Paul Tuns, Review:

Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be
by Timothy P. Carney (Harper, $36.99, 
343 pages)

Invariably, it seems, Timothy Carney’s Family Unfriendly and Brad Wilcox’s Get Married are getting reviewed together. Not here. Both are deserving of their own treatment. The Wilcox review will appear next month.

Carney, a Catholic father of six, tackles the subject of low fertility and small family size through a combination of data, personal anecdotes, the reported stories of others, and strong argumentation to show that in much of the West, but North American in particular, has a culture that is thoroughly unfriendly to family.

Carney has an agenda: to encourage readers to embrace having (more) children and to suggest policy changes that would make those choices easier. (He recently wrote a Washington Post column arguing that the best family size is “at least” four children.) He is a full-throttle natalist who advocates policies that would make having children easier and more affordable but more importantly he wants to change the way people think about having kids.

Family Unfriendly opens with a story about the life-changing experience of attending a casual baseball game and fish try at his local church. Children enjoying playing sports – not competing in them, but playing – and adults enjoying a carefree evening out with other parents. It was “an oasis of freedom in a culture where everyday parenting could be a harrowing slog.” Why, he wonders, is there not more of this? The answer is that there is a family unfriendly culture.

Many couples are eschewing large families because the costs of having a kid has become burdensome. By cost Carney means not only the financial costs, which can be considerable, but the time. Parenting – more about that anon – can be exhausting because of the “plague of parental anxiety” in which many mothers and fathers “feel guilty that they are not doing more” to help their children succeed in life. Endless tutoring and private lessons, high-level sports and dance, requires not only a significant expenditure to compete, but demands a great deal of time not only from the children who are learning, practicing and competing, but the parents whose jobs have come to be defined as part-time chauffer for their kids.

Another cost is the constant oversight of children. The fear that parents have that their young (and not-so-young) children will encounter dangers in the world lead to helicopter parenting that does their sons and daughters no favours in helping to build resiliency. (Helicopter parenting also implies “an uncharitable view of our fellow man” in which we “cannot trust our neighbour.”)

Survey data going back to the 1950s shows that mothers today spend more time with their children than ever before (really!). But whereas our grandparents and parents often looked after three, four or more children, today’s mothers and fathers typically are caring for one child, two max. That’s because there is effectively an arms race in which upper class and upper middle class families do everything they can to ensure little Johnny and little Jane get into the best schools and that requires beginning to build their resumes when in early elementary school (if not earlier). Taking part in sports, the arts, and other activities is not about the enriching activity itself, but giving kids a leg up on their future competitors for spots in elite schools. A growing number of middle class and lower middle class families are drawn into this arms race to create “high achievers at a young age.” Many parents dread being thought neglectful by their peers. Ultimately, this means that parents are defining themselves by their children’s worldly successes. But it also means that these activities, rather than enlarging the world for these children, are narrowing it; young elite athletes dedicate their lives to one sport, a musical instrument becomes the sole focus of a young would-be prodigy’s life. But as Carney notes, most young athletes and musicians will not become prodigies. They will, however, become miserable, maladjusted adults.

Carney offers some advice to parents: don’t worry so much. Resist the “cultural pathology” that “makes parenting harder than it should be.” He notes that “all of your investment can only make small differences around the edges,” so “instead of planning every hour of the week to maximize your child’s chances of success, try having fun.”

Carney says “a culture that makes raising kids too hard will bring about a society that has fewer children” – precisely what we are seeing today in much of the West where fertility rates are declining quickly. Parents are “choosing quality over quantity” which Carney says is a strange way to view children, like consumer products. But it isn’t even correct. “Today’s maximum-effort, high-anxiety, low-trust parenting isn’t high-quality parenting.” See the miserable, maladjusted population this style of parenting is creating.

This style of parenting has many causes but two particular foibles upon which it rests that are worth noting is bad anthropology (the zero-sum calculus that pits your child against every other child) and bad political philosophy (the privileging of personal autonomy which rejects the uncertainty that having kids implies). The zero-sum philosophy, Carney argues, reduces trust in our society by making it “harder to love our neighbours and welcome others” when “we see other people as competitors.” (As you can see, Carney makes a lot of connections about the maladies of modern life.)

Three decades ago, conservatives derided Hillary Clinton for saying that it takes a village to raise a child. Carney embraces the sentiment (although rejects the way in which Clinton meant it as a call for ever-more government involvement). “Humans aren’t made to raise kids along,” he writes. Neighbourliness, including the designs of neighbourhoods, and prioritizing family over career are essential elements of rebuilding the village in which the family can thrive. Contra the concerns of conspiracy theorists who see a globalist cabal behind so-called 15-minute cities, Carney argues that life for families would be richer if children could walk to their schools, community centres, libraries, churches, and friends’ houses; instead, parents must chauffer their children back and forth between planned activities. Which way would be easier on parents? Modern communities keep “kids from walking and riding their bikes around,” forcing parents into what Carney calls “car Hell” – a steep cost in terms of both money and time incurred by parents.

Carney says there is a lot of work that needs to be done to change the culture. One is parental expectations for themselves. It need not be considered a second career, which the verb parenting implies: a special set of skills required to have kids. Carney laments that people do not “surrender” to having children, choosing instead to plan the optimal time and number of kids to have.

Carney offers numerous public policy changes, including housing/zoning rules to permit smaller, more affordable housing, and relaxing labour and licensing regulations to make it easier for a parent to work part-time or start a job that gives them the flexibility time with their children. He notes that daycare subsidies in Nordic countries have not buttressed birth rates but that France’s generous subsidies to mothers and families have helped the country achieve the highest (though still low) fertility rate in Western Europe at 1.5. If you want more children, you’ll have to generously subsidize parents to have them.

There is also a role for civil society and private enterprise. Businesses should provide flexible hours and create jobs that can be tailored for work-at-home or part-time employees, and provide breadwinners with a wage that can support a family. Churches and community centres need to provide moms’ and dads’ groups to help create community for stay-at-home parents (who can often feel isolated and suffer serious mental health crises when left alone solely with their own children for long stretches of time).

Carney says children and the chaos they bring into the lives of families is messy, but that human life devoid of children is sterile. But worse, the “choosing and planning” of parenthood is “an illusion”; the personal autonomy people hope to achieve is evasive. Echoing the “free-range guru” Lenore Skenazy, Carney says that “the first error of all-controlling, all-planning parents is the belief that we can control and plan a child’s life.” Quoting the writer Charles Fain Lehman, he says “all children bring unexpected and enormous changes.” And that’s good. Human beings, Carney says, are made to be dependent, a fact upon which family life was once predicated but has since been forgotten. In one of the many aha! connections Carney makes, he states that neighbourhoods with moms pushing baby buggies in the morning and dads out playing hoops with their kids in the afternoon are safer neighbourhoods for everyone. They are the low-tech surveillance that ensures everyone is on their better behaviour; building larger, thriving families benefits everyone, not just parents.

Carney’s book is a clarion call for an all-out attack on the culture that is unfriendly to forming families. Everyone, from government to businesses, from charities and churches to ourselves, has a role to play. Society, parents, and most of all our children will be better off for it.