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It’s A Child, Not A Toaster


Anyone who says that being a parent is “all joy and no fun” has obviously never experienced the exquisite joy of riding go-karts with a four-year-old after lying to the attendant and claiming the child was five. But someone, Jennifer Senior to be specific, not only said it, she also wrote a book about it. Senior also wrote an early hagiography, “Dreaming of Obama,” so her judgment is likely too poor to ever think of go-karts. Or even things that don’t require lying, such as skee ball and mini golf.

On the flipside, go-karts, skee ball, and mini golf aren’t free. And kids do consume resources—vast quantities of resources. School uniforms, various health needs, and soccer equipment aren’t found roaming in the wild, waiting to be captured and taken home. There is also food and more clothes and books and shelter. There are all the other expensive things I’m forgetting.

So, shouldn’t one at least slightly consider such things when deciding whether you want to have kids? Maybe just a little? Nope. Because no matter what, you will never have enough money to satisfy their voracious appetites, keep them properly educated and musically trained, or ensure they are well-fed, well-dressed, well-spoken cultured exemplars of humanity.

Adding it all up, the bottom line is that children are likely to be more expensive and time-consuming than most people realize when they contemplate starting a family. Still, many people report that being a parent is very rewarding. All of the stresses and extra costs may be offset by the sense of purpose or joy that the experience ultimately brings.

This refreshing take is from Isabel Sawhill’s “How Much Does it Cost to Raise a Child?” My disdain for the “parenting sux” cottage industry is well-known; I’m delighted Sawhill acknowledges that kids aren’t evil incarnate and can even provide joy. This next paragraph, though, yikes.

In my new book, Generation Unbound, I argue that having children should be a carefully-considered choice. Some couples will decide that they want to pay the extra costs and others will not. The important thing is that the decision be made with full knowledge of the costs in time and money, and not something that just happens because everyone else is doing it or because a couple drifted into parenthood unintentionally or with considerable ambivalence.

Maybe consider that children are people, not toasters or cars, and deserve to be more than the product of a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats analysis.

Stop Trying to Rationalize Biology

Don’t get me wrong, planning is good; being strategic is smart. Just don’t get carried away. Some of the greatest things you’ll ever accomplish are the fruits of reckless and rash impulses. And if you want to plan to have kids, if you want to wait for the perfect time when you have ample amounts of cash and the perfect house with that room that’s just begging to be a nursery, you’ll never have kids. Because having kids is the most illogical thing you’ll ever do. It’s even more illogical than that time the driver floored it after you and the other passenger gave up on getting the “Dead End” sign out of the ground. But much as I and my idiot compatriots benefitted from a large yard with no fence and a wicked, mud-slinging U-turn, we all need to accept that our future is a similar large fenceless yard with a wicked U-turn. We just need the obvious, opposite metaphorical truth: Having kids is always (always!) a stupid yet completely brilliant and logical decision.

From a conservative lens, babies drive commerce and that’s great because growing the family grows the economy. With the first baby, it’s pricey organic items and all-natural and only the best. By the third, you mostly just want to ensure they aren’t actively eating poison or garbage and that their clothes won’t spontaneously combust like a Spinal Tap drummer. But there are still car seats, beds, food, the constantly running dishwasher, garbage bags, gas to get to church and school and soccer and birthday parties, gifts, trips to the emergency room, and every cleaning product known to man. All those things mean a growing economy and more opportunities for you.

From the Progressive view, sure, babies aren’t born contributors and it takes a village for Head Start and Universal Pre-K and the coming mandated home-cooked meal delivery services. But those babies will someday become taxpayers and pay into those same programs (which totally aren’t pyramid schemes even if they could stand a few more contributors just for good measure).

Back in the present and on the micro level, will having kids change your household budget? Will kids make losing your job an absolutely terrifying experience? Will they significantly alter when, even if, and definitely where you go out for dinner on those rare occasions when you have however many you have dressed and wrangled into the car?

To all three questions—damn straight they will! And that’s the point. They’re kids, not toasters and cars, and we need to get away from this bizarre obsession we’ve developed about making our biological drives rational.

Stop Being So Freaking Materialistic

Maybe part of it is a byproduct of our shift from an agrarian society to a service society. When we had to grow our food, kids were a no-brainer. For one thing, it was harder to control when they arrived, but it was also useful to have more little workers running around. As most of us now buy at least the bulk of the sustenance, clothing, and shelter we need, we don’t need as many helpers. Taking out the trash and mowing the yard aren’t comparable to harvesting crops, building shelters, and sewing clothing. (Folding laundry for a family of five might be comparable, but you’d have to ask my wife about that.)

Don’t think of children as a line-item on your balance sheet.

And maybe another part of it is that we do like stuff. We’d rather stay selfish and juice the economy with purchases of fine Scotch and bespoke suits instead of clothing that will be instantly stained and contraptions designed to mask the ridiculously horrendous smell of soiled diapers. (I’m not 100 percent certain, even after three, that babies do not sneak out in the middle of the night and feast on road kill.) Fortunately, Jesus had something to say about the former, if not the latter, likely because most babies were free-range during his time on earth.

“And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” So have kids, be poor, and reserve your spot in Heaven?

Not exactly.This is terrestrial and ethereal, but let’s focus on the former. Stop being so focused on material goods. Stop focusing on your liquid riches(excepting bourbon), and instead focus on your hereditary riches. Don’t think of children as a line-item on your balance sheet.

On Joy Versus Happiness

Also, and I will beat this drum till the day I die, stop focusing on what effect kids will have on your happiness.

In fact, multiple studies have found that parents report less life satisfaction or happiness, and less marital stability, than nonparents – especially if they are well educated and especially if they drifted into parenthood unintentionally or were ambivalent about having a baby.

Now I may have recently admitted that the wife and I drifted into parenthood without direct intent as we were amenable to the idea and there was wine, but we’ll soon hit the 11-year mark of marital bliss. Sure, it’s a roller coaster and having three little ones running around exponentially increases the amount of time we spend upside down and screaming. Sure, we may have an old-school tube television in our bedroom and the oldest and the middle child share a bedroom and sleep on bunk beds I assembled myself…from instructions written in Spanish. Sure, the toddler sleeps in the same crib her older sisters, and her father, have. Our house is not stocked with fine Scotch and bespoke clothing. And we pick and choose which activities the kids will get to participate in, not just to avoid over-scheduling, but also because they’re voracious, resources are finite, and that does require a budget.

And nothing from that list detracts from our satisfaction and happiness. Because there is more to life than budgets. Children are much more than budget line items.  They are infuriating, destructive, annoyingly inquisitive bundles of energetic, enthusiastic joy. They challenge you, they test the outer limits of your patience. But they also offer you the opportunity to see the wonder and satisfaction of learning to shimmy up a door frame by pressing feet and hands to opposite sides, of scoring the first goals in soccer, of feeding the dogs for the first time. It’s magnificent. As a wise friend told Blair and me when we were expecting Greer, “You will never regret having kids, but you may one day regret not having kids.”

Give it up. Stop trying to make it part of your life script. Stop thinking of kids in the terms you would think of a new toaster or minivan. Those are purchases you may regret. That’s why they come with receipts and warranties. Kids definitely do not. Kids do, though, offer you the chance to experience the exquisite pleasure of riding a go-kart on a Friday afternoon with a thrilled four-year-old, smile stretching from ear to ear. It is so choice. I recommend you have one or three and experience that exquisite joy for yourself. Trust me, you have the means.