"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Why Have Children?

I worked in the field of Behavior Change for many decades, and spent years trying to convince my Third World clients to have fewer children.  I began my career in India at the time when the Ford Foundation’s Frank Wilder and local counterpart Deep Tyagi initiated the first national family planning campaign.  Both were adept marketing people who knew how to get the central message out to poor families – Do ya teen bacche, bas. Everyone knew that the government was telling them to limit their families to two or three children, and even little kids could sing the catchy filmi geet jingle cooked up in Bombay. 

In those early years USAID and its Family Planning Director, Mr. Condom, Reimert Ravenholt dropped thousands of condoms on the country on the assumption that there was pent-up demand for contraception, and that the problem was supply.  Later came The Pill and equally aggressive marketing to promote it.

Yet, despite media saturation, thousands of posters, jingles, banners, and caparisoned elephants; and despite the deluge of free contraceptives Indians kept having lots of children. Harvard Economist Amartya Sen writing in his seminal and influential piece Population: Delusion and Reality (9.22.94) explained why. Western population control advocates like Wilder, Tyagi, and Ravenholt assumed wrongly that Indians would respond to the classic American marketing model – increase supply, and stimulate demand through advertisingbut the rural peasant was not stupid.  No amount of  PR or condoms could alter his marginal reality.  More children meant more labor, and more labor meant survival.  Children to carry water and firewood, to help sow and till, and to care for the goats and chickens.  Economics was the key, said Sen, and fertility rates would not change until people’s incomes rose and the risk of having fewer children would be mitigated.

Furthermore, economic development was linked with mortality and morbidity; and once again, despite the attempts of the foreign donor community to address these issues, disease and death were only significantly reduced when families had the economic flexibility to seek and apply preventive care, to have access to emergency transport, and higher quality hospitals. In other words, Indians were unlikely to have fewer children unless they were convinced that sickness and premature death were increasingly unlikely.

The link between economics and fertility can be perhaps best seen in the West, where birth rates plummeted in Europe once the continent returned to prosperity after WWII and the postwar period. In Italy and Ireland, two countries with the traditionally highest birthrates in Europe, fertility dropped to below replacement level.  Quebec’s fertility history is similar.  When these jurisdictions emerged from low-income stagnation, fertility dropped.

In Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union, fertility rates, never very high, dropped off the charts.  No one wanted to have children in an era of chaotic uncertainty.

Now, the United States and Western Europe are in a period of unique wealth and prosperity.  For the first time in human history, it costs far more to raise a child than the value of his/her economic returns. As more and more children go to college, family expenditures increase disproportionately.  In other words, it makes economic sense not to have children. A child has become a luxury item – something that is not needed but acquired because the bank account is flush.

So, why do we keep on having children? One reason is for genetic continuity. When we die, we don’t want our name to be extinguished.  There is no objective justification for this, however. For most of us having children is not a matter of royal succession as it was for Henry VIII; and therefore procreation reflects a vague and very undefined sentiment of family posterity.

Another reason is that children will take care of us in old age.  Sadly, this is less and less true, and more elderly Americans are sloughed off to retirement or convalescent homes to live lonely and isolated lives.  Our children are not necessarily wealthier than we are, so we cannot count on them for support during our dotage.

Others say that children provide something more important to elder parents than money – emotional support.  Friends usually turn out to be unreliable, and only flesh-and-blood offspring can be counted on to come to your bedside.  This is true, although literature is littered with examples of sons and daughters who show up to be sure that that their siblings don’t get Doddering Dad to change his will.

For me, the only real reason to have children is to experience their innocence, unbridled joy and exuberance, humor, and love; to see how they learn, react, acquire language, and develop personality.  Not only do we benefit from the presence of such unusual innocence and trust, but we can look back to see our own origins and to reflect on life itself.

Children and parents know each other better than any random individuals, and that intimacy is irreplaceable. Parents can advise their children like no other; and children can criticize their parents with an honesty and experience that others will never have.

I have a feeling that all this sentimentality is but a 21st vestige of necessary fertility.  In coming centuries human reproduction will be a technical matter.  Virtual reality will expand our emotional and intellectual horizons to such a degree that children will fade as sources of insight, reflection, and innocence.

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