Children aren’t pets

When did it become okay to degrade children?

Artillery Row

“I just don’t like kids.” “I’m not a baby person.” For a society obsessed with language and its implications, we remain remarkably blasé about how we frame and discuss our attitudes towards the next generation.

The culture rather encourages such statements, welcoming them as rebellion against the impositions of normative traditions. Patriarchy tells women they must adore infants, but today’s enlightened age allows us to throw off our shackles and proclaim otherwise. Commercialised heteronormativity once taught us that everyone dreams of 2.3 kids and a house, but now we understand that happy families come in all patterns and sizes, including none at all. Thus we embrace ideas that would otherwise offend.

Children are helpless to advocate for themselves

The shift in language attends a rise in child-hostile practices: abortions, vasectomies, marrying with the avowed intention of never having children. People offer a range of justifications: personal (“children disgust, bore, frighten me”), financial (“I can’t afford children”), even humanitarian (“I’m doing my part to save the planet”).

These attitudes make traditional cultures alien in their celebrations of fruitful families. The psalmist who gave us the term “fruit of the womb” lauds children as “arrows in the hand of a warrior… Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!” (Psalm 127:3-5).

One might argue that agricultural-based societies like ancient Israel calculated the cost-benefit ratio of an additional pair of arms and legs very differently, particularly when taking into account staggering infant mortality and childhood death rates. Even in a modern context, the discourse has shifted dramatically, however.

In past decades, couples expressed their desire to limit themselves to small families as arising from concern for the children’s well-being. If you had fewer children, you could guarantee them access to luxury goods like a university education. Having only one or two let you be a better parent to them, ran the argument.

Today’s acceptable motives for small families too often boil down to “children are a nuisance”. It is children themselves, not the material burdens accompanying them, who have lost their appeal.

Viewing children as a liability, rather than a resource or responsibility, finds its quintessential expression in knowing references to the “child tax”: the amount of money you might have saved if you had never taken on the burden of parenthood. As Douglas Murray quipped in an interview with Mark Steyn, there’s a slyly materialist assumption at play here that most people would blush to own on its face: “What a loser! There was a $150k you could have had in your bank account when you died and instead you were stupid enough to have a kid. Silly you.”

Our culture has come to treat children as less than human

Even more shameful for a culture devoted to social justice, the extreme vulnerability of children fails to provoke censure of their belittlement. What group has historically suffered abuse and exploitation in greater numbers? To compound their victim status, children depend entirely on adults for their welfare and protection. Generally incapable of exercising rights considered fundamental to free persons (notably, voting and property ownership), often denied even legal protection of their lives while en utero, children are helpless to advocate for themselves.

The typical child-hater or reluctant parent takes the position that if a child is unwanted, it is better that he does not exist.

Imagine if the same logic were applied to one of today’s protected groups. “I just don’t like people in wheelchairs,” your friend announces. “I hate sitting next to disabled spaces on buses.” Would you smile and nod understandingly?

Tweeting these sentiments about babies on aeroplanes would not elicit the same backlash of horror and condemnation. Our language tends to cast children not as vulnerable people, but rather in the role of pets: an optional accessory in our lives, once necessary for labour but now indulged for pleasure. Farmers needed horses for the plough, and cats for hunting mice, but today it all depends on your personal preference whether you own a dog, a hamster or nothing.

The analogy grows increasingly grim: Responsible pet owners will tell you that domestic animal populations, especially in poor areas, require careful management. Sterilisation is key to keeping numbers down, for the good of the animals themselves. In extreme circumstances, we accept the necessity of lethal termination — done humanely, of course.

Pope Francis ruffled feathers earlier this year by lamenting that people have come to prefer dogs and cats to children. He attributed the resulting “demographic winter” to selfishness, but perhaps the problem lies deeper. We have not only elevated our own interests but diminished the claims of those younger, smaller and weaker than ourselves. In our conversations and media, we allow outright prejudice and discrimination against them.

Somehow, despite much-vaunted morals of compassion and inclusion, our culture has come to treat children as less than human.

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