by Bruce Frohnen
One of the few relatively good things about listening to National Proletarian/Public Radio is the insight it can give one into why our culture is dying. Case in point: a recent story on All Things Liberal/Considered on a study regarding whether children “make us happy.” It seems that researchers asked a group of working men and women with children about a long list of activities. Respondents were to rank these activities according to how happy they were when “doing them.” Spending time with the kid(s) ranked quite low—somewhere around vacuuming.
Being an “unbiased news source,” NPR’s reporter didn’t just leave it at that, or conclude that Americans (all of whom, apparently, belong to double-income spousal arrangements) are better off not having kids. No, the reporter “dug deeper” and found that we shouldn’t simply concentrate on the activities themselves. You see, (surprise, surprise) people somewhat misreport what makes them happy. For example, everybody, it seems, listed having sex near the top of their enjoyment list, but most actually engaged in the activity rather infrequently (too tired from all that working, perhaps). The optimistic upshot of the story was that children actually do make “typical” Americans happier than they otherwise would be—mostly. That is, small children (infants and toddlers) are a lot of trouble, and teenagers are frustrating, so they don’t “make us happier” than we otherwise would be. But, looked at “holistically” as part of sustained, daily life, there is a rather nice period, when the kids are in elementary school, during which having the little ones around adds to these “typical Americans’” overall happiness.
Let’s unpack that message a bit, shall we? During those seven or eight years when the kids are out of the house and safely deposited in the schools/daycare centers, we can enjoy our off hours (you know, when both of us aren’t pursuing money and status) and we can enjoy watching them play ball, dance, or whatever, not worrying about diapers or keeping them off drugs and out of the drug rehab/abortion clinic. So, during these specific years children make us happier (unless, one assumes, they have a disease, disorder, or other manufacturer’s defect). This actually sounds about right as the pleasure/pain calculus engaged in by typical working couples in the United States. If you have one child (maybe, on the outside, two) then you probably will have a good chunk of positive utils (units of pleasure) making it worthwhile to “purchase” the consumer item marked “child.” Clearly, though, when you get to three (maybe even two), you will have the problem of one kid spoiling the “happy” years by pooping in a diaper or getting pregnant.
It is unsurprising, if not inevitable, that a nation filled with such shallow, selfish, and morally deranged people would be dying out; which of course we quite literally are, or would be if not for our high levels of immigration. Of course, as in all such areas of “progress” the Europeans are ahead of us. But we, too, are “voluntarily reducing our population,” officially bringing us to the point where such moral disorder is deemed virtuous. Our busy calculators of utils think of themselves as “good people” for “choosing not to have more children” because they are “saving the planet” from overpopulation. Virtue, from the pursuit of moral excellence in a life of self control and service to others, has been transformed into a marvelous mix of contraception, abortion, recycling and Prius-driving.
Of course, it hasn’t occurred to anyone in this equation—from the researchers to the reporters to the parents themselves—that treating a child as a consumer item might be morally wrong, or even that it might actually reduce the happiness one can find in that child, and in one’s life. We all know, if we’ve taken the trouble to actually raise our children, that they take a lot of time and effort, even when they are in those rather nice years in elementary school. Health issues, homework, and trips to lessons or practice aren’t “entertaining” in themselves, and they don’t go away in elementary school—though you can dump many of them on the school system, if you are that kind of person.
And, guess what? The toy marked “child” doesn’t always dance on command. Kids don’t come preprogrammed to “give happiness.” Well, in a way that’s not true. In my own children and in the children of others, I’ve always seen an immense, natural drive to give and receive affection. It is a beautiful thing to see children’s natural desire for human warmth. But I’ve also seen how this natural drive is stultified by warehousing—whether in school, daycare, or even “enrichment programs” when the parents have made it clear that the kids are just one part of a “happy” life—for those parents.
As a matter of fact, from what I’ve seen of the children of “professional” couples who stick them in school and daycare for most of their lives, they eventually learn not to want to make other people happy. Instead they grow up to be halves of two income couples who rate spending time with their own kids somewhere around vacuuming on the list of pleasurable activities. One should feel sorry for them, of course, because they have never been truly wanted for themselves. They have been so starved for genuine love rooted in their inherent human dignity as children of God, possessed of souls and requiring time, interaction, and guidance from hands-on parents who share their lives with them, that they have trouble recognizing love itself. There is a natural drive in our children to please those who are close to them, those who want to do what’s best for them, those who actually give them love and attention—not “quality time” but sustained attention. Kids who are at all loved want to give back that love. Sadly, our children are being “parented” out of their natural sociability.
This is not to say that a couple with fewer than three kids is somehow automatically morally depraved (my wife and I have only been blessed with two ourselves). But to engage in a cost benefit analysis to determine whether one has “room in my life” for a (or another) child is, frankly, selfish and rather creepy. It also is a recipe for a shallow, impoverished life for all concerned.
Children make a rotten consumer item, which is why they are losing out in the marketplace of self-centered pursuits. Or course, they also make marvelous people and a central part of a life that is infinitely more rewarding and filled with a happiness unknowable by the self-centered consumers we have become. But such a life takes time—lost and lots of time. And it is only possible if one’s own character is capable of producing and acting on the desire to put those kids first. Before career. Before one’s own hobbies. Before even what most of us think of as necessities, like nice, new cars. In the culture of death kids are items for which we choose to make room in our lives, or not, rather like pets. Not surprisingly, we don’t feel the need for all that many such items, or to spend all that much time with any of them. Then, of course, we end up wondering what the purpose is in our lives, why our lives on the slopes, at the beach, or wherever we spend the money we wrenched out of other people and the economic system in general, hasn’t made us “happy” in any lasting sense. There is a choice, however. When children are welcomed into a family as gifts from God, and raising them is welcomed as the true purpose of a family, and a central purpose of each of our own lives, they bring a joy that is simply unknowable for the util-counting couples.
Aristotle wrote that happiness is our true goal. He also observed that no one should be judged to be happy until he is dead. Only at the end of our lives can we look back and determine whether, on the whole, we have led a rewarding life. And counting utils, or racking up toys, wealth, and even “good experiences,” makes for a character that is incapable of experiencing real and lasting happiness.
Bruce P. Frohnen is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is the author of Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism: The Legacy of Burke and Tocqueville, The New Communitarians: The Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and editor (with George Carey) of Community and Tradition: Conservative Perspectives on the American Experience.