Christianity teaches many things that our culture finds controversial, but the Golden Rule generally isn’t one of them. That’s the statement, “Do to others as you would like them do to you.”
Whether Christian or not, the vast majority of people would accept this as a good rule of thumb when deciding how to live among others. So we ought to reflect on the fact that we in the West are deliberately failing to pursue the Golden Rule’s most fundamental expression: having children. Refusing to have a family is the Platonic ideal of selfishness.
Now, for those of you afflicted by “whataboutism,” I’m not addressing the barren, those called to celibacy, or those who’ve devoted their fertile years to starting a family but failed. None of those involve refusal.
But let’s be real here. Our falling birth rates aren’t explained by medical issues. And it couldn’t possibly be clearer that they aren’t falling because of celibacy. After all, the growing masses of people who refuse family are not being voluntarily celibate. They’re fornicating. They’re jerking off to porn plentifully. They’re constantly falling to sexual temptation—the precise situation for which the Apostle Paul actually commands marriage rather than celibacy. We are deciding to forgo children for our own sake.
People may try to portray that decision as some kind of noble service—to the world, to society, or even to the children they never have—but it is a love of self that refuses to sacrificially share with others. I make this charge as one of those very same selfish people. I deliberately avoided having children for many years. It didn’t feel selfish at the time, and I’m intimately familiar with how compelling various rationalizations and excuses can be because I’ve used my own fair share of them. But upon even brief reflection, the most common ones simply don’t hold up to scrutiny.
All Your Excuses Are Just Excuses
Most frequently, of course, people make the excuse that there are already too many people in the world. It’s a surprisingly old claim. The earliest example I can think of is 500 years old. It came up at the Diet of Augsburg when Lutherans and papists were arguing about enforced celibacy for priests.
One of the things Rome contended was that God’s command to be fruitful and multiply no longer applied because the Earth was then full to the point of population pressure. Hindsight makes the claim pretty silly from a time in which fewer than half a billion people lived on the planet.
Both experience and foresight should make the claim just as silly for us today. For one thing, Western nations already have fertility well below replacement levels. If the earth were overpopulated, we aren’t the ones doing it.
For another, it has always been “impossible” for the world to support more people until we get more people and then figure out how to support them. The only thing Malthusianism has ever reliably produced is failed predictions. Modern abundance is the product of hope, perseverance, and ingenuity—not despair and surrender. Future abundance will be no different.
No, Work Isn’t More Important than Children
Others will rationalize self-imposed barrenness by appealing to the immense value of their work, which society will miss if they devote their time to parenthood. Of course, more often than not, such evaluations are based on what they imagine they will accomplish someday rather than on what they actually have accomplished. But even if we ignore the personal arrogance that often accompanies this view, the reasoning is still faulty for two reasons.
First, parenthood is indeed an enormous time investment—particularly for mothers, as they are biologically best-equipped to nourish and nurture children in their youngest years. But children do grow up, and grow less constantly needy. There will still be time for parents to contribute their immense talents to the wider world after their kids are older and they are wiser. After all, the pressures of parenthood are great for teaching people to efficiently use their time and to understand what’s truly important in life.
Second, and more importantly, children are themselves a great way to contribute to the wider world. If you truly are blessed with exceptional ability, then that only makes it more important to pass that potential on to even more people in the next generation.
Even if either you or your spouse devote half the waking hours of your adult life to raising children, and every last one of your children does the same, then after a single child, you’ve already broken even because he’s ultimately going to supply that missing 50 percent. After the second, you’ve contributed far more to posterity than you ever could have alone.
You Don’t Need Experience, Either
The other really common rationalization I hear is from those who contend that they are destined to be a bad parent and should not be trusted with a child. This one is extremely easy to believe because non-parents can envision just about any parental crisis under the sun and realize they have no idea what they would do.
This is particularly troubling when one is young. After being sequestered in schools for one’s entire life, classroom knowledge becomes a kind of security blanket—one can feel unequipped for any practical work for which one hasn’t first taken a course.
But the truth, as most college graduates quickly find out, is that while schooling can provide some helpful background knowledge, most practical job skills are acquired on the job. That’s no less true for parenthood. We don’t know what we’re doing, either, until we figure it out.
Before pregnancy, our society provides little incentive to acquire parenting skills. But make no mistake: actually having kids provides loads of incentive. You will learn because you have to. As that terrifyingly abstract idea of a baby becomes the flesh-and-blood reality of your son or daughter with his or her own feelings, character, and personality, you will also learn how to deal with the trials and obstacles that come along.
The Truth Is, You’re Just Selfish (Like Me)
But enough about the rationalizations, because they’re just that. They aren’t the real reason so many of us refuse the challenge of family. Here’s the reality from a still-selfish person standing on the other side of parenthood: The real reason you don’t want to have children is that you find the prospect of raising them unpleasant.
It’s not as though you really, really wanted a family, but then heard an argument about overpopulation and consequently gave up your dream for the sake of the Earth. People in that situation adopt. If you’re anything like me, you didn’t really want a family in the first place and subsequently embraced various arguments because they resonated with what you had already decided.
The self-centered reality of that decision is precisely where we run afoul of the Golden Rule. Consider, for a moment, all the unattractive aspects of raising children that inspired your pious rationalizations in the first place. They’re loud, noisy, and needy. They’re always dribbling from one end or the other. They’ll interrupt your life goals.
You won’t have nearly as much time for your career, your causes, your hobbies, and your amusements. You’ll have less disposable income, go on fewer ideal vacations, wear less stylish clothes, eat at more mundane restaurants, and generally be much less free to do as thou wilt. Take all those reasons, and add whichever ones you want. Apart from rare circumstances like severe family trauma resulting in lasting and irreparable psychological damage, or the inability to care for other people due to severe disabilities, the specifics don’t really matter in the end.
Now consider that your own parents went through pretty much that entire list of yours so that you could be here. Your father and mother embraced everything you see as unpleasant, for you—for the life that you so cherish that you don’t want to give up any of it to share with a family of your own.
Now consider that your grandparents made those very same sacrifices, as did their parents before them, all the way back to that day when God first said “Let us make man in our own image” and instructed his new creatures to be fruitful and multiply. Think of all those generations of selfless love that embraced every challenge on your list so that you could be here, reading this.
So Go, Given Unto Others What Has Been Given You
What, then, does it mean to do unto others as you would have done unto you—as was done unto you? How do you treat others the way you yourself have been treated and have profoundly benefited from? The answer is quite clear, along with what that answer says about those of us who have refused to do so.
Selfish people like us may talk a good game about generosity, but if we refuse to be generous even to our own flesh and blood, then we haven’t even cleared level one. Having children is the only way to make love a sustainable resource.
To be sure, parents will eventually find out that their children are a blessing and that everything they sacrificed was well worth what they’ve gained. Nevertheless, it’s hard to perceive the reward beforehand. It requires a leap of faith—a willingness to make the sacrifice without truly understanding the benefits. But the moral reality that we ought to make that sacrifice should be plain to us.
In light of the way we were loved by those who came before us, our long list of reasons comes to naught. Whether we admit it or not, the choice we face is this: Do we take the millennia of love that were poured out on us and consume every last drop until it’s gone? Or do we pay it forward by continuing to pass that love along to future generations?
Only one of those choices conforms to the Golden Rule. Choose wisely.