From now on, when people ask me why I don’t have kids, I’m going to tell them that I’m saving the world. A 2009 Oregon State University study shows that having children is one of the biggest threats to the environment and that NOT having children (or at least not having more than two) is actually more environmentally friendly than those funky looking light bulbs, electric cars, and backyard composters that we’re all using now in our effort “green-ify” our lives.
Which leads me, inelegantly, to an unpopular topic: population control. I know, I know…it’s a touchy subject. Many people wince at the thought of government-mandated sterilization or China’s one-child policy. But why, in the midst of the Green Revolution, are we so opposed to the one idea that might actually have a direct impact on the greater good? Invoking Marx’s spirit, I offer the following explanation: we’re against population control because we view our children as our property, and our property is a supposed symbol of our freedom; therefore, to take away the right to have children (or the right to have as many children as we want) is, in essence, taking away our property rights. And no good capitalist wants that.
Jonathan Franzen includes population control as a plot point in his newest novel Freedom as a way of stressing one of the main themes in the book: freedom isn’t free (however, not in the same jingoistic way that we’re accustomed to). Franzen’s point is that unbridled freedom comes at a cost – to our morals, our dignity, our safety, our economy, and our environment. He uses population control, as opposed to gun control, taxes, or some other “freedom” issue, as the means to his end because it represents a common ground for both the Left and Right alike: neither side wants the government infringing on its childbearing or childrearing rights.
In fact, this very issue just came up in one of my classes. My students just finished reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, and they were excited, both positively and negatively, by the idea that, in Herland, there is no such thing as individualized childrearing; the entire community raises the children. For those who were turned off by this collectivist policy, I asked why. Many of my students answered, “If I had the child, the child is mine. I wouldn’t want anyone else telling me how to raise it.” That sounds about right for the American way: what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours, and my things and your things will never overlap, cross paths, or affect one another.
(Right. And my neighbor’s house – the one with the porch that looks like a never-ending yard sale and a lawn that has obviously never seen a mower – is his too. And, in keeping up with the great code of individualism, I won’t say anything to him even though my home’s value might be affected because of Country Joe’s House of Horrors next door. Still, it’s his house, and no one can tell him how to keep it.)
The difference here is that while my neighbor’s house might be ugly, I can always move. But I can’t move away from your children. Your children will always be there. And, not only can’t I restrict how many children you have – even if it will benefit the environment, farming, world hunger issues, energy issues, housing, development, etc. – I also can’t tell you how to raise your children. I’ll always have to keep my mouth shut as they scream at you in our local grocery store, ride their Big Wheels out into the middle of our busy street, or throw rocks at the parked cars on our block, because you don’t want me telling you how to raise your kids – because they’re yours, not ours.
In this country, freedom means raising your kids any way that you damn well please with no regard for how that might impact the rest of humanity. American kids have become little princes and princesses who can do no wrong, who cannot fail at anything, and who don’t have to say “good morning” to their teachers.
Just because I’m not a mom doesn’t mean I’m not a person. I have had thirty years’ experience being a person on this planet. If your kid is not cleaning up his crayons, I should be able to call him out. And, being that your kid is going to spend more time with the general public than he is going to spend with you, I actually think that this gives other people more of a right to intervene in your child’s life.
Most of my friends and family are really good about me offering my opinions (and reprimands) to their children. However, I have been the object of scorn in the past. On a late fall afternoon, a friend and I were strolling in Rittenhouse Square. To my right, I saw a girl, age three or so, walking along a concrete wall that was about three feet high off the ground and about a foot wide across. Her mother, back turned, was engaged in a conversation with another woman. My friend and I slowly started to walk toward the little girl because, at three years old, she wasn’t looking totally steady on that wall. Right as we were walking by the little girl, one foot awkwardly crossed over the other, and she fell sideways off the wall. But I was right there, and grabbed her arm before she hit the ground. She dangled from my hand like a rag doll. The mom’s friend shrieked as she saw the child suspended in air. The mother ran over, scooped up the child, and glared at me – hard. “She almost fell,” I mumbled at the mother. The woman turned her back on me and stormed away. Over her shoulder, the little girl waved to me, and all I could think is, “Next time, I guess I’ll just let you fall.”
How could that woman get mad at me for helping to keep her daughter from becoming Humpty Dumpty? Even if seeing a stranger holding her child’s arm was initially disconcerting, there should have been a moment of regrouping whereupon she realized I was helping her child. At that point, a “thank you” would’ve sufficed. But, what really gets me is that I think she was mad because I was there, and she wasn’t. Me catching her daughter falling off that wall apparently says something about her mothering skills that she didn’t want called into question. The funny thing is that I wasn’t even judging her for not being right there. I know that mothers get distracted – they’re human! Who can keep an eye on a child at all times? In fact, I think all people, especially mothers, could use someone to help them out when their backs are turned. But, now I am judging her because what that little girl experienced is what too many kids these days are experiencing – my parents are the only ones allowed to intervene in my life in any way, and, therefore, they are the only ones I should listen to. This is what makes a teacher’s jobs so hard – it’s difficult to be an adult authority figure in a child’s life when that child has been brought up to think that his/her world at home is the only one worth paying attention to.
Hillary Clinton once said that it takes a village to raise a child; and while I’m sure her village was comprised of housekeepers and au pairs, she wasn’t wrong. That we don’t see the benefit of such a communitarian ideology, that we’re not ALL responsible for kids growing up with manners, values, and expectations, and that we’re typically thinking only of ourselves, and not the collective, when we bring kids into the world, are all reasons why we might have way more to worry about than just our carbon footprint in future. This whole individualistic ideology, from home ownership to childrearing, will be the downfall of the nation and any other nation that decides to follow in our footsteps. The world is not run by an individual; it’s the GROUP that makes all things possible.
Therefore, on behalf of the group, I’m proposing a parental Cap and Trade policy of sorts. Cap and Trade is all about leveling things out. Since people without kids are not being rewarded for their selflessness, I propose that, as a trade off, they should have a more direct presence in the childrearing of everyone else’s kids. Under this plan, parents will have give to up their private ownership rights and let the rest of us get more involved in their children’s lives beyond the gift level. Parents will be required to let us play with their kids, talk to them, teach them, and, yes, even reprimand them when called for. We will mandate that parents are required to take their children to OUR childless houses at least once every other month so their children will learn how to sit through long car rides, deal with boredom from lack of immediate stimulation, master the stairs without a railing, nap in someone else’s bedroom, navigate sharp edges and open electric sockets, and sit, not jump, on the furniture. Through this policy, children will see that other people besides their parents have rules, and that just because they’re not the same as mom and dad’s rules, doesn’t make them any less significant. Most importantly, children will start getting comfortable with the uncomfortable, and nothing more than this will teach them adaptability and resiliency.
Now, some childless folks may hem and haw at this plan. I mean, many of you are childless by choice and don’t want to be involved in raising anyone else’s kids. To you, I will use the same adage that has been thrown at non-voters for years: “You can’t bitch if you don’t participate.” So, if we participate in the Cap and Trade, we will have more grounds to bitch, but, hopefully, our participation will give us less to bitch about. See, it’s a win, win for everyone!
In all seriousness, whether you’re childless or a member of the Quiverfull movement, we’re all in this together. We should want to help our friends, families, and neighbors raise their children, and, in turn, they should not rebuff, but welcome our help. In other countries, it is customary for relatives, friends, and townspeople to join together in childrearing. Obviously, much of this is because of available resources, but it has just as much to do with ideology. In other places, children are not property. They belong to the group because one day they will be a part of that group. If we’re going to overpopulate the world, deplete our resources, and destroy our environment, then let’s at least do it with smart, social, and loving creatures.