A critique of contemporary child rearing practices

A note on ‘Raising Children’ by David F. Lancy

The more you have the less you may want children

Have you ever thought about this paradox? There is an inverse relationship between resources available for raising children and the perceived difficulty of their care, and I don’t mean to imply a causal relationship here. The pattern is likely to be related to several factors, education, employment, birth-control inventions, change in family size, mobility, among others. The more facilities we have for children’s care, the greater the fear of having children. In recent times, social support (medical, material, personal and political) for families in the task of child rearing has seen several important breakthroughs in the task of raising children. Yet, rather than leading to a surge in fertility, population growth has gone down. In other words, when we consider group trends, the greater the affluence, the lower the fertility rates. Well, mostly.

Every subsequent generation wonders about how children were raised without things that they take for granted. In urban Indian homes, young parents now find it inconceivable to imagine raising kids without cellphones, computers or CCTVs, for instance. The theme remains unchanged, even though what qualifies as ‘basic essentials” for childhood expands. We fall so easily into the trap, believing what we can provide is the very basic list of essentials for children. That children will not learn without preschool, cannot play without toys, or cannot be safe without cellphones. This is where a volume like Raising Children comes in handy. It provides us with a reality check on our ways by sharing a wide range of findings from other cultures. Heidi Keller’s Cultures of Infancy also contributes to the same literature. That our ways are only one of the numerous possibilities.

In today’s world, when it comes to child rearing, that the more we have, the more we do, the more we worry. This is also revealed by the rise in anti-natality: the conscious decision not to have children. One cannot help asking why. If there is so much material and other support available for parents, why has anti-natality surfaced? Anti-natality is mostly a choice of people who can in fact better afford children than others. Several reasons can be offered: the pressure on resources, too many people, shifting aspirations about the life-course, greater autonomy and separation, among others. Here’s an interesting essay about one person’s views: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/8-reasons-why-im-not-having-children-childfree_b_5705311. For some, the hyperbole about the inevitability of having kids can be disagreeable. Anyway, this post is more about group trends rather than individual choice, and the phenomenon that the more you have, the less likely you are to have children, when we look at it statistically. Individuals will always defy the neat patterns that research studies reveal, and thank god for that.

Are we guilty of over-parenting?

Is it because we’ve become too sensitive? Too self-absorbed? In this volume, David Lancy addresses some key issues about raising children. The opening statement of the book begs the questions: “Why, in some parts of the world, do parents rarely play with their babies and never with toddlers? Why, in some cultures, are children not fully recognized as individuals until they are older? …….Intriguing, sometimes shocking, his [Lancy] discoveries demonstrate that our ideas about children are recent, untested, and often in stark contrast with those in other parts of the world. Lancy argues that we are, by historical standards, guilty of overparenting, of micromanaging our children’s lives. Challenging many of our accepted truths, his book encourages parents to think differently about children, and, by doing so, to feel more relaxed about their own parenting skills.”

Lancy, D. L. (2017). Raising children: Surprising insights from other cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Conversations on Facebook

When I posted this statement on Facebook about anti-natality, these are the comments I received: “Does the increase in affluence and availability (of resources for infant care and child rearing) accompany a rise in anti-natality? Just thinking!”

Comments:

  • Suranya Aiyar Yes and no. There is a strong correlation to development and anti natalism in the West but traditional Christians who are very pro-natalist have and continue to oppose that doggedly every step of the way. (This is why anti natalism is much more dangerous in societies where there is no Islam or Christianity or where there is no democracy – see the cases of Japan and China and watch out for the below replacement TFR states in South India) Very soon there is also a backlash as in La Leche League and movements for home birth and breast feeding in the West. Also in families in the West where the men are employed in alpha jobs like law or finance you also see a return to natalism with the women being stay at home moms and being able to afford domestic help. What has not been studied at all is how the middle class in affluent countries actually do not have the kind of disposable income needed to run a big household. Western middle classes are less well off minus public infrastructure and public services than their counterparts in middle and low income countries. This also puts a break on family size and natalistic thinking in general.
  • Nandita Chaudhary A (related ?) conundrum from Anthropology: There is an inverse relationship between real threats to childhood and investments in safety of babies and older children. Meaning, the safer your baby is, the more you spend (time too) on security! Imagined, escalated threats like abductions fill the empty space left behind by the removal of real ones (There is historical and c-cultural evidence for this, David Lancy)
    • Vimala Ramachandran Nandita Chaudhary interesting. Opportunities for women and decreasing “need” for marriage are also important factors in reducing birth rates. Even when child rearing support systems exist in many European countries, women seem to be reluctant to have babies… on the other hand in many poor communities, despite hardships associated with child rearing, many more babies are born… UP, Bihar, Rajasthan
    • Nandita Chaudhary Vimala Ramachandran exactly! I believe it is a far more complex issue than we have realised or acknowledged. The dystopian film ‘Children of Men’ was particularly frightening. Have you seen it??
    • Tom Weisner The evidence on relative risk in the US and around the world is what Nandita says. One finding is that the more a cultural practice is embedded in daily routines important for adults and for work/survival (driving, essential family work, where we live, etc. – things that can be risky for kids) the more we do them anyway. There is a inverse relationship between actual risk and fears and perceptions of risks to kids in the US!
    • Nandita Chaudhary we are such a peculiar species Tom 🙂 thanks for your comment.
    • Vimala Ramachandran Nandita Chaudhary no must see
    • Pooja Bhargava I agree to this! Could this also be related to our instincts. One instinct is to safeguard the offspring. Once that is already well taken care if you add to it by further safeguarding the children. I see this all the time! Just my observation – single children are more protected or indulged with by parents 🤔
    • Suranya Aiyar Nandita Chaudhary Yes same in Japan and Norway and China where people are being exhorted to have more babies, given benefits even cash handouts escalating with each birth but don’t (a few rises in some districts in Japan and Norway for about 5 to 10 years and then sharp decline again in births) as anti natalism has been well.indoctrinated. The link between hardship and curbing fertility has never been established so far as I can see. Notestein’s Fertility Control (1944) concludes that fertility control practices are adopted only where the ideology for small.families has been adopted already. About Japan some say that families are not having babies as it is too expensive but as an Indian watching their standard of living I find that hard to believe. It is attitudes bred by modernisation and not money at play here as far as I can make out.

The pictures are used for representative purpose only. Images: Reshu Tomar

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