Do rising expectations for parents help explain falling fertility rates? It certainly sounds logical, at least as one piece of a complex puzzle. Consider that our culture frequently paints parenting as joyless, anxiety-inducing, and expensive. So why would millennials and Generation Z be gung-ho about it?
In his Father’s Day column, Ross Douthat wondered whether current parenting norms are making parents unhappy. He observed that “parents everywhere seem harassed and exhausted, while marriage and childbearing both are falling out of fashion.” That’s true enough across the West—except for in Israel.
Consider that the total fertility rate for American women, “an estimate of lifetime fertility, based on present fertility patterns” dropped to a record low 1.73 in 2018. That puts us squarely below the 2.1 children per woman needed for populations to avoid shrinking. Israeli women, by contrast, average 3.1 kids apiece.
Before we consider why that gap exists, let’s stipulate that 8 million-plus people live in New Jersey-sized Israel, so this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. But I surveyed friends who’ve lived in both countries about the differences, and they offered several. Parenting in Israel is a completely different experience. Perhaps it’s time we consider improving our own parenting culture.
1. Parenthood is typical!
Israeli culture starts from an assumption that (nearly) every family will have some kids and need kid-related things. By extension, parents in families with three or more kids aren’t looked at funnily or quizzed about their lifestyle choices.
2. Kids are always welcome.
It’s understood that kids are people, and not only will be but deserve to be in public spaces like restaurants. It’s also not considered noteworthy if graduate students bring their kids to class because childcare fell through on a given day.
3. Space is designed with kids in mind.
There are parks everywhere.
4. Maternity classes foster friendships.
New moms need support. It’s easier to make new mom friends knowing that everyone in your maternity class will have a few months at home. That extended time helps foster new friendships, which is helpful to native Israelis and especially for newer immigrants who are still building a support network.
5. Maternity leave is generous.
Every mother is entitled to three months of paid maternity leave; it’s funded by national insurance rather than being an employer-based benefit. It’s also possible to take another three months without pay, and your employer can’t demote you for making that choice.
6. Employers embrace flexibility.
Many workplaces are willing to work with parents on work-life balance. It’s not uncommon for parents to work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., rather than 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and many workplaces will host kids for a week after camp ends.
7. The health-care system works for families.
The Israeli heath-care system has competition between service providers and allows for private supplementary insurance, balancing state welfare with private choice. It reportedly works smoothly, so parents don’t worry about it or get bogged down with ridiculous paperwork or co-pays. There are also well-baby clinics nationwide that monitor child development from birth.
8. Fertility treatment is free.
American adults on fertility journeys can go into debt to fund in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment, which is considered an expensive, personal choice stateside. In Israel, taxpayers cover the cost of IVF until a woman brings home two children.
9. Schools are structured for working parents.
Public school starts at age three. The group that typically runs aftercare at the local school also organizes activities on days school is closed but parents must work. Beyond that, museums, national parks, and malls all have kid-specific programming, especially during school vacations.
10. Religious education is accessible and affordable.
Regular, non-religious daycare centers teach children about Jewish holidays and the Sabbath, much like synagogue preschools do in the United States. Local public schools include a basic level of (Jewish) religious education. For parents seeking a more religiously focused education, there are plenty of options, but the Jewish parochial school education that costs thousands of dollars per year in the United States is a few hundred shekels per month in Israel.
11. Saturday is family day.
Weekends are abbreviated in Israel, because Sunday is a workday. Between that and the Jewish Sabbath (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown), Saturday is a natural day for families to gather, and they do.
12. No helicopter parenting!
This may be the biggest one of all. Free-range parenting is the national default. Kids are independent from young ages, arranging and ferrying themselves to playdates. A 6- or 7-year-old walks to the corner store with friends for ice cream. Ten-year-olds regularly cross Tel Aviv on scooters or on the bus with friends.
Parenting in Israel offers more freedom to both kids and parents. It also seems to result in happier parents with more kids. Not all of these aforementioned ideas would transfer, but some of them well might. America, let’s discuss.