle or else be shamed into reducing their planetary impact by reducing their family. It’s clear that the losers in both scenarios are the same: children. For they are regarded as unwelcome and burdensome in both world views, and the resultant mindsets doubtless contribute to the plunging birthrates in Western nations.
But looking beyond the hype and the clickbait coming from all sides, it is possible to spot some genuine positive societal trends. For instance, moderation is an important habit and it’s wonderful to see that over the last decade or so a genuine spirit of frugality has arisen—especially among many younger people. This is a reaction not just to fears for the planet, but also a response to the oppressive influence of general wastefulness pushed by large corporate interests, as well as against economic fluctuations and instability.
In this age of the almighty stock market, impersonal banking systems, and the daunting digital economy, many people rebel by seeking simplicity, resiliency, and sustainability. They are looking to history and taking inspiration from America’s Pioneer past, the Depression era, and WWII generations. Youtube is thick with videos that teach people how to knit, sew or even ‘upcycle’—a catchy term for taking old clothing items and sewing them into completely new and different garments. The ‘lost’ arts of hand-crafts, carpentry, gardening, or food preservation, as well as many other skills, are no longer lost. They are becoming more mainstream, becoming an important part of the lives of many people on all points of the political spectrum.
I propose that when it comes to ‘reducing, reusing and recycling’, not many groups can touch the skills of good stewardship honed in large families. Mothers quickly learn how to reduce food wastage, mend, and to buy durable clothes and shoes to be passed from child to child, or shared with the community. Fathers teach kids how to repair bicycles or small engines. Most thrift stores offer a surprising array of high-end clothing and cookware, for a fraction of the cost of the department stores. And yard sale treasure hunts can result in unexpected finds that sometimes border on the providential. In addition to allowing folks the chance to find older items that are actually superior to their new counterparts, these experiences can be more fun than visiting a new retail store, providing lessons on how to recognize quality craftsmanship, or how to refurbish an item that has potential and is worth preserving rather than being tossed into a landfill.
Education and career paths are other areas in which ingenuity and creativity can flourish, if parents are willing to think outside the usual boxes. Kids who learn how things actually work, how to read recipes or patterns, how to use tools, to sew and construct items from scratch, who know how to preserve and repair things, are on their way to learning marketable skills. As the economy continues to reshape itself in answer to forces both predictable and unexpected, skills such as these will become more in demand, and may even provide ample opportunities for those on the alert and ready to take chances. These may not be the most glamorous jobs—but glamour is both overrated and unsustainable.
During the pandemic, homeschooling rates have necessarily skyrocketed. As bricks-and-mortar institutions slowly begin to re-open around the country, a significant number of families are choosing to continue their children’s education at home, and not just via online public schools—they wish to become true do-it-yourselfers. Unfortunately, these newcomers to the homeschool scene are often confused about where to begin and can become overwhelmed by their options, believing they must commit to an expensive suite of curricula. They don’t realize how many inexpensive or even free resources are available to homeschoolers these days. If you are an experienced homeschooler reading this, consider putting your expertise at the service of a newbie family by connecting through a local support group. And if you’re a newbie, don’t hesitate to join a group and ask for guidance.
I think it’s well past time for families who have ever felt defensive or embarrassed under the disdainful, disapproving eyes of judgmental strangers, and of our hostile society at large, to stand up for themselves and be more outspoken about the valuable contributions children—singly or in groups—can make to the economy and the culture. We need to let all children know they are welcomed, without counting the cost. Because, rather than being “Future Financial Burdens,” they are simply the future itself.
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