Glenn Reynolds has an interesting post today pontificating on the possible connection between the declining birthrates in this and other industrialized countries and the increasing burdens of parenthood. He doesnt mean that parents have suddenly acquired real responsibilities that previous generations did not have--but our collective psyche has willingly taken on burdens that our grandparents would have repudiated.
Think especially, of the safety craze--you know that tendency to want to encase your precious charges in bubble wrap? Everything from car seats, to hyper "parental involvement" in the schools, to organized "play dates", to chaperoned after-school activities that require chauferring--all these things whether for the ultimate good or ill of the children--have undoubtedly added to the social cost of raising children. Unless you are a celebrity and can give your kid a completely wierd name like "Apple" and wear them like an accessory, there is little social prestige associated with being a parent these days. Reynolds argues that the trend away from minivans to SUVs is a small piece of the evidence supporting that claim. If it were considered more prestigious to be a parent than it is to be an outdoorsman, people would put their kayaks on top of their minivans rather than pack their kids into an SUV.
Having said all of that, I have to plead guilty to alot of the new parenting sins Reynolds spells out. My kids have play dates; they are in (some, but not too many) organized activities; they cannot roam the neighborhood without adult supervision; Im very involved in their schools; I drive an SUV (though we actually do use it for towing); and I generally wouldnt think of putting them in a car without a carseat. Why? I think it come down to a fundamental issue of trust. Its not so much a question of trust for our children (though I acknowledge that can sometimes be a problem) but trust for other adults. It is particularly difficult to trust adults who are supposed to be in charge. Again, why? I think it is because unlike my parents or my grandparents generations, it is not safe to assume that most other adults (even adults with children) are coming at life from the same basic moral outlook. I think parents "hover" (as our principal likes to say) these days because they dont really believe that they safely can do otherwise. I think there is a real sense in which parents these days know how precious their children are but no longer believe (or have much reason to believe) that the rest of society shares in that opinion. The safety craze, in my view, is the natural and loving reaction of good parents to a society that is indifferent (at best) and sometimes openly hostile to the best interests of children. A small example of this: Driving home from a field trip to the Long Beach Aquarium last week another mother and I with our two 6 year-olds in the back seat, were astonished by the question from one of them, "What is better than sex?" Until we realized that they were reading a billboard on the freeway advertising for a radio station! You cant even drive in your own car for an innocent 1st grade field trip without these kind of assaults on decent sensibilities!
Hat tip: Richard Samuelson at The Remedy.