We Need to Talk About Kids

By Mark Trodden | September 18, 2005 6:53 pm

This year’s Orange Prize was won by U.S. born and New York and London resident Lionel Shriver, for her seventh novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. The Orange Prize is a literary honor, for work by women, judged by women. As the prize website explains, “The Orange Prize for Fiction is awarded to the woman who, in the opinion of the judges, has written the best, eligible full-length novel in English.”

My current understanding of the novel is that it is about a mother trying to understand why her teenage son committed a high-school massacre and how much of his behavior is her fault. One of the reasons that this particular novel stirred up a great deal of popular interest is that it has been seen as a novel against children and as promoting the idea of not having them.

I should say that I haven’t read Shriver’s novel, although I’ve read several reviews and commentaries about it, but I’m about to go out to my local bookstore and purchase a copy. I’m particularly motivated to do this right now by a lengthy piece by Shriver in today’s Observer (the Sunday edition of The Guardian), titled No kids please, we’re selfish.

The central point of Shriver’s Observer article is that it just might be that there is something selfish about the choice not to have children and that this choice is going to affect the gene pool, the ethnic makeup of our societies and perhaps the entire future of civilization. As such, it represents something of a U-turn for Shriver. As she writes

Yet even as “Kevin” won the Orange Prize in July, when my role as poster-girl for “maternal ambivalence” jacked up yet another power, something strange was starting to happen. I sometimes departed from script. When a Sunday Times reporter (who clearly thought me a chilly, arrogant creep) asked if I didn’t think that declining to reproduce was essentially “nihilistic”, I piped readily, “Of course.” And when a reporter from Birmingham asked tentatively in a phone interview, “Wasn’t refusing parenthood a little … selfish?” I bellowed into the receiver, “Absolutely!”

The truth is, I had started to feel guilty.

Her new attitude is summed up by

I may not, for my own evil purposes, regret giving motherhood a miss, but I’ve had it with being the Anti-Mom, and would like to hand the part to someone else.

The article is very well written, thought provoking in many parts and funny in some places. However, I found the article deeply annoying overall. In my opinion, there are enough examples of ill thought out and overly generalized statements to damage the piece irreparably. However, what got to me most is the unsubstantiated conflation of small, deeply personal opinions and decisions with greater societal trends in the western world. This mixing of ideas is used to portray many people who decide not to have children, including Shriver herself, as (at the risk of hyperbole) atheistic, nihilistic, narcissistic hedonists.

Before I get into Shriver’s article a little, I’d better come clean about my position on all this. My wife and I are one of those couples which, although children are not absolutely ruled out, acknowledge that we currently find our lives highly enjoyable, challenging and fulfilling, and that it is therefore likely that we will ultimately choose not to have kids. I don’t consider this to be selfish at all; or, rather, no more selfish than a couple who want kids deciding to go ahead and have them. I certainly can’t say I’ve come across people (although I guess they might exist) who knew that they didn’t want children but who made a conscious decision that, for the good of society, they’d better go ahead and have them anyway.

My problems with Shriver’s newly modified attitude on all this are best explained with a few examples. The paragraph that I find most annoying has, of course, a germ of truth in it. However, it is its inherent generalizations and its underlying pop-spiritualism that damn the enterprise

I propose that we have now experienced a second demographic transition. Rather than economics, the engine driving Europe’s “birth dearth” is existential.

To be almost ridiculously sweeping: baby boomers and their offspring have shifted emphasis from the communal to the individual, from the future to the present, from virtue to personal satisfaction. Increasingly secular, we pledge allegiance to lower-case gods of our private devising. We are less concerned with leading a good life than the good life. We are less likely than our predecessors to ask ourselves whether we serve a greater social purpose; we are more likely to ask if we are happy. We shun values such as self-sacrifice and duty as the pitfalls of suckers. We give little thought to the perpetuation of lineage, culture or nation; we take our heritage for granted. We are ahistorical. We measure the value of our lives within the brackets of our own births and deaths, and don’t especially care what happens once we’re dead. As we age – oh, so reluctantly! – we are apt to look back on our pasts and ask not ‘Did I serve family, God and country?’ but ‘Did I ever get to Cuba, or run a marathon? Did I take up landscape painting? Was I fat?’ We will assess the success of our lives in accordance not with whether they were righteous, but with whether they were interesting and fun.

I really find this remarkably short sighted and misguided. The idea that our predecessors asked themselves more frequently whether they had a greater societal purpose needs a lot more backing up than I see here if I am to take it seriously. At this level it seems to me more reasonable that our predecessors were either frantically scrabbling to survive through famines, wars or natural disasters (unlike today, of course) or were mindlessly following any of a number of social superstitions (religions) that served many other less noble purposes than those ascribed to them by Shriver. In short, I’m only too glad that less people are asking “Did I serve God?”, since I think this is a needless distraction from our real, earthly problems.

I find it equally misleading to say that people nowadays give less thought to the perpetuation of lineage, culture or nation. I would say that multiculturalism has forced these issues to the fore in today’s world, in a way that they never were in the past. I realize that Shriver’s point is that individuals don’t seem to take these seriously, but I still don’t agree. Many childless-by-choice people I know have given real thought to these issues, and have made their decisions anyway. I don’t agree with Shriver that this makes them more selfish, just that they have made their peace with a different outcome than Shriver would like. It’s OK with them if the developed world becomes browner and more Spanish-speaking. If other people lived the way they do – trying to be happy, to allow others the freedom to be happy and to raise the quality of human life, not the quantity – I could live happily in that world.

As I mentioned, it is the sweeping application of personal decisions to society as a whole and the underlying spiritual fumblings that I find most annoying about this article. Here it is again:

My friends and I are decent people – or at least we treat each other well. We’re interesting. We’re fun. But writ large, we’re an economic, cultural and moral disaster.

There has to be something wrong when spurning reproduction doesn’t make Gabriella and me the “mavericks” that we’d both have fancied ourselves in our younger days, but standard issue for our age. Surely the contemporary absorption with our own lives as the be-all and end-all ultimately hails from an insidious misanthropy – a lack of faith in the whole human enterprise. In its darkest form, the growing cohort of childless couples determined to throw all their money at Being Here Now – to take that step-aerobics class, visit Tanzania, put an addition on the house while making no effort to ensure there’s someone around to inherit the place when the party is over – has the quality of the mad, slightly hysterical scenes of gleeful abandon that fiction writers craft when imagining the end of the world.

This is the kind of silly, unsubstantiated extrapolation that leads to the kind of sentence with which she chooses to end the article

When Islamic fundamentalists accuse the west of being decadent, degenerate and debauched, you have to wonder if maybe they’ve got a point.

Now, I don’t mean to completely besmirch Ms. Shriver. In this interview she comes across as intellectual, bright, witty, and, yes, very likeable. She is clearly a talented writer who thinks about and is prepared to tackle the large issues. And there are, indeed, many points in her article with which I agree wholeheartedly. For example

We encourage minorities of every stripe to be proud of their heritage – Jamaicans, Muslims, Jews – as well they should be. We don’t assume that if an immigrant from China cherishes his roots and still makes a mean moo shoo pork he is therefore bigoted toward every other ethnicity on the planet. So can Italians not champion Italianness? Or the British their Yorkshire pudding?

(particularly about the Yorkshire pudding). It’s just that I don’t really see this as something that isn’t happening. Italians seem to be fiercely proud of their culture and heritage (just ask my graduate students), and the British are just the same. In the U.S., patriotism and pride in “the American way of life” is all pervading. Americans have no excuse for not knowing what is good about their culture and society. Those who are choosing not to have kids are making an informed decision, not a careless one.

So what’s my point? Well, I and many other people I meet are making informed decisions not to have children. Yes, we are doing it because we like our lives, get great personal pleasure from them, and realize that children would change them immeasurably. But we’re not all using the extra time just to worry about being fat or to indulge in Bacchanalian orgies (although, man are those fun!). Some of us take part in volunteer work. Some of us send more of our disposable income (although I don’t like that phrase, since people with kids do choose to use their money on that when they decide to procreate) to charity. Some of us use our extra time to be involved in the community, in public science education for example.

Many of us have thought about and realize the implications of our decision for our lineage (my Dad has been sure to help me realize it), and for the ethnic and cultural makeup of society. But we’re not going to have kids just so our society can continue to be white and European. And, speaking personally, I’m not going to be swayed by any argument that invokes God as a higher reason to procreate.

I (and I think most of us who are childless-by-choice) don’t hate kids, and if you want them, I absolutely think you should have them. My friends who have children are, almost to a one, bringing up remarkable little people, who are a joy to be around, and who I think it is clear are going to be great assets to society. I happily pay huge amounts in taxes to help them and others in that choice.

Just try to keep the little ankle-snappers on a leash when I’m grocery shopping please.

  • http://world.std.com/~mmcirvin/ Matt McIrvin

    There is nothing more tedious than hearing the more extreme pro-breeding advocates and anti-breeding advocates argue with each other. Each camp has elaborate arguments about why the other one is destroying the world, and they can get amazingly mean. This goes on endlessly on LiveJournal for some reason.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I agree Matt. I haven’t looked there – guess I shouldn’t.

    I don’t think Shriver is really in either camp (I don’t even understand why they exist – it seems a personal decision to me). What pushed me to write this post was that I really didn’t like the extremely weak arguments that she presented. I felt like she was trying to push something and create controversy where there really wasn’t any – bootstrapping small personal feelings into an elaborate idea about society.


  • http://www.livejournal.com/~nardhelain Nardhelain

    I’m in the can’t have kids bracket (as opposed to the won’t have kids bracket), but even if I could have kids, I probably wouldn’t. Is there an element of selfishness in that? Maybe. But really, the deciding factor for me is that the world is rapidly going to hell in a handbasket and shows no signs of reversing course. I think it would be highly irresponsible to hand this mess to my hypothetical kids and tell them to just Fix It. And then there’s the whole overpopulation issue. Am I contributing to a dilution of the gene pool? Perhaps, but all the best genes in the world are worth precisely zilch if the Earth cannot support the people who carry them.

    So either way, we’re all looking out for the greater good. [/cynicism]

  • http://www.pyracantha.com Pyracantha

    You risk having fewer physicists because in my observation, being a physicist runs in the family, both mom and dad being physicists their kids take it up too. for instance the Curies.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2005/09/cft-and-tomato-soup-can.html Plato

    My son and daughter inlaw are in a position where they want children, but are having a hard time. They have learnt to talk openly about this predicament and we all share in the quest.

    All around them it seems, the ground is very fertile for such things, and while in this pursuate, grandchilden have been produced. We are very happy about this:)We also feel for our son and daughter in-law:)

    Now as I look at them as adults, I think what had been set in motion now that our job as parents had been to bring them to a point, and now let them live life as adults. Find their own ways.

    It is a extremely tuff job for mothers and fathers, and the commmitment is a real good decision maker with ramifications for life:)

    As long as it is done responsibly, what more could one have asked? A decision is a decision. Just know that “probabilties for these experience” are set up, once the decision is made. Introduces situations that you might not have come across to experience and deal with.

    This would set you “apart” choosing not to be parents because of the limiting education you might have had bringing them through the ages:) You accept this?:)

    You tend to learn a lot about what you bring with you from your own parents, as you pass on certain traits, responsibilties. This is not to say that we can not all learn about ourselves and we do.

    It does not have to be to complicated and you both have to want it.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Didn’t quite get all of that Plato, but certainly agree with the final comment.

  • Greg

    I don’t think deciding to have or not to have children is selfish… but certainly there are associated positions on public policy which can be selfish in one direction or the other. Some discussion by Dr. B here:


    I think the political undercurrent explains why discussion of this subject tends to get mean…

    Myself I tend to think that ‘overpopulation’ is a red herring. The impact of humanity on the environment comes from our failure to use sustainable technologies; this failure is amplified by the size of the population, but controlling population does not address the cause. As for food, the world is clearly able to produce enough food for a population much larger than what exists now; famine comes from war and the inequitable distribution of resources.

    I think that continued population growth may perhaps, somehow push us towards solving these problems, while population stagnation will not. That suggests that reproducing is helpful to the future of the Earth; but the connection is kind of indirect, and the direct actions that individuals take now towards solutions for our global problems are more important.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Excellent post.

    Nobody in their right mind would argue that what the world needs most is more people overall. The argument from intelligence — that smart people have a moral obligation to procreate, or else the world will become progressively dumber — is a little awkward and misguided; if “intelligence” is a non-adaptive trait, then so be it. (A little more complicated than that, but okay.) But the argument from ethnicity — that we should breed like rabbits to prevent our culture from being overrun — is both wrong and ugly. Especially when Anglo/American/European culture is hardly in danger of dying out — it’s taking over the world, and has already snuffed out various smaller cultures in the process.

    And the argument from selfishness — that childless couples are amoral hedonsists who only think of themselves — is just silly. Thinking about yourself means more than planning your next snorkeling vacation — it can mean making yourself a better person, and making the world a better place. And the number of people who have children for purely selfish reasons is, shall we say, substantial.

    Having children is neither inherently good nor bad. Tonight I went to an outdoor play that involved a lot of music and flashing lights, and the highlight was a tiny (preschool-aged) girl in the audience a couple of rows ahead of us who was dancing and swirling along with gleeful abandon. Kids can be great; but the choice about whether to have them is so obviously a value-neutral individual choice that you wonder why people on one side can’t just leave the others alone.

  • http://www.plambeck.org Thane Plambeck

    Excellent writing, as usual for this blog.

    Shriver’s article is yet another rehash of

    1) “All is vanity”

    combined with

    2) “Those Were the Days.”

    Step aerobics, trip to Cuba, landscape painting, ‘was I fat’ — Vanity

    ‘To be almost ridiculously sweeping: baby boomers and their offspring have shifted emphasis from the communal to the individual, from the future to the present, from virtue to personal satisfaction…’ — Those Were the Days.

    From these platitudinous principles, a person then juxtaposes some absurdly oversimplified dichotomy — here, it’s the question, Are Kids a Good Thing or a Bad Thing (For Me).

    It’s too bad a person has to wade through a lot of boring and superficial writing like Shriver’s on the web.

    There’s always Emerson.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2005/09/cft-and-tomato-soup-can.html Plato

    Kids can be great; but the choice about whether to have them is so obviously a value-neutral individual choice that you wonder why people on one side can’t just leave the others alone.

    As has been shown, the idea seems to percolate even when this is rationalized. So sometimes this nurturing manifests itself in the form of “children” and the urge to give life to another soul :) Sometimes this “emotive charge” resides deeply in a woman’s nature, and does not have the appropriate words, or is held back?

    YOur right though, it is a personal thing.

  • serial catowner

    It’s the obvious and logical progression in American society. After all, we decide what we can watch on television based on what’s “good for the children”. Most of us suppport public education even though we don’t have children in school. We’re not allowed to stare and point at a family with four children, even though most of us know we couldn’t even provide the proper care to four dogs, let alone four children.

    In fact, the only things we won’t do “for the children”are to provide them with a clean environment, universal healthcare, or a educational system that will suit them for an advanced technical society. Study question- which political party is the big roadblock here?

    Somebody needs to rethink the whole idea of what exactly is “selfish”, but fortunately there’s no big rush. The one thing we can be sure of is that we’re going to have more than enough people.

    Too bad we can’t say the same for the resources to support them.

  • http://afni.nimh.nih.gov/afni Robert the Red

    My wife and I choose not to have children. Who is being hurt by this selfishness?

    The non-existent children? This argument has no end, until a couple has so many children that the next one would suffer more horribly from poverty than would benefit by living. Based on how people in the poorest countries live and still choose have children, everyone in America in this generation should choose to have as many children as biologically possible (say 20 per couple), since those children will still be far richer than most people on the planet.

    Or society as a whole? But, if society benefits from people having more children, then society should pay. Something not done much here in America.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2005/09/cft-and-tomato-soup-can.html Plato

    Sometimes men rationalize very well and ignore the natural processes. Sort of like people who recognize very well the physics processes and are professors entitled, know very well there is a math at the basis that explains it. Even a professor wowan cannot ignore this, as nature itself, releases that emotive charge for them:)

    Had not one lived with them “in this light” then how would you know the emotional charge released could not caused havoc with them? Or that the “seasonal temperature” changes with age, provides for, intersting temperature flunctuations?

    Of course, if I was more blunt I would say mathematically ovulation( the process for new life) would express this loss for words sometimes, then, I might be challenged again for beng a man: )

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Sorry Plato, once again I can’t unravel your words. But I think everyone I’ve read here seems to think that if one feels biologically driven to have kids, one should probably have them. No argument there.

    On the other hand, if one doesn’t feel so driven, one shouldn’t feel pressure to do so anyway, or be made to feel apologetic about one’s way of life.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2005/09/cft-and-tomato-soup-can.html Plato

    I apologize for my wordy style of writing, and for any mispellings.I think in time, like explaining electricity, it comes clearer very soon(no question mark placed for added nudge for response[ fighting grammar] :)

    Sometimes the quest is for the deeper line of thought expressed (a poet?)as the one related, by Emerson link. The flow and delivery is a “creative developement” I like to think sometimes that speaks a closer truth about the reality. While we had dispensed with the mathematics, it had always laid at it’s very core.

  • Jennifer

    Mark, I really like this post because I appreciate anyone who thinks about whether or not to have children, no matter what they decide to do. In the town I grew up in you didn’t ask questions like these, you got married and had kids, period. I’d love to have kids, but it is not because I am biologically driven to do so (none of my female friends or relatives has felt this drive but I’ve been told it exists and can be quite strong – I’ve got a theory about that), it is because I’d love to bring up another human being, take care of them, watch them grow, and then learn how to let go. I love the whole process.

    I have a strange feeling that Shriver knows damn well it isn’t selfish to make the choice not to have kids, and that stronger arguments can be made that it is selfish to have them (in this day and age) but for reasons I don’t understand doesn’t say this (maybe not wanting to start an even bigger brouhaha). Anyway, great post, thanks…

  • http://catdynamics.blogspot.com Steinn Sigurdsson

    That was a good pointer Mark, and an article I’ll be reading.
    But, your reply has some of the same errors are Shriver – your counter-argument is basically that her argument is poorly reasoned and shallow, not whether it is correct or incorrect (or undecidable).

    This is one of these annoying situations where the decision of any one individual or pair is moral and locally neutral, but collectively the decisions matter and may not be neutral. Whether they then become moral depends on people’s conception of the root causes of “moral” values; in so far as they are short hand crib notes for globally adaptive behaviour, having kids may or may not be morally neutral (and may be good or bad morally depending).
    If you come from a small cultural group, the decision on whether to have children is important, it may be key in perpetuating the culture as the world homogenises.

    That these issues are larger collectively than the decisions of individuals is in fact reflected by the associated social arguments and reallocation of resources (and having kids is heavily subsidised by most societies, including the US, because it is vaguely recognised as a public good, not just a private decision).

    It is an interesting question, whether intelligence is adaptive or not. In the long run. One factor ought to be that intelligent beings should be introspective enough to adapt their behaviour to allow for both short term and long term prospects.
    The hard part, of course, is to correctly predict the optimal long term course.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I agree with you partly Steinn, but fail to see your issue with what I wrote. I think you’ve misread what I meant, although I wouldn’t have described it as a counter-argument in any case. My main point wasn’t that her argument was poorly-reasoned. This is why I went through a series of discussions of why I thought her writing was misleading and didn’t portray what I saw to be reality. I then tried to explain how I see the issue. My end point was that, practically, this is a non-issue that some people like to blow up into a large one. As a happy, balanced, childless-by-choice (for now, at least) person, I wish they’d just leave me alone.

    While it is undeniably true that global effects follow from local decisions, it just seems to me that, practically, everyone who is able either has or does not have kids because of a personal decision (not because they feel like they should in order to help or harm society). In this sense, I don’t see either choice as relatively more selfish. the overall effect might be important and it might not be. But I don’t buy the suggestion that there are significant numbers of people out there who don’t want to procreate, but who are doing it because it may help our, or their, society in some way.

    In short, it doesn’t make one moral if one makes a decision that someone else thinks is moral, but which you made purely for selfish reasons.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Kids can be great; but the choice about whether to have them is so obviously a value-neutral individual choice that you wonder why people on one side can’t just leave the others alone.

    Not arguing for or against this point, but historically, among most cultures, having children is not value-neutral; if “the pursuit of happiness” is the modern mantra, “have children” is the traditional one.

    Just like “pay your taxes” is seen as an obligation to society that most people don’t think a lot about in moral terms (as long as the taxes are not overly burdensome, at least), having children was and is seen as a similar obligation – to one’s family, tribe, culture, nation – in many societies.

    Finally, while it may not be politically correct to mention it, some members of religious groups believe that they can ultimately subvert democracy by becoming numerically significant, in part by conversions, but even more by having lots of children. If you want to defend your non-religious values, you will either need to subvert the religious beliefs of those children or bring up children of your own. (On the other hand, since this is a future event, and you’re not leaving descendants, perhaps it doesn’t matter to you at all :) )

  • citrine

    To for the widely held assumption that all (emotionally and physically) healthy women are biologically driven to have children, I offer myself as a counter-example. I had a fabulous childhood, was doted upon by two sets of grandparents, by relatives and teachers as well as by my parents. But I feel no biological imperative to have any of my own. I LOVE kids – other people’s kids. :) (And I babysat for two years of grad school, to supplement my miniscule stipend.)

    My personal attitude towards babies (and marriage as well :)) is one of “if it happens, I’ll deal with it”. This is not a cavalier/ irresponsible statement. To the contrary, I’ll put a lot of thought and effort into these aspects of life – IF they take place. My current life is fulfilling in its multi-dimensional complexity, and I just don’t get the people who tell me what I “should” be feeling.

  • janet

    Speaking of being a-historical, let’s not forget that throughout human history there have been some arguably very “selfish” reasons for people to have children:

    1. They wanted to have sex, but there was no reliable birth control.
    2. Kids can be put to work at a pretty early age, especially in an agricultural society, or an industrial society that allows child labor. In fact, throughout most of history, children have been seen as economic assets, not (as they’re now seen in the West, especially in the middle classes) as economic drains.
    3. Fathering a lot of children has often been seen as a sign of power (potency, virility, control).

    Birth rates tend to drop when the social status of women improves. Hmmm…. Wonder what that could be about?

    During the first weeks of my first pregnancy, when I was thrilled beyond measure (not to mention relieved that it has been relatively easy to get pregnant, given that I was 37 at the time), a canvasser came to my door fund-raising for a women’s health clinic I’d given money to in the past; though they provide many services, they are known as an “abortion clinic.” I gave her a donation, and after she left I thought “wow, I’m glad the pregnancy hasn’t changed the way I feel about that.” I’ve spent much of the last five years pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or trying to adopt; my husband and I have gone through the painful, no-win situation of deciding to abort because of a major birth defect (whatever you decide, a good chunk of the people you meet will think the decision was selfish); I am finally expecting my first child at the end of this year. And all I can say is that I’m damned glad that we went through all of this for our own reasons, and I would never wish any of this on someone who didn’t really want to have a baby.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Thanks for sharing such important insights and perspectives with us janet. It must have been a painful time for you, which makes what you have to say even more compelling. Best wishes,

  • Ron

    As either a counterpoint or confirmation of the tedium of the debate, some of it is quite humorous. Consider the table at http://www.vhemt.org/biobreed.htm#instinct

    Why Breed?

    Reasons given: Need help on farm or in family business.Real reasons:   Too cheap to hire help. Child labor laws inconvenient.Alternatives:    Mechanization gives faster return on investment.

    Reasons given: I love babies.Real reasons:   Short-sighted view of reality. Babies soon turn into children, then adults. Alternatives:    Infant care work is available.

    Reasons given: Our economy needs young workers to replace retired workers.Real reasons:   Willing to sacrifice offspring to gods of National Economy. Alternatives:    Automation reduces need for wage slaves. Consider rights of unconceived to stay that way.

    Reasons given: Procreation has traditionally been a source of personal empowerment for women.Real reasons:   Feels powerless. Desires power and respect society appears to give to mothers and withholds from others.Alternatives:    Mothers get more lip service than respect. Picking up family’s slack is not empowering. Seek self-defined sources of power.

    Reasons given:I do not want to deny my kids (who do not exist yet) the joy of existence.Real reasons:   Ignoring lack of joy in existing children. Alternatives:    Promote existence of joy rather than imagining joy in mere existence.


  • http://catdynamics.blogspot.com Steinn Sigurdsson

    It is hard to discuss these issues without people feeling that the argument becomes personal, but the issue may still be discussed.
    To take a stupid comparison – most of us would feel free to discuss people’s choice in buying cars, and whether people should buy cars, or particular types of cars, and whether society generally or through government in particular should try to influence peoples’ car buying habits.
    But, long term, the distribution of individual choices in having and raising kids influences all of us at least as much as whether people are choosing to buy SUVs.

    So, some people really want kids, some really do not want kids, and some people are ambivalent and will take whatever happens (for the record, I have kids and do not drive an SUV…): BUT, it is undeniably true that people do not make these choices in vacuum, they are influenced by their social and economic environment. People have kids because of peer and family pressure; people choose not to have kids based on economic incentives or lack of social support.
    In fact, within academia, there is significant peer pressure and economic pressure on reproduction, so this is not a hypothetical situation.
    And, within recent memory, individual people in western Europe made a deliberate choice to have children as a matter of centrally directed social policy. A lot of people also make decisions about reproduction based on personal religious beliefs, and because the organised religion they belong to provides social pressure to do so. – But, childlessness is not an atheist issue. Nor is is a sociobiological issue at the naive level – although it can become so if too few, or too many, people decide for locally optimal reasons to have kids.

    So what? Well, one thing people should bear in mind when they make decisions is that what they do does affect others, and this includes their decisions to have children, or not. This does not mean that social considerations should be dominant, nor does it provide an argument for what the decision ought to be; it just means that, as with most other decisions by individuals, there is a social impact and rationally it ought to be factored in to the decision making.
    Ultimately people do as they please, but I think the “buy an SUV” comparison suggests why there is room for discussion about the issue.

  • janet

    Mark — I hesitated to bring up my history because the termination, in particular, can be such a conversation-stopper. I decided to go ahead partly because so many women like to tell quasi-conversion stories about how their whole outlook on life changed after they got pregnant, and bring these stories to discussions about choosing (or not) to have children. I’ve learned a lot in the last few years, and I’ve changed, but I haven’t experienced a fundamental break with the person I was before.

    Interesting points, Steinn. Another more direct parallel, balancing individual choice with social consequences, is with breastfeeding. Whether to breast or bottle feed is an individual decision, and people have lots of good reasons to breastfeed, or not. But there’s a clear public health benefit to promoting breastfeeding, including encouraging acceptance of public breastfeeding, because it’s pretty clear that if women can’t breastfeed in public, they won’t keep doing it for long. This is a very sensitive subject, because nobody likes to be lectured or guilt-tripped. People can get very passionate on all sides of the issue and it can be hard to express an opinion other than “it’s an individual decision and nobody should question it” without someone getting offended.

  • citrine

    I’ve learned a lot in the last few years, and I’ve changed, but I haven’t experienced a fundamental break with the person I was before.


    This is good to know. One of the worries I have about getting pregnant is whether some hormonal shift would occur in my body making me drastically change (for the worse) from the person I am now. I like to think of myself as a well-thought out, pretty rational individual who also happens to be caring and patient, especially with kids. After all these years of honing my INTJ persona and curiosity about the universe I do not want to become someone who makes decisions based on hormonal fluctuations!

  • Jack

    I think that Ms Shriver is doing the projection thing. Like so many people, she is fearful of having kids, but also fearful of not having them, and instead of facing the fact that making this decision is one of life’s greatest challenges and that it can only be made on a personal level, she projects these [perfectly understandable] fears onto some kind of “global citizen” or even “cosmically spiritual” plane. It’s much easier to make the fateful decision if you can feel that your ethnic group, or the whole human race, or the spiritual plane will console you if it turns out that you made the wrong choice.

    This is why I disagree with the SUV comparison. I can see that having a nice car can be deeply satisfying; it appeals to the reptilian brain or whatever you call it in a way that it is futile to deny. But SUVs are not “nice cars”, they are cars for fearful people who, in addition, have ABSOLUTELY NO TASTE! Now if they put that money into a Porsche Cayman, that would be a different matter… :-)

    Anyway, to quit fooling: I see lots of people who, if they were allowed to admit it, absolutely hate their kids and bitterly regret having them. I also see people whose lives seem to them an abyss of futility because they didn’t go forth and multiply. The stakes could not be higher, so you can’t really blame the unfortunate Shriver for not wanting to face this game……

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I pretty much agree with you Jack. However, just one clarification (not necessarily for you, but perhaps for people who might read your comment more literally than I did): I’m not blaming her for not wanting to face the game. Rather, I’m blaming her for getting in my face about her personal decision. The stakes are undoubtedly high, but very personal. When one writes an article in The Observer about this issue, and takes such a stance, one is very much open to criticism.

  • spyder

    wow, a rather surprising discussion from so many people who apparently don’t have children, yet (i have known many couples, who, for at least two decades, chose to not have children, and then made the decision in their late middle age period to do so and are enormously happy). I would like to suggest that there are some aspects of our culture that have had detrimental affects on the welfare of children, and have been overlooked in this topic thread (although Jack alluded to them in his last paragraph).

    First–we need to encourage conscious conception and teach it. Consciously engaged in the process of creating new life empowers those involved to be prepared and to embrace the role of parenting and all of its responsibilities. Too many children are born out of behaviors between consenting(and married) adults that led to “mistakes” and in many ways, unwanted children. The choice to not have children generally takes more effort and attention, than the lack of choosing to have them, or simply ignoring the possibility.

    Second–we live in a culture that has an enormous void of parenting knowledge. The vast majority of parents learned their parenting skills from their own experiences as children. Arun mentioned above that various religious constitutencies are pro-actively engaged in increasing their populations. They also provide a valuable service to their parishioners through programs of parenting education (albeit highly indoctrinational and overly rigid). One of the primary causes of parental child abuse and neglect is the lack of parenting knowledge particularly information about child development. Most parents learn this from sharing anecdotal experiences with neighbors and friends, rather than from actively participating in educational opportunities.

    If we as a society, took a more active role in providing parent education, taught child development to all high school students, and encouraged all citizens to make conscious informed choices about whether to bring children into the world or not, we might just be able to move forward in more positive and hopeful ways.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2005/09/cft-and-tomato-soup-can.html Plato

    I do not want to become someone who makes decisions based on hormonal fluctuations

    A stronger “focused” decision would always be a better one, then one made in the throes of passion, or disregard for protection. Life, is always much more then the abstract world.

    There is really deep emotive functions we are all engaged in, and the struggle to move past these things are very hard to do.

    Visualization of memories induced from our every day experiences are relived constantly. So how would such a emotive charge we give this be changed in the future? Attitude changes, and we are definitely getting a good preview from the many here.

    I find it strange that the females are picking up on it better then the males here.: )

    So our “focus” is stronger then the biological clocks then?: )

    I am not by any means “encouraging” where the will does not want it. It better to understand this hormonal function is very real. Are there not deeper rivers running through us, then just the hormonal function we attribute our “conceptual” world?

    New Universes? New beginnings

  • Henry Holland

    My dad once confided to me (when I was in my early 20’s) that although he loved all 5 of us kids, if he had to do it all over again, he would have had a vasectomy at the age of 15. Now, when I’ve told people that, they recoil and figure that it was a huge mental blow for me (Wow! Your father didn’t want you! Poor you!) On the contrary–I understood completely. He had a horrid childhood as the son of an abusive alcoholic dad and felt that he didn’t want HIS childhood to affect us all. It did, big time, and all of us kids suffered for it; Grandad’s evil reached out from beyond the grave. But Pops was a Catholic man in the late 40’s/early 50’s who was under *enourmous* pressure to breed and so he did.

    I once told my dad that I really appreciated him making me gay via his genetics. He nearly fainted but I explained “See, I’ll never be pressured to have children and since I loathe the little monsters 99% of the time, it’s perfect”. For some reason, he didn’t take it as a compliment! :-)

  • Richard E.

    I was intrigued by this article — turned out my spouse noticed in the Guardian, and mentioned it over dinner. Somewhat to the bafflement of our son (almost 4) who is very excited at the impending arrival of a sibling…

    My feeling is that a lot of the falling birthrate is not due solely to people choosing not to have kids, but that many people are starting their families later than they did in the past. When I was growing up, my parents (who met and married in their late 30s and then very quickly started a family) were a good decade older than many of friends’ parents. Conversely, when I became a father I was bucking a trend by managing to do so several years earlier than my own father.

    Looking round our circle of parents (playgroups, birthing classes, daycare cohort, and a quick playground census), we are often considerably younger than many parents with kids the same age as ours, and this anecdotal evidence is well supported by hard statistics that women (in particular) are having their children later in life. Some of this is location specific — we are a two-PhD family, and when our son was born when we lived in Manhattan, which is pretty much the global capital of the “Whoops, we are so busy we forgot to have kids” set.

    In these circumstances, people who choose to have kids are almost certainly only going to have a small number of them, simply because they are running into the limits of human fertility. Many of the parents in our ciricle had difficulty conceiving, or adopted their children. It is certainly true that there are medical interventions for infertile couples that were unavailable a generation ago, but these are stressful, expensive and far from guaranteed.

    Thus, my guess is that one or two child families (especially among affluent and well-educated families) are not so just the immediate result of economic or social pressures, but an unintended consequence of two-career couples (an excellent thing in every other way) and a general tendency to prolong “childhood” far into one’s twenties (who was it who said that grad school was the snooze button on the alarm clock of life?), all for what are usually very good reasons rather than simple selfishness and hedonism.

    Earlier on in this thread someone made a comment that “most of us couldn’t provide for four children” but the fact is that many of us could if we wanted to (it would certainly involve some degree of economic sacrifice for most parents, but four child families were common when I was a kid, even if they are rare now) — and while society don’t necessarily need Mark to personally procreate, a few more four child families would go a long way to offsetting the no-child families if one is worried about falling birthrate.

    The main solution to this dilemma is to increase the amount of pressure on employers to help with quality childcare arrangements and make it much easier for people on well-defined career tracks (both men and women) to take time out to have children when they are comparatively young. The modern tendency is to think that kids are something that have to wait until you are “secure” — whether that means owning a house, making partner in your firm or getting tenure. However, once upon a time (that is to say about thirty years ago) people tended to have kids well before they reached a milestone of this type.

    OK — long ramble; time to get back to work…


  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hey, wait a minute Richard. What do you mean society doesn’t need my genes? Dammit! :)

  • Hektor Bim

    I came from a large family – 6 kids, and I was the youngest. Unlike what a lot of people seem to think, I didn’t feel underpriviliged because of it, or that I missed out on a lot of things. What really pissed me off growing up was the idea that somehow my very existence was a net negative, and that my parents should have stopped at two children, and somehow the two oldest were more valuable, with the value becoming more negative as the number of children increased. I actually had people tell me growing up that I was a net negative to the world, and that my parents were crazy. (This should be contrasted with the carny show approach, where people looked at me like I had three heads because I came from a family with six kids. I didn’t mind that so much, because it was a little unusual to come from such a large family.)

    One thing people aren’t mentioning on this thread is how deeply imbedded the whole overpopulation meme was in the 70s and 80s in the body politic. Having more than two children was seen as immoral – you were stressing the earth and profoundly neglecting your children. Some people are still surprised that I as the youngest managed to complete college. I’ve actually had people tell me that due to the laws of birth order I should have been unsuccessful in life, and they are astounded that I am not flipping burgers somewhere.

    Of course, this is still somewhat true, but it is crazy, because overpopulation just isn’t a big problem in the West, and in fact, birth rates, at least in most Western countries are below replacement level. This is true even in the US for non-immigrant parents. People seem to feel strongly about overpopulation, but it feels to me like a self-correcting system.

    So I would suggest that it isn’t really possible to completely complete separate large-scale political ideas or moral ideas from personal childbearing choices. Very few people I have ever met have been able to separate them. In general, this seems like a subject where many people are quite judgemental.

  • Richard E.

    Hey, wait a minute Richard. What do you mean society doesn’t need my genes? Dammit

    Society may *want* them, but *need* them? If they were that vital, then withholding may start to look a tad selfish after all :-)


    PS Did anyone see the articles prompted by the recent book about the man who set up a sperm-bank stocked with the donations of high-achieving men? I heard a story about one Nobelist who was asked to contribute and declined, saying that what they really wanted was *his* father’s contribution, and his dad who had been a tailor in a small town. Conversely, the Nobelist’s own seed had produced a surfer and a guitarist…

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2005/09/cft-and-tomato-soup-can.html Plato

    It’s like you create a a generation out of the initiation, yet you would think the influence value existed not just in procreation, but in love and warmth in a caring famly environment.

    I counselled my children to base the living expenses on one income, and if the other half wanted to work, this would be additional income for the situation.

    But like anything if you break it down, how much value are you getting from both working? It’s just logical that you treat this venture in a most appropriate way, so that the determination of value from both parents working, might help you to decide whether offering the immediate and sustaining value of the mother or father ever present, which ever you desire, would indeed provide a sustaining and environmental influence for this new life.

    To often I found through our adventure the valuation we assign this situation was indeed more fruitful, in having one there for growth and security in the value nurture assigns more to this budding soul, then offloading them to daycare etc.

    So you see it is more then just the idea of having or not. Recognition of what the father might have done?

    Had he now recognized that what his son now saids, he contributed to the idea of the childless family, may have sent him retrospect to what he had done wrong. This is the cost of a mistake that sets probabilistic valuation to the future and the evidence is now in the son?

    So again we see where such ramifications of our parents within us, we transfer to further generations, and like myth, we must learn to dispell the story, to factual and moral perpetuation in the understanding of responsibility.

  • janet

    There’s no doubt that marrying later is correlated with smaller family size. This is also not as new a phenomenon as people think — the so-called “European marriage pattern” (relatively late age of marriage, and large proportion of the population that never marries) goes back at least 500 years. In some rural communities in the 17th and 18th centuries the average age of marriage was something like late 20’s for women, older for men. Plenty of out-of-wedlock births, of course, but still.

    But during the last few decades people have put off child-bearing long enough to stretch physical fertility quite a bit further than it can comfortably go. I think that young, professional-class women of my generation were given a lot of well-intended but ultimately bad advice about waiting to establish a career before having kids. My advice is, if you know you want to have kids, don’t wait! A friend of ours has a new grandchild who was born while his mother was in her last year of medical school. Her feeling was “when you’re a doctor, there’s no good time to have a baby, so I might as well do it now, which is the optimal time physically.” And I think that’s probably right — if you’re juggling a career and a new baby, it helps to have the energy of a 25-year-old.

  • http://catdynamics.blogspot.com Steinn Sigurdsson

    Janet: I am a militant advocate of breastfeeding (my wife suggested “breast feed-ins” to a lactation group in the Bay Area during a visit some time ago and I believe she started that particular phenomenon [or at least independently proposed it]), but the analogy is not good with the “having kid” vs “buying an SUV”, since choosing to breastfeed is significantly more of an internalised decision process, it does little to affect a tax base, or the future numbers of Syracuse physics majors; mostly affects Nestle’s profits and subtle health and bonding processes.

    With the SUV analogy it really doesn’t matter if any one person bought an SUV, and the choice of a car (particularly in the US) is an intensely personal thing. But a lot of the “don’t tell me about whether to have kids” group would cheerfully explain to other people why them buying an SUV is a bad group choice.
    Within academia this is a more acute point then in much of rest of society; my sense is most universities long for the Good Old Days of scholastic monks, academics almost all are way off in the “defer family for career” group, and the decision realistically affects our colleagues (covering classes and scheduling meetings if nothing else).
    On the other hand most US communities seem, to a Scandinavian, very poor in child services and accommodation to families.

    Further, at some level, the very notion that the decision to have a child is solely, or primarily, a personal choice, goes part way to proving Shriver’s point, such as it is. Historically, having a child was rarely a personal choice, it was expected in due course, and a social factor. That we can speak of it is as primarily a matter of personal choice is an indicator of change and the primacy of some value of “self”.

  • Moshe Rozali


    I have been nodding to myself while reading your comments. I think that having a family is more than a personal “lifestyle” choice, it is a personal right that should be respected and supported by the system, and the support is certainly not adequate right now. Childcare is an obvious example, there is usually an order of magnitude difference between the number of spots needed and the number available. I think that already academics are not a typical cross-section of society, and I cannot imagine it does not skew the worldview they present.



  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Steinn. Much of what you have to say makes sense to me in the abstract. Of course the idea that this is about personal choice says something about the rise of the primacy of self. However, we used to all live with our relatives in tiny houses and send our children out to work when they were 12 and have no welfare state and… It’s just that this is not the way the western world is (mostly) these days and as such almost all decisions have far more of a self-aspect than they used to. We all seem to like this. I just don’t like picking out the kid issue as special and giving those of us who choose not to have them a hard time. I’m not suggesting you’re doing that; merely making my point clear.

    I am not against those who want kids having them, and actively support them. Most academics I know, including older ones, are also supportive.

    I was reading your blog and saw that you were asking about departments that welcome children. For what it’s worth, mine seems very welcoming (lots of times I see faculty with their kids in the department) and supportive of faculty who choose to have them. I don’t mind this (let me be very clear), but I don’t as a matter of course, see why we should expect professional workplaces to welcome kids running around the place. If we were lawyers or medical doctors I think it’d be much less welcoming a place.

    The questions about how much society in general supports parents is more complicated I think.

    My post was, at its root, saying (not directed at you personally) “If you want kids please have them – I’ll pay taxes to make sure they get educated, won’t complain that my employer gives time breaks and financial gifts in the form of free tuition to employees who choose to have kids, while giving nothing of equal worth to me, will coo and ooh and ahh over them and over your stories of how cute they are or how interesting their most recent bowel movement was, and will willingly cover your class at the last moment if a kid-emergency should arise. Just don’t get in my face and accuse me of being selfish if I choose not to have a child myself.”

  • Frank

    It seems you guys are very rational about the way you live and the decisions you make, but not very rational in the way you overestimate the power of rationality over our instincts: procreation is a biological necessity, and believe me that live becomes so much simpler if you don’t try to argue about primary needs and necessities. Besides, what do you think is binding two such very different creatures with very different interests and wishes?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Don’t know quite what you mean Frank. All I’m saying is if you don’t want kids you shouldn’t get yelled at for being selfish because I really don’t think you are being. No great statements about rationality. Many people (most) feel the biological need to procreate. This is fine with me. Some don’t. Also fine with me. If my and/or my wife’s “instincts” tell us we want to procreate, we’ll try to do it – I agree.

    If you’re suggesting that kids are needed to hold a relationship together – I just don’t agree. If this were the case, I just wouldn’t stay in one relationship since clearly I’d be happier not doing that, and that’d be fine.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2005/09/cft-and-tomato-soup-can.html Plato

    Just don’t get in my face and accuse me of being selfish if I choose not to have a child myself.”

    I got your last affirmative strike and thought, that would be the end of it.:)

    Given all the tools and options of consideration, what more needed to be said? I hint at this, and had given insight from perspective.

    I had spent years working with men who had no children either, and knew that certain features of the conversations were governed by life expeirence, much as you good professsors have about physics and cosmological approaches.

    Aware of this diversity of experience and probabilistic valutions and consideration of life in the future, sets up many events and situations to handle. How does this effect personality. Growth potentials are enormous from that experience.

    But all the while, positive affirmation indeed has its own pathways to wander. Ones future. Informed decisions are always better ones. You make this clear.

  • http://catdynamics.blogspot.com Steinn Sigurdsson

    Ok, I am now going to try to be provocative without being offensive – and before I begin, I don’t think I ever have or ever will actually accuse someone childless of selfishness:

    lawyers and MDs have salaries at least twice that of academics at comparable career stage, they call their nannies. Most academics (ie all but the independently wealthy and those married to lawyers and MDs) do not have that luxury.
    Hence child care is an issue.
    Now, academic schedules are flexible in parts, but societal support structures pivot on 9-5 business, not lifestyles of faculty scientists; so something has to give.
    Sometimes that means the little rug rats swarm the ivory towers, snapping at ankles (and, here, let us remember the whole “in-group” vs “out-group” and use of slang – what is cute and self-derogatory in one context is offensive and conducive to hostile workplace in another).
    Most academice departments do not have to receive the public, unlike lawyer and MD offices. And you would be surprised what the real world puts up with; I know a financial consultant who had two kids in her cubicle for several weeks while waiting for child care to open.

    But, do you think single parents can be tenure track faculty? Because if the campus is closed to kids, they will at some points have to stay with the kids for non-work related reasons, and be duly punished in their career track.
    That is what it boils down to. You can not both say that a place is welcoming to kids, and that you don’t think they ought to be there: either there is understanding and support, or not, and the environment is hostile.

    Now, some universities provide benefits to offspring: in the US this is basically because of the insane health care schemes they have; but the bulk of the cost is providing spousal/partner benefits, not offspring benefits.
    It is easy to resent rewarding of “choices”, and your tone, if not words, suggest you resent university subsidy and benefits of children: I am fairly sure that if the issue were recast in terms of partner benefits, you would understand why the attitude could be seen as hostile?
    It really is cheapest for universities if the faculty are single male, banned from marrying and acknowledging children. Historically that is how they were and it worked just fine for a while.
    And the same social changes that make having children a lifestyle choice are those which allowed a broader range of faculty into the ranks.

    The “kid issue” is not special, except in so far as it is a very large decision (bigger even than buying cars, for most sane people); and in that it is often an involuntary decision – one rarely wakes up in a hazy blur and discovers that one has unexpectedly acquired a high maintenace Ford Expedition with an 18 year lease…

    Finally: universities existence is contingent on the continuing stream of new children, most institutions could not exist on research alone in anything like their current form. If a large enough a sub-group chooses in large enough a fraction to not reproduce at 1.05 offspring per person as a long term running average, that sub-group will cease to exist.
    Fortunately, academics are not a reproductively isolated sub-species. Yet.

  • Frank


    I fully sympathize and admire people making the decision to not have kids, and I completely agree that such a decision has nothing to do with selfishness or decadence, but rather with an endeavour to transcend the pittyful existence of most people and make something beautiful out of your live. The only point I wanted to make is that I think this is naive. A truly beautiful play of the poet Lorca illustrating this point is Yerma (‘Barren’).

    And my silly comment about why men and women like each other: is is a real mystery to me (don’t understand me wrong: I love my wife very much!), and the only explanation I can find for the posibiliy of relationships is indeed kids.

  • Moshe Rozali

    Mark, Steinn,

    I think there should be a distinction between the generosity of people all around (which I never had any issues with), and the inflexible, indifferent and therefore discriminatory structure that is generally hostile to parents.

    The issue of daycare is again the easiest example to give (though not the most serious one): daycare hours do not coincide with the hours the university offers classes, maintains faculty meeting and all those other demands of the job. So if your class is scheduled in the evening, or a faculty meeting is declared at 5pm, you can ask all kinds of people for all kinds of favors, but why should you have to?

    Compare this to having ramps for the disabled in all federal buildings- without them one can doubtless rely on people’s generosity (carry you up the stairs etc.), that is hardly a solution. You would agree, I think, that having an inaccessible classroom is a discriminatory to disabled students. I would think, just as an example, that scheduling evening (or early morning) classes is a very similar discriminatory act.

    So, again it boils down to issues of personal rights, which parts of the normal range of life choices can you expect to be structurally supported, and which parts are declared luxury that you may or may not afford. My instinct is to try to be as broad as possible with what life choices (and what sort of people) can be made compatible with the normal career path.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2005/09/cft-and-tomato-soup-can.html Plato

    provide the basics…. and then some.

    From this perspectve although I had never gained in this advice other then to pass it off on offspring: ) by providing a home, and giving a little to initiate such a thing called their own. Set them in line with the market place in terms of ownng that home so they would at least havea have a**ed approach to the market at that time. And thus too, to begin the the place where “such a home” could support and nurture these children.

    So there you have it.

    You figured out that childcare eats most of the second income, dinners are late, or you eat out more often. You just don’t have enough quality time to give these children. So why everythng based on the first income? Ah you see now don’t you: )

  • the one Intelligently designed

    I totaly agree with Mark in that the decision of a couple to not to have kids is no more slefish than then decision of another couple to have kids. Almost all the people who go for kids, dont do it out of some desire to do charity to the society, they do it for slefish reasons. And given the over populated state of the world, it perhaps is more beneficial to the society if people have less kids.
    I personaly want to have kids. But only because I know I will enjoy playing with them, raising them, see them go to college, achieve things in their lives. Now this is pretty much selfish. isnt it? Ok I will perhaps, foremost, want them to be good citizens, but that doesnt change the point.
    And also for those people who think that kids are necessary for a long term relationship. I beg your pardon, but if you think so , I guess you havent found someone whome you love enough to spend all your life with.

  • the one Intelligently designed

    I missed the issue of survival of certain races. I dont think there is an immideate threat of extinction of certain races, but in principle , I am for different races. Any race should not diappear from the face of earth. But its only a personal desire of mine. I dont know if it actualy is a virtue the society should have.

  • http://www.woodka.com Donna

    What I regret is watching my intelligent friends not breed while the stupid people seem to breed like rabbits.

    But what is “selfish” is raising your kids like the Christian right do, homeschooling them, sending them to conservative colleges, and farming them out to right-wing campaigns. What is selfish is trying to live through your kids by forcing them to model your own ideas of what their lives should be like instead of living their own lives. What is “selfish” is assuming your choice is right for everyone, instead of allowing people to make their own choices in life.

    What is selfish is me thinking my opinion makes any difference to anyone else at all, or that my own two kids will change the world in any way whatsoever. But, hey, we’re all selfish to some extent, now aren’t we?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Steinn. I am essentially supportive of all the things you seem to want. I actually see why it is in Universities’ interests to allow kids around the department on occasion and therefore I think it is fine. It’s just not something I think is a priori obviously what they should be doing. I am also in favor of making childcare etc. as widely available as we can.

    You are misreading my tone (could be my fault, could be yours) so let me be clear. I don’t resent the tuition. on occasion I do get annoyed that people don’t recognize this as a benefit but seem to think it is a right. I don’t think anyone can read into what I’ve been saying that I am not supportive of my colleagues’ (and your) choices to have kids. I am. It’d be nice if everyone was supportive (and I’m only asking for verbal support) of my choice not to. That’s all that’s being said here.

    For my money, Moshe’s last comment hits the nail on the head. Both of you have the non-standard hours part correct, it seems to me, and I agree that it’s a good argument for help. I’ve always felt this way.

    I can’t be drawn me into taking a controversial stance on this topic, because I don’t hold one.

    All I’m trying to say is: Please have kids if you want them. Please don’t if you don’t. Neither choice makes you more or less selfish than the other as far as I can see. I can imagine extreme hypothetical situations in which that might change. None apply to us. If it helps, my wife and I will pledge that if the survival of humankind depends on us reproducing, we’ll step up to the plate and get it on with abandon – promise! I have a similar agreement with Famke Janssen, although her people have been dragging their feet a little getting the signed papers back to me.

  • Richard E.

    My post was, at its root, saying (not directed at you personally) “If you want kids please have them – I’ll pay taxes to make sure they get educated, won’t complain that my employer gives time breaks and financial gifts in the form of free tuition to employees who choose to have kids, while giving nothing of equal worth to me, will coo and ooh and ahh over them and over your stories of how cute they are or how interesting their most recent bowel movement was, and will willingly cover your class at the last moment if a kid-emergency should arise. Just don’t get in my face and accuse me of being selfish if I choose not to have a child myself.”

    I have been mulling this issue of “selfishness” over — and I completely agree that calling the decision not have children “selfish” is wrongheaded.

    However, it also true that even if we can *have* children for selfish reasons — a desire to perpetuate our genes, the idea that might be fun, or whatever else springs to mind, being a parent — even a bad parent — calls for a good deal of selflessness. (Time, money, the likelihood of treading on a small piece of Lego in the dark — the list is endless.) The reality is that every major decision a parent takes — where to live, where to work, whether to work,which house to buy, which car to drive, where to vacation, when to vacation, where to eat, when to eat, what to eat, will be influenced by the existence of your children. And a non-parent may make the exact same decision at each point, but they only have to consult their own desires (and their partners — but I am guessing that when Mark and his missus plan an evening out, “tablecloths that wipe clean” are not a big part of their decision-making when picking the restaurant. Or if they are, the plastic tablecloths are not counted as a plus).

    And in that technical sense, I think the decision not to have children is selfish, insomuch as it is an avoidance of selflessness. I don’t mean this as a value judgement, just as a plain statement of a fairly self-evident fact.

    On the other hand, it does seem to get under Mark’s skin a little :-)

    And on the third hand (every good parent needs at least three hands — they come with the eyes in the back of your heard, and the ears that warn you when things are Just A Bit Too Quiet), the sacrifices and compromises one makes as a parent are often more than repaid by the experience itself. So I suppose it is interesting for parents to label the avoidance of parenting as “selfishness”.

    The part of fatherhood I was not prepared for, was how fast and how deeply I would fall in love with child — I remember dancing (gently!) round my apartment with him cradled in my arms just a few days after he was born, and I am *not* much of an apartment dancer. A few days I ago I marvelled when he came into my office and started writing numbers (the 3 was on its side, and the 5 backwards — but who knew where that outburst of numeracy came from) on my blackboard. (That’s right — my son, in my office, in my department!) He knows that “Daddy teaches big kids about numbers, and Mummy teaches big kids about words” and he wanted to try his hand at a spot of big-kiddery. Or the unalloyed happiness of a small boy running into his parents’ room and announcing “We are going to New York City today AND I AM SO EXCITED” — even when I could have done a few more minutes sleep.

    There you go Mark, three stories about my kid and not a single mention of bowel movements :-) Although looking at the last paragraph, I think parents of small children should be forgiven their assumption that all their friends will share their enthusiasm for the minutest detail of their children’s existence. Just as a friend in the throes of new love might share details that are excessive or embarrassing, parents are much the same. But I suspect it wears off — parents of teenagers may occasionally allow themselves an anecdote or two, but like all loves the relationship runs it course from infatuation to stability…

    So Mark, I’m not trying to wind you up here; just trying to get to grips with something that seems to be gnawing on you :-) And not just at the ankle level.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hi Richard,

    You’ll have to work harder than that to get under my skin. Maybe if I didn’t know you, …, but it’s too late for that :)

    I wouldn’t say it’s gnawing at me. I actually wrote the first post essentially prompted by the Observer article. What I find odd is that I don’t really see any comments on the post from people complaining about people who have kids. they seem to be wished the best by pretty much everyone. However, I see a fair amount of defensiveness by people who do have kids.

    I think I agree with a lot of what you say, except for the “fairly self-evident” part. The selflessness issue is tricky as you point out in your “third hand” paragraph. It is true that I don’t worry about washable tablecloths when we eat out. However, the fact that you need to doesn’t make you selfless in my book. I think it says that you wanted a kid so much more than you wanted to be able to eat out wherever and whenever you could that you just went ahead and gave yourself what you wanted. I could call that selfish. I can’t imagine that you (or anyone I know) would have had a kid if they didn’t think that they wanted it more than the things they’d have to give up to have one. You could have sacrificed your child-wanting needs and been a little more selfless and donated more to the poor high-end restaurateurs who need your help :)

    I certainly wouldn’t criticize new parents for their constant kid stories. It’s exciting when you get something you want and you want your friends to share in your excitement. Actually I do share the excitement of my friends who have kids. I love to see them happy. I am allowed to poke fun about it occasionally though.

  • Moshe Rozali


    I realized I did not yet state the obvious, that everyone has the right to make their personal decisions, and those should be respected. Certainly the question of childeren is deep within the personal and autonomous territory.

    I had the impression that the dynamics of this thread is to agree that point is patently obvious and move on to other things. For me the constraints placed on those decisions is an interesting issue, but definitely a different issue altogether.

  • Richard E.

    I think I agree with a lot of what you say, except for the “fairly self-evident” part. The selflessness issue is tricky as you point out in your “third hand” paragraph. It is true that I don’t worry about washable tablecloths when we eat out. However, the fact that you need to doesn’t make you selfless in my book. I think it says that you wanted a kid so much more than you wanted to be able to eat out wherever and whenever you could that you just went ahead and gave yourself what you wanted. I could call that selfish.

    I think you are in danger of wielding a tautology here. If everyone acts to simply maximize their own perceived satisfaction, then selfishness and selflessness have little meaning for any of us, in any circumstances. My personal satisfaction weighs kids higher than fancy restaurants — yours does not. Both of us value teaching and expanding the boundaries of human knowledge more highly than making pots of money working for the Enron-du-jour. If someone sends money to Amnesty International or a Hurricane Katrina fund, it is not because they care about human rights or the plight people who have lost what little they had in a natural disaster, but because it gives them more pleasure than anything else they might have done with the money.

    You are of course welcome to this position if you want it — but I am not sure that I would :-) Insisting on it seems to rob the concepts of selfishness / selflessness of any explanatory power, since they are simply equivalent to “what people choose to do”.

    I can’t imagine that you (or anyone I know) would have had a kid if they didn’t think that they wanted it more than the things they’d have to give up to have one. You could have sacrificed your child-wanting needs and been a little more selfless and donated more to the poor high-end restaurateurs who need your help



  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Well, where we draw this line is subjective of course. I’d say the choice to have kids is on one side of it. Perhaps you’d like to think of it on the other side so that your choice is a wonderful gift for which you are sacrificing in order to give to society. On behalf of all of those who occupy airplane seats near your gifts – thank you! [to those of you (not Richard) who don’t get it – the final line above is a joke and should not be interpreted as saying “secretly, underneath it all, I like to eat sweet sweet baby-meat”]

    See you soon hopefully R.

  • http://catdynamics.blogspot.com Steinn Sigurdsson

    Well, Mark, as a colleague, and a friend, I just wanted to talk to you about this, informally, off the record.
    As I’m sure you understand, if you want to reach the pinnacle of your profession, become a full professor, you are really expected to have kids, at least two, preferably three or or four. It is more critical for female faculty, of course, and this is no reflection on the quality of your research or hard work; but, to succeed, and quite frankly so the university will recover the investment we make in you as faculty, we expect the dedication and 80-100 hour per week committment. We find faculty without kids aren’t there at the same level of committment, they are more likely to move to the big city, or to be off on round-the-world-trips exploring art museums…
    It is ultimately a matter of choice, your personal priorities, but you understand that these things are informally taken into consideration when we make hiring and promotion decisions. Just a friendly word.

    But, I’m sure you’ve had the spiel, if not in so many words.

    And, here I am only half-joking. People do lose their jobs because they have kids, particularly women. And more people make the rational decision to wait for tenure and then find out it is too late, removing any element of choice.

    PS: the airplane seat thing:
    1) kharma;
    2) make eye contact and smile. The little brat will be so surprised s/he’ll forget to cry and reflex smile nicely back. At least often enough to be worth the try.

  • janet

    On a recent plane trip my husband and I spent a lot of time playing peek-a-boo with the toddler in the seat in front of us. His parents were worried that he was annoying us, but once we convinced them that we were enjoying ourselves, they seemed grateful. It helped that he was unusually cute and amazingly good-natured — during a five-hour flight I didn’t hear anything that sounded like whining or fussing, which is more than I would expect from most adults. (Which reminds me that I’ve been meaning to mention that saying that one likes, or doesn’t like, children makes about as much sense to me as saying that one likes, or doesn’t like, adults. Surely it depends on the child, or the adult?)

    It seems to me that this discussion is skirting a basic issue, which is that, at least in the US, most workplaces in most industries still haven’t adjusted to the increase in women in the paid workforce — which means, aside from some of the more obvious effects, that men with kids often have more responsibility for daily childrearing activities than they would have a generation or two ago. (Of course, all of this applies to the way work is structured in industrial and post-industrial economies, where the expectation is that families disperse during the day to work, school, etc. and gather together only in the early mornings, evenings, and on weekends, if then.)

    Also, forgive me if this has been pointed out, but some of the accomodations targeted at parents benefit non-parents, too. For example, I have co-worker who is currently out on family leave to be with her mother, who is in the last stages of a long death from cancer.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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