If your social media habits are like mine, then every few weeks you run across a video celebrating life without children. A recent TikTok introduced viewers to a couple of “DINKs” — double income, no kids. They boast about how they can go to workout classes on the weekend, plan European vacations, “get into snobby hobbies like skiing and golfing” and, somewhat bafflingly, “go to Florida on a whim.”
Often, such videos come my way via someone who is dunking on the DINKs: in this case, by leaving the comment, “You’re both genetic dead ends congrats.”
Why do people make these videos? Many people who are “child-free by choice,” which seems to be on the way to being the preferred label, say they’re tired of being called selfish or superficial or of hearing patronizing assurances that one day they will change their minds. The videos could be seen as a response to aggression by propagandists for childbearing.
If so, they’re a self-defeating one. Bragging about extra leisure time is not going to dispel the image of selfishness. It’s just going to make the critics feel more smug, and maybe think that these child-free people have to work a little too hard to stave away the suspicion that their lives are pointless. And since these celebrations feel aggressive themselves, the pro-baby brigades will react without any inhibitions of tact.
In other words: We are seeing the emergence of another culture war. A generation ago, the influx of women into paid employment led to the “mommy wars” between mothers who left their kids to work and those who didn’t. Now the number of adults who don’t have kids at all and don’t want any is rising. A 2022 study found that more than one-fifth of adults in Michigan fell into this category.
At the same time, those who do have children are having fewer of them than in the past. The resulting decline in birthrates has some Americans concerned about the future of the country. The political parties are already starting to divide over this issue, with Democrats more likely to see the decline as a positive sign for our society and Republicans more likely to worry about it. We don’t yet have an organized political lobby of the childless asking why they should have to pay for tax benefits for children or parental leave, but the possibilities for conflict are many.
We can avoid this strife by remembering some things. Parents should bear in mind that not everyone is called to parenthood — and that many people who want children never have any. The child-free should contemplate that the annoying kid on the airplane could one day be their attendant in a long-term-care facility. Nobody has kids because society needs future workers, taxpayers and soldiers, but it’s still true that society needs them.
That’s why no society, however tolerant, is neutral about whether people should have children. It’s a good thing if young adults feel some soft social pressure, particularly from their parents, to have kids themselves.
It’s a good thing if they get some reassurance, too. Yes, parenthood has its miseries. But for most people, especially in the context of marriage, the upside is much higher. The 2022 edition of the General Social Survey finds that married men with kids are the happiest group of men, and married women with kids the happiest group of women. That’s contrary to some of the stories we hear: For example, a New York Times op-ed last year began with the stark declaration that “married heterosexual motherhood in America” is “a game no one wins.”
That’s also a change from earlier findings, which tended to show parents less happy than non-parents, especially in the early years. W. Bradford Wilcox, a colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute who studies family structure, speculates that in an increasingly atomized society, parenthood is more important than ever in linking adults to institutions such as schools and churches.
Again, that’s not to say that purpose and meaning are out of reach without children. If you decide not to have children, though, don’t fool yourself that you’re helping solve climate change — not, at any rate, if you’re taking extra flights to Europe like that DINK couple. And I promise you that if you do have kids, you’ll still be able to go to Florida — although your itinerary might look a little different.