Are Children Worth It? When People Forego Parenting

Kids Are Worth It: What happens when society decides that remaining childless is better?

Are children worth it? That’s a question many adults are asking today, and as they look around at mortgage debt and popsicle mess and day care woes, many are deciding they’re not. I think kids ARE worth it–and if society doesn’t agree, we’re in trouble.

I talked about this back in a column in 2005, and I thought I’d rerun it now. I understand some women don’t have children, even though they desperately want to, because of infertility issues, and this column is definitely not directed at you. I know how painful that is. But more and more are choosing not to have kids, and I wanted to address that today.

I’m really not sure why I had children, except that I was supposed to. I wanted someone to love me, and I wanted to love in return, but I didn’t think about it much beyond that.

Fifty years ago, that would have been true for just about everybody. Today it’s not. More and more people are choosing to remain childless (and more are childless not by choice, but that’s another story). In Canada our birth rate now hovers around 1.6, far below the replacement level needed of 2.1. And it’s not because families are getting smaller; it’s because more people, even those in committed relationships, are choosing not to have families at all.

While for an individual couple this may be the best choice, for a society it certainly isn’t.

If we want Canada as a nation and a culture to survive, we need a higher birth rate. So why is it plummeting?

I read recently on Steve Janke’s blog the proposition that it’s because children no longer have value. Before you jump all over me, let me elaborate. At one point, Janke explained, children were your retirement savings plan and your health insurance. They took care of you if you were old or sick. Once the government stepped in into these roles, we didn’t “need” children in the same practical way we did before.

I would even go one step further and say that in those glorious “olden days” when people walked to school uphill both ways, children would have added economically to your household. They were expected to help on the farm or the business. Having children enabled you to have a larger house, a larger farm, and generally prosper more than you would have otherwise. Today it’s the opposite. Children don’t add; they subtract. We live in a child-centred world where it is us who are expected to work: we must drive our kids to lessons; sacrifice time to help them with homework; save a fortune for their education. When we have kids, we have more work, not less work.

And so I think there’s something else going on. If you’re a young adult surveying the parental scene, you see harried parents chronically short on cash because hockey costs so much this year. You see them tying themselves in knots because their toddler won’t sleep through the night, their seven-year-old can’t read, or their teenager has gotten into the wrong crowd. It looks like a recipe for an ulcer.

The one thing you can’t see is what’s going on inside those parents.

You don’t see what happens in the heart the first time you hold your baby. You can’t see what being a parent does to you; how it makes you love life so much more, care about the world so much more, or brings a richness to your life you never believed possible. I am not saying that non-parents can’t experience love; only that being a parent is a joy like no other, and cannot truly be comprehended until one experiences it.

There once were enough societal and economic pressures to have children that people tended to make that choice, and so they did experience that joy. Today, with those pressures gone, how many will decide not to procreate, and in so doing lose the joy that we only realize once we’ve already taken the plunge?

At one point parenthood was one of the experiences that we all had in common.

We had all gone through labour in some form or another, or stayed up all night with a child with croup, or kissed a boo-boo. Even if language or religion or culture or class separated us, we were all parents. When we lose these shared experiences we lose a shared culture. Parenting is hard work, and it requires more sacrifice today, perhaps, than it did a century ago. But it is still worth it. I know some will always choose to remain childless, and that’s okay. But I hope our country as a whole does not turn its back on parenthood. Babies are our future, and they really are irreplaceable.

After this column was out, I was interviewed on CBC radio and asked on a TV show to talk about why kids are worth it. You can see a little clip from that TV show here.

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  1. Danielle says:

    I’m often times amazed at how God brings things to my path when I need them most. After experiencing my third loss I have been on a journey to find what God has planned for growing our family. Should we try again? Adopt? Or just be content with the two He has already blessed us with. Despite the desire I have nearly every other hour of the day to add to our family, on the days when behavior is not what I’d like, or the checkbook balance is less than I want, or the fear of trying again and losing once more grips me, I have used all of the reasons you gave for not having more children. We could go on vacations as a family, we could get a better car, we can afford to get our girls things. Then I watch them playing together and my heart wrenches for the other sibling(s) who could have a chance to be loved by these girls. Thank you for the reminder that the calling of being a parent far outweighs the benefits of stuff. Thank you for letting God use you on this day with this topic that I have been fasting and praying about for the last 22 days.

    • sasha dence says:

      I will pray too that you are blessed with another child. We *need* more mothers like you.

    • Oh, Danielle, I’m so sorry about your miscarriage! I’m glad that I could speak to you today, but I’m still so sorry. I pray that God will comfort you.

  2. sasha dence says:

    This is referring to the article “Children are Worth It”. Absolutely agree with all that Sheila said here and would like to add a couple of things.

    I think there is even more going on than the fact that kids aren’t practical — and they aren’t. For all the reasons cited here — they cost rather than contribute. I think a lot of people also think of the population explosion of the world and worry. 7 billion and counting sounds like chosen sterility is a good option. Even a socially responsible one. The strange thing is that it is the Western world — Europe, America, Australia etc. that are slowly committing population suicide — those of us supposedly ‘enlightened’ during the Age of Reason (by the so-called “Enlightenment”). Life isn’t, for us, supposed to be about love. It is supposed to be about achievement and in particular, personal achievement. Individual achievement and achievement is defined as that which is product of the brain or the body (athletics). Spiritual and heart achievement is maybe recognised once a year by a token card or flower but no one really takes it all that seriously except in some marginal circles. But Gloria Steinem gets the big awards — mothers get a bunch of dandelions. That God values those dandelions so much more is not mainstream. To return to the topic at hand:children I want to add to what Sheila said. Yes, they are a joy — a joy that is different than the joy that comes from achievement. It is almost mystical and undefinable and that is why parents sometimes get in trouble because it is so hard to articulate. We are a society that demands articulation. But I want to stress another side of parenting that it is crucial that every adult member of society experience apart from that joy. Growing up. The saying goes that it isn’t adults that make children– children make adults. Once the child is born, every parent undergoes a Copernican revolution. Our centre of gravity shifts. We are simply not able to live as self centred people anymore. Of course we still do and some more than others but we are forever (and it almost always is forever now) tied to the demands of another. We can divorce the demands of a spouse — the law will let us. Not so the demands of a child. And the gradual, constant, year-in-year-out refining of our selves that parenting requires is of enormous and necessary value to society. Without children we wouldn’t have the 24/7 coaching, instructing and disciplining of being forced to consider someone besides oneself. That is also at night is the beauty (some would say, the horror!) of this training. We can’t escape it and it penetrates places that nothing else in our experience will. We can demand that a spouse, friend, other relative, society, respect our need for sleep and privacy — you can’t demand that of a baby. What happens when the bulk of the population do not pass through that training? What happens when many do not endure that refining. Of course not everyone who has children comes out the other end finally understanding that they are not the centre of their own universe, just as some people go through college without getting their degree, but to not have the college? To not have the process available? And to have made it so optional that many, understandably, can say, no way? This is worrying in a culture that already glorifies the individual living for her/himself . For sure, we applaud individual acts of courage or heroism, but the daily, ordinary heroism of parenting is much more likely to produce a changed person, a person capable of genuine acts of unselfish love, than a single act of courage. What we don’t get as a society is that love is a discipline — it is hard work. We aren’t born knowing how to love others or ourselves for that matter. We associate love with feeling love. The daily practise of it, is not either automatically understood or performed, nor is it encouraged or nurtured in Western society. Western society has been about success of a different kind. But success of the heart? The family, and in particular, the children, is the ‘easiest’ most natural and readily accessible training ground for education in the practise of love. Without children what will happen to us? One must shudder to think. Children aren’t only joy and that must be emphasised too, otherwise a defense of them will sound to those uninterested in the trouble and expense, like maudlin sentiment. It isn’t — the joy is real, but so is the labour and the sheer overwhelming demands of the job (especially if you’re rearing boys — no one wants to talk about the difference between rearing boys to rearing girls — my daughter was easily half the work, and not just practically, but in terms of stress. She was endlessly more co operative than my sons) need to be seen, I think, in the positive light that they offer. the work is worth it. For the western world, and for the individual — but that is only true if becoming successful in terms of the heart is valued as much as other kinds of success. That, it seems to me, is what we need to change.

  3. It’s true that in a financial sense children do usually subtract, BUT in spiritual sense they multiply your capacity to love on others! I love this passage of Scripture: “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. *Happy* is the man who has his quiver full of them.” ~ Psalm 127:3-5a

    I’ve also heard it said that “The only child you will ever regret having is the one you didn’t.” That’s certainly true for me and my husband. Although we have 3 children, we regret that we didn’t have more. Children are such a blessing!
    A Heart to Know recently posted…The Wickedness of FollyMy Profile

  4. Charlotte says:

    I think that if the only reason you are having children is to have a retirement plan and a health plan for when you age, you are acting selfishly. Do children have value? Absolutely. Is that value hard to see outside of being a parent? Yes. But if you enter parenthood already thinking about what those children will do for you–that’s the wrong attitude and can lead to many problems later. Hopefully the attitude changes when the children are here, but frankly I’m grateful that’s not the reason people are entering into parenthood anymore–today, even though the numbers are shrinking, at least many people who enter parenthood are doing so because they want those children for more than the security they can provide to your twilight years.

  5. Roger Chylla says:

    Probably the biggest struggle for a Western society that prizes individual liberty is how to reconcile one of our basic values with one of our basic needs. We value individual choice which includes the choice to be a parent or not. How could something so demanding be anything but someone’s choice? We have to reconcile that value with the reality that there is nothing more mandatory than society having a suitable number of children. You are absolutely correct that a birth rate of 1.6 children is not economically or socially sustainable. Sadly, many people (including so called “educated” people) are completely in the dark about the threat of underpopulation. Many of them are still worrying about the opposite problem of overpopulation which is completely non-existent in Europe and North America.

    I also don’t think we can try to “bribe” adults into parenthood with tax breaks, child care subsides, etc. Some of these ideas may be good policy to reduce the economic burden of parenting but none of them will change the reality that in our society we will be wealthier if we are childless. The only path that’s clear is exactly the one you stated which is a sense of mission that we instill in ourselves and our children. We have children because that’s what life is all about, giving and nurturing life to others. There are very few people who regret being parents.

  6. If you want to read a great book about why we are really screwing ourselves over as a nation and from an economical point of view then check out the book “What to Except When No Ones Expecting”.

    A friend of mine wrote it and it’s a good eye opener. I have given birth to 5 children and all were and still are totally worth it.
    I understand why nonchristians don’t want children which is why that book is good for anyone in that position. It’s hard for me to understand when Christians don’t desire children because I would say 99% of them do not want kids because they are so immersed in ministry or really using their “free” time to further God’s Kingdom… its because they want time for themselves and do what they want to do. It’s like a whole new level of being selfish. We understand as Christians what we are suppose to be doing (spreading the gospel and making disciples) so if kids aren’t in your life and you aren’t doing the most important thing we should we doing to a broken world.. its really not a very meaningful life.

  7. To Danielle and others who are wanting children and having difficulty, my heart goes out to you 😀 Please – in no way – hear any condemnation in my words. Additionally, as Christians there are sometimes very good reasons to choose to be childless. We have friends who minister in very dangerous places. When my husband and I married he had recently finished cancer treatment and we wanted to wait until he was “out of the woods” before we had children.

    But (here’s the but…) I believe our “default position” as Christians ought to be having children. In Malachi 2 (speaking of marriage and divorce) we read, “And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring.” We forget that we’re not in charge of everything. It’s not all about us and our convenience and our desires. God is refining me through parenting (though it would be self-centered of me to think that’s the highest purpose my kids will serve!) and He is growing and developing three fine young men. Who knows what they will do in the future! For the family? For the community? For the Kingdom of God? He is seeking godly offspring.

    Doesn’t mean every “good Christian” will marry and have children. Again, no judgement or condemnation! Just a plea to reorient our thinking in line with God’s, rather than the culture’s.
    julie recently posted…So, Riddle Me This…My Profile

  8. So funny that you re-ran this article now. We are currently visiting my mom who lives in Germany. The birth rate here too is horribly low, and my husband and I have been discussing it through out our visit as our two little ones draw attention to themselves in a non-child-loving society. I have been explaining to my All-American husband about how unchildfriendly it is here, and as he gets to experience it he just keeps quietly and sarcastically commenting to me “and the mystery of the decline of the German population grows”.
    I’ve also been thinking about it in connection with how liberaly sexuality is treated here. And I wonder too if it doesn’t have something to do with the fact that when society as a whole does not consist of couples committed exclusively to one another over a lifetime, why trust someone enough to want to start a family. I mean on a subcouncious level I wonder if the fact that casual sex is so common, that people don’t really develop those deeper connections that make you want to go through parenthood together. Not sure if that makes sense, but its just what I’ve been thinking about this last week.

    • That’s a really good point! “Why trust someone…” Absolutely. But do you think that it’s that much more sexually liberated there than it is here? That would be an interesting study.

      • Yes, it is much more sexually liberated in Europe. Well I don’t know how it is in Canada, but we live in liberal California and I find Germany is much more liberal. I’ve spent most of my life going back and forth between the cultures, and it is nothing new, even as a kid I could tell it was much more sexual here. Not that it is all bad, there is more comfort with the human body. But that comfort does go too far. Though I’m not offended with women sunbathing topless, shows on TV that are concidered soft core porn in the US are just normal evening programming here (and this was already the case 20 – 25 years ago, because I remember my aunt making fun of what Americans considered porn then, because it was just evening TV here). I don’t know if it is still around (I imagine it is) but at least when I was a teen and even before that, there was a magazine aimed at teens that not only talked about music and celebreties but was basically pornographic too. It was aimed at teens and would give actual sex advice aimed at teens and those early experiences. It even inlcuded picture romance stories, with nudity. Marriage is rare, divorce high. And I just think it must all be connected and lead to this anti-child attitude.

        • Yes, I remember when I was in Europe in the late 80s and I saw all the porn magazines for sale on sidewalks–with covers that would never have been allowed here. And I remember a commercial in France for shampoo with a naked woman in the shower–and you saw everything. That was really odd. So there’s definitely something there! Good point to ponder.

  9. Between my wife and I, we have 7 siblings. Of those, only 1 has children, though all but 2 are married, and one of those is engaged. The engaged one plans to have children. The rest do not. I don’t understand it. Between my brother and I, we will have 9 children by next spring, not enough to “replace” both our siblings and their spouses. But beyond that…they are missing out on what it means to be a parent, and that’s sad, because I think becoming a parent helps you to learn so many things, not only about managing a household, about mentoring, training, educating (we home school), but also it teaches us about God, I think, about He, as our Father, feels about us, in some small way.

    And that’s besides all the joy they are missing out on just by watching children grow, and being a part of that.

    But their stated reasons are “it costs too much” and “I like not being tied down.” So, they will trade all that for gadgets, for vacations, for being able to go to the movies…

    I’ve also noticed that they have no concept of what it is to be a parent, to have responsibilities. They don’t understand that we can’t just drop everything and go see a movie, or go to a concert (with 4 kids under the age of 9). They don’t understand that a $100 night out is quite unacceptable for a single income family of 6. And when they try to politely decline their invitations, we are seen as being unreasonable, as being anti-social, as being uninterested in doing things with them. But when we invite them to a low-cost alternative…no one is interested. They need to be entertained. Whereas our friends who are parents are more than willing just to sit around a fire and talk.

    I think children change you, and for the better.

    /* End of rant */
    Jay Dee – recently posted…Book Review: The Passion PrinciplesMy Profile

  10. Oddly enough, part of the reason I wanted to have more than one child came from my experiences as an only child and from my observations of my mom’s family (12 kids!) There is a certain kind of positive experience that I can try to provide for my children when they have siblings that doesn’t happen as much in any other setting – friendship, teamwork, manners, kindness and opportunities for unselfishness. I’m hoping that they grow to be honest and supportive of each other all the way into adulthood.

    I think that even in the “good old days” when more children meant the potential for more prosperity and suppose for aging parents that there still would have to have been a lot of training and guidance to bring the children into that role. Raising children requires effort, no matter where or when you live.

  11. I agree that kids are worth it, for so many reasons.. but I have to say for myself that if I had not waited until I was ready to give myself over to my daughter, I would not be enjoying her as much. So many people struggle, and do not get to see the rewards because they were not ready when they had kids.. I see them in the news-their kids harmed, neglected.. we haven’t helped these parents so we are all somewhat at fault, but we have to consider that maybe some of these folks just weren’t set up to raise their kids.

    I am glad I was able to achieve all of my personal ( you can even call them selfish if you want) goals before my daughter was born. Now, I feel a sense of contentment just being what I am now.

    I respect people that make the choice to not plunge in if they aren’t committed to it for whatever reason. They know their hearts.

    Does it lessen the value of kids? I don’t think that is what did it.. that started long ago before this trend.
    itzybellababy recently posted…#BringBackOurGirls Month 3 UpdateMy Profile

  12. This topic has been on my mind for awhile. My husband and I have been married for 6 years and have discussed whether or not we want to have kids. Right now I don’t think we will.

    I always assumed I would have children because that was just the expectation – I can’t count how many times my granny said to me “When you have one or two of your own….” – but now I realize that assumption was purely based on the expectation and not on what I call my God-feeling. (God spoke to me before I was even dating my husband to tell me he would be the person I would marry, and I’ve always felt specific pulling in my life for various life decisions.) But as for kids, that’s just not on my heart. It’s a struggle because I have to manage the expectations of family members and try to get them to understand that they shouldn’t expect us to get pregnant anytime soon but I also don’t know if it’s out of the picture entirely, either.

    I guess my point is that my husband and I revisit the topic often because I start to second guess what I truly believe God has in store for us, for exactly the reasons you pointed out above…but we always come to the same conclusion: if we are meant to be parents, God will let us know when…and how. (Adoption always follows close on my mind after these discussions so maybe that will be our path.) And my other point is that I don’t think its fair for my family to put pressure on us, especially after I’ve explained our position to them. If you have any pointers for how to manage that…I am all ears!
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    • Hi Sommerrenae! I think adoption is a WONDERFUL adoption, and very much in line with the heart of God. If that’s where you think God may be pushing you, then that’s wonderful!

      I think you do need to pray about it and just be open for anything. As for how to get your family not to put pressure, I don’t have any easy answers for that one, except to say up front how you feel. I know that as a mom I SO want to be a grandma, so I understand the heart’s desire of your family, too. Being an aunt is awesome as well. I guess you just share your heart and ask them to respect it, but also know that if you decide not to, that’s a huge grief for your family as well, and maybe give them some grace, too. It may not be that they’re trying to pressure you as much as it’s just something they really want.

  13. Hi Sheila…
    I have been following your blogs and my husband and I are currently reading 31 days together. I love your biblical principles and how you aren’t afraid to talk about anything!!
    That being said…my hubby and I have been married for almost 7 years and do not have children. I am not sure if we will. I love children…I have a heart for them…but other people’s kids. I work with two year olds 3 days a week and I have 9 nieces and nephews. I do not feel I am being selfish as one previously commented just because I want to be an influence to children that parents are not like you lovely ladies. Some parents even in my own family, do not take care of their kids and treat them like they should be. My hubby and I provide a safe and fun place for them to come so they have some type of normalcy and see what a loving married couple should look like. I know once we would have children of our own, that would change. I agree with Sommer, that if God wants us to be parents he will let us know.
    Thank you for your wonderful advice and articles and for the opportunity to express our opinions as well.

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