Sweet child of mine By Richard Tomkins
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: June 24 2006 03:00 | Last updated: June 24 2006 03:00
One of life's larger mysteries, though one not often addressed, is why people in developed countries persist in procreating long after children have ceased to offer their parents any practical benefit.
In centuries past, having children made sense: they worked for a living and were important contributors to the family's economic welfare. In the countryside they would be fetching water and minding the pigs or sheep by the age of six or seven, and with industrialisation they could be ushered into gainful employment in the factories, sweatshops or mines. Later in life they would typically provide the only means of support for any parents surviving into old age.
Now, however, children are worse than useless. Far from making any economic contribution to family life or even supporting themselves, they loaf around at school all day or otherwise while away the hours in recreation, devouring cash and drastically reducing the family's standard of living. Later, burdened by mortgages and student debt, they are more likely to be relying on their aged parents for even more hand-outs than offering to finance their retirement.
And so, we are presented with a paradox. Just at the point when children have become more expensive and more useless to their parents than at any time in history, they seem to be more adored than ever. Parents and society alike have become obsessively child- centric, tormenting themselves with anxiety over the safety and well-being of babies, toddlers and schoolchildren while simultaneously spoiling and indulging them with unprecedented levels of spending.
Consider: in Britain, the government has a minister for children and has launched an initiative called Every Child Matters, with its own website. The television schedules bulge with reality TV series on parenting skills such as Little Angels, Honey We're Killing the Kids, House of Tiny Tearaways and Driving Mum and Dad Mad. Even quite small children are placed at the centre of big family decisions on where to go on holiday, what car to buy or where to live. And it sometimes seems that everyone has to have a baby, with celebrities flaunting them, single career women obtaining them using sperm donors, gay couples adopting them and the elderly conceiving them through medical intervention.
The Baby Dior boutique that opened last year in London's Knightsbridge is a sign of how far we have come from the days when people worried about sparing the rod and spoiling the child. Here, in an appropriately miniaturised version of Christian Dior's flagship Avenue Montaigne store in Paris, parents can dress their offspring in an appropriately miniaturised version of Christian Dior couture. For girls aged up to 12, there are scaled-down versions of Christian Dior's ready-to-wear range at around £400 for a pretty summer dress, or for that very special girl, there is a little sheepskin jacket, admittedly gorgeous, with a price tag of £1,950. For baby, there are Dior dummies at £23, tiny white Dior booties at £48 a pair and Dior all-in-ones in a cashmere mix at £110 a throw.
"People are spending more and more money now on babies and children. They want the best for them," says Marie Motreff, store manager. "And if you are wearing designer, you want your children to wear designer as well."
She has a point. If you are dressed from head to foot in Christian Dior, you are hardly going to kit your baby out in Woolworths' Ladybird. Even so, mini designer fashion is a very recent phenomenon. What has changed to make parents and society want to lavish so much time, money and attention not just on children's clothing but on every aspect of their young lives?
A simple answer would be that it is a reaction to scarcity. Birth rates in most developed countries have fallen to lows never before seen in peacetime. If there are only one or two children in a family, each child may seem more special (and will certainly command a larger share of family spending) than if there were 10 or 20.
And yet... just as in economics, the idea that there is a fixed amount of work to be shared out among the available workers is known as the lump of labour fallacy, perhaps there is similarly a lump of love fallacy; in other words, maybe it is equally erroneous to suppose there is a fixed amount of parental love to be shared out among the available offspring.
Conventional wisdom holds that when children were more plentiful they were held in much less affection. In earlier ages, it is said, children were treated much as chattels. Horrifyingly high mortality rates discouraged parents from too much emotional investment in their offspring. Often they were not even named until they had shown good prospects of survival, and if they later died their names were recycled and used for subsequent children.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Philippe Aries and Lloyd deMause, two French writers of early influential books on the history of childhood, claimed that our attitudes towards children had undergone a transformation over the centuries. Aries said in Centuries of Childhood that "in medieval society, the idea of childhood did not exist" while deMause asserted in The History of Childhood: "The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of childcare, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorised and sexually abused."
More recently, however, a different view has emerged. Yes, say historians, a lot of children had it tough in olden times, as did a lot of adults, but they were no less loved than they are today.
"I think nearly all historians now would reject the idea that parents didn't care for their children in the past," says Hugh Cunningham, professor of social history at Kent University and author of The Invention of Childhood, a book due to accompany a BBC Radio 4 series of the same name in September. In fact, he says, there is a weight of evidence pointing in the opposite direction, some of it going back as far as the so-called Dark Ages.
He cites Gregory of Tours in the 6th century describing a famine that "attacked young children first of all, and to them it was fatal; and so we lost our little ones, who were so dear to us, whom we cherished in our bosoms and dandled in our arms, whom we fed and nurtured with such loving care. As I write, I wipe away my tears."
Admittedly, Cunningham says, some children had a harsher time of it in the 16th and 17th centuries after the Reformation, when Protestants and particularly Puritans believed babies were born in sin and baptism alone would not save them. "If you believe your child is a sinful and polluted creature, your response to it is likely to be different than if you believe it's come straight from heaven as the Romantics later did."
But if some parents were especially strict with their offspring, it was not because they did not love them. "They were convinced that unless they brought to them a sense of the necessity of salvation, their children would go to hell," Cunningham says. Clearly, the thought would create tremendous anxiety. In fact, "I sometimes think the Puritans were as obsessed with children as we are, but for different reasons," he says.
In the US, Steven Mintz, a history professor at Houston University and author of Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood, agrees that parents loved their children and grieved when they died - though they may have tried to avoid over-investing in new-borns because of high infant mortality. "Mark Twain's parents waited five months before giving him a name because he had been born several weeks prematurely and seemed likely to die," he says.
If parents sometimes tried to hide their feelings about a child's death, Mintz says, there was a good reason for it. "Before the 19th century, parents were told by ministers [of religion] to suppress their emotions. Highly emotional grieving was considered a self- indulgence and, among the more religious, as a criticism of God's sovereignty."
So, parents have always loved their children even if they have not always shown it. But one small flaw in this otherwise heart-warming tale of doting down the ages is the apparent eagerness of mums, in the days before contraception, to abandon unwanted babies at an alarming rate. In the early 18th century, when philanthropist Thomas Coram started campaigning to establish London's first foundling hospital, up to 1,000 infants a year were being abandoned in the capital.
Cunningham cautions that it would be unwise to read too much heartlessness into such statistics. Any woman poor, hungry or desperate enough to desert an infant probably did so in the belief that abandonment offered the best hope of survival to mother and baby alike, especially if the child were illegitimate, which would disqualify the mother from employment. And women did not give up their babies without grief, as is evident to anyone who visits the Foundling Museum on the site of the original Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury.
Once inside the museum, parents of a sentimental disposition should equip themselves with plenty of Kleenex before perusing the exhibits too closely. It turns out that mothers leaving their babies at the hospital, which opened in 1741, often clung to the forlorn hope that they would one day be reunited with their children if they came upon better times. To this end, they left pathetic tokens with their babies to help identify them later in life: keys, lockets, bracelets and other trinkets, which are now on show.
As well as tokens, some mothers left heart-rending notes and poems. "Go, gentle babe, and all thy life be happiness and love," one mother wrote (or, more likely, had written for her). Another, handing over her infant son, left the words:
"If fortune shall her favours give That I in better plight may live I'd try to have my boy again And train him up the best of men."
Is all this to suggest that our obsession with children is nothing new? Not quite. Parents of the past may have loved their children every bit as much as those of today, but there is no doubt that we live in a more child-centric age. You have only to look at the way children have taken centre stage in politics, or the panics over children's education and health, or the desire of parents to create the perfect childhood - and their guilt about failing to do so.
According to one prominent theory, the roots of the phenomenon lie in a reaction to the 15 years of economic privation and upheavals leading up to the end of the second world war. People who grew up during the Depression and the war that followed it had been deprived of many of childhood's pleasures and were determined to give their own children better lives. Perhaps you could have said that of any previous generation of parents, but the difference this time was that, thanks to the post-war economic boom, parents were in a position to do something about it.
"For parents whose own childhoods were scarred by war and insecurity, the impulse to marry, bear children and provide them with a protected childhood was intense," Mintz writes in Huck's Raft. "Childlessness became a sign of maladjustment and parenthood a sign of maturity and success."
Within 30 years of its first publication in 1946, parents of the baby-boom generation had made Dr Benjamin Spock's The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care one of the best-selling books of the 20th century. As usual, then, it is all about the baby-boomers, and has been going on ever since.
But the real explanation may go back further: to the regulation and eventual abolition of child labour and the subsequent introduction of compulsory education, a process that began in the 19th century and continued into the first half of the 20th. Cunningham calls this mass migration of children from the workplace to the schoolroom probably the most important transition to have occurred in the history of childhood, precisely for the reason noted at the outset: by eliminating the productive role of children, it turned them from an asset into a liability.
The point is, the transition did not leave children unwanted. On the contrary, as if to compensate for the loss of their economic value, the sentimental value of children soared. Since children no longer generated any cash, the whole of their value lay in the emotional gratification they brought. And since money can't buy you love, children became almost literally priceless.
In her book Pricing the Priceless Child, Viviana A. Zelizer, a Princeton University sociology professor, tells how parents in the US started insuring themselves against the deaths of their children not for the loss of the child's earning power, as in the past, but for the emotional loss they would suffer. And the courts started awarding parents much higher levels of compensation.
The 20th century also saw the emergence of what you might call adoption for pleasure. Previously, people usually only adopted children from outside their extended family if they needed cheap labour: in the children's classic Anne of Green Gables, published in 1908, the Cuthberts ask the orphanage in Nova Scotia to send them a boy to help on the farm, and get the freckle-faced Anne by mistake. Yet by the 1930s, Zelizer reports, a black market for unwanted children had emerged in the US, and childless couples were shelling out big money for blue-eyed boys or fair-haired girls with no intention whatever of putting them to work.
"The new market for children was shaped by children's non-economic appeal," Zelizer writes. "While in the 19th century a child's capacity for labour had determined its exchange value, the market price of a 20th- century baby was set by smiles, dimples and curls."
Perhaps, then, we are now nearer knowing why people persist in having children. Some may be motivated by romantic love, or a desire to carry on the family line, or a primeval urge to perpetuate the species. Others may just be too drunk to put on a condom. But, for the rest, we have to conclude that whether adopting other people's children or conceiving their own, they do it largely for emotional satisfaction.
"Children don't ask to be born, so by and large, we have them to meet our own needs. That's the bottom line," says Jack Boyle, a Scottish psychologist with a specialism in family dynamics. "As lifelong companions and friends, for example, they're much more reliable than your partners. They're less likely to divorce you or abuse you or batter you and they're a much better bet as a support system in your old age."
As well as being a source of affection, children can also, of course, be a source of immense pride. But it goes beyond that. They have become an extension of the parents' selves and a vital part of their parents' claim to status. The names they bear, the clothes they wear, the schools they attend, the instruments they play, the food they eat, the values they reflect - all bear witness to their parents' supposed intelligence, sensibility and good taste. The child's success is the parent's success and nothing must be allowed to stand in its way.
As Mintz says, in today's highly competitive environment, parents want fewer but "higher quality" children and invest more resources in them to try to promote their success. "Parents want to protect and perfect their own kids, while viewing other parents' kids as a problem. Instead of caring about kids in general, we care about our own kid."
Naturally, the flip side of that greater investment in fewer children is heightened parental anxiety about anything that might threaten their children's welfare. "We no longer worry about kids' posture or whether they write neatly or clean their fingernails," Mintz says. "We worry obsessively about their health, safety and academic achievement."
Thus the term "hyper-parenting" has come into use to describe today's anxiety-driven, success-oriented approach to child-rearing. Right from the child's birth, parents embark on a programme of enhancing their new-born's cognitive, motor, language and social skills; and later, outside school hours, its time is filled with further learning, organised sports and culturally enriching activities. They believe they must deluge their child with love and approval to bolster its self-confidence and must never call it "bad" for fear of destroying its self-esteem. They are mortified about sending it to day-care and try to compensate by turning every moment with the child into quality time involving intense communication.
The funny thing is, none of it makes a scrap of difference to the way children turn out: not whether they listen to Baby Einstein CDs, nor whether their mothers work or stay at home, nor whether the parents are adoring or mean. Ample studies and decades of evidence have shown that about half the variation in a person's personality comes directly from their parents' genes and the rest is shaped by forces outside the home, notably their peer group and the neighbourhood in which they grow up.
"Parental upbringing does nothing at all to form the child's character," says Judith Rich Harris, author of the newly published No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality, which sets out to bring the science behind this still poorly understood reality to a wider audience. (The evidence comes from studies showing, for example, that adult siblings end up equally similar whether they grow up together or apart, and that unrelated children adopted by the same parents end up no more similar than people plucked off the street at random.)
This does not mean that the parenting role is unimportant. Clearly, it has a big and lasting effect on the relationship between the child and its parents, Harris says. "It also has a profound effect on how children behave at home, on how they get along with their siblings, which is a life-long relationship, and on how happy or unhappy people are in childhood - because if things are going badly at home, it's hard for a child to be happy."
The other big effect parents have, apart from bestowing their characteristics on their children through their genes, arises from the decisions they make about the environment in which their children grow up. At an extreme, a child brought up as an Amish will have a different personality from one brought up in mainstream US culture. And if the parents move to another country, their children will adopt the culture and personality traits of people in the new country, unless they are brought up in a tight-knit community of other, similar, immigrants.
But if obsessional parenting makes no difference to the way children turn out, why bother? What, after all, is the point of adults sacrificing their peace of mind and even their enjoyment of life for their children if all the children have to look forward to when they grow up is making exactly the same sacrifices for their own offspring?
Harris, a grandmother herself, agrees. "I think it's harmful to family life," she says. "The home is no longer being run by parents, it's being run more by the children, and children don't really know how to run the home as well as parents do.
"I think parents have a right to a peaceful home life just as children do and that, on the whole, it works better if adults are in charge. But parents are no longer willing to be in charge, and that's unfortunate - not because it's going to harm their children in the long run, but because it's made family life a lot more chaotic."
No one is saying children should be sent back down the pit, but something seems to have been lost amid the modern-day desire to treat childhood as a project with the perfect child as the desired outcome. Perhaps, for everyone's sake, parents should just back off a little. You never know: parenting could even turn out to be fun. So could being a kid.