Children are a public good

cscanlon Dr Chris Scanlon

First printed on The Punch on 16 February, 2010.

The arrival of a newborn child does strange things to people. It warps their perspective and clouds their judgement — and that’s to say nothing of sleep-deprived new parents. Instead, it’s a conclusion I’ve reached by reading commentators and readers of opinion websites.

Take, for example, Carrie Miller’s offering in yesterday’s edition of The Punch. While Miller had a point about overbearing middle-class parents, she sounded like a child who needs a spell on the naughty step by likening child-bearing to ‘a banal biological tradition driven by the baser instincts inherent in animals’. 

Miller isn’t alone in reducing childbearing to nothing more than ‘biological tradition’. Over at Fairfax’s competitor to The Punch, the National Times, recent articles about the behaviour of harried parents and their prams provoked comments from readers arguing that children are nothing than a lifestyle choice.

One reader argued that parents should ‘Shop online and stop annoying the rest of us with your lifestyle choices’. Replying to another reader who pointed out that children were the continuation of the species, the same reader asked whether ‘It’s essential that an already overpopulated planet, on the brink of man made environmental disaster has more children brought into it.’

Another defended her decision to park in carparks reserved for those with prams on the basis that ‘Parenting is a choice’. Yet another decided that parents who engaged in the debate were not even entitled to an opinion. ‘[D]on’t those who choose to breed get touchy when you suggest the world doesn’t revolve around them’ the reader wrote.

In some ways, of course, having children is a choice. The development of effective, affordable and widely available contraception means that men and woman have more control over their fertility than at any other time in history. It is now possible to choose when to have children to fit in with one’s lifestyle — or not to have them at all.

But to reduce children to ‘biological tradition’ or a lifestyle choice is as silly as arguing that water is drunk only out of a deference to tradition or that inhabiting planet earth is a lifestyle choice. 

The absurdity of this position was bought home to me some years back while listening to Radio National’s talk-back show Australia Talks Back. The topic of the show was whether people should have to pay taxes to support other people’s children. Introducing the segment, the host at the time, Sandy McCutcheon, asked ‘Children: are they a public good?’

Just posing the question in this way is to commit a basic category error. Without children, there is no public and without a public there is no public good.

Those who regard children as nothing more than ‘biological tradition’ or other people’s lifestyle choice make a similar category error. Even on the crudest and narrowest calculations of self-interest, this view doesn’t stack up.

Where do these people think their lifestyle comes from? Who pays the taxes that creates hospitals, schools, roads and other basic infrastructure? Who supplies the water, electricity, sewage without which their lifestyles would be impoverish?  And when they’re old and frail, who’s there to care and clean up after them?

The answer to all of these questions is other people, who, startling as it might sound, start out as children.

At its most extreme, dismissing children in this way reveals a misanthropic individualism mixed with a virulently anti-social outlook; one that treats the presence of other human beings as little more than an inconvenience and an intrusion into an otherwise perfect existence.

Of course, it doesn’t follow from this that we should always be compelled to embrace other people’s children. Children can be little shits. Just ask any parent.

Nor does it follow that those with children are superior to those who choose not to. Clearly a full and fulfilling life can be had with or without children. Nevertheless, it’s a step too far to reduce children to a lifestyle choice.

So the next time you’re inconvenienced by a pram in a supermarket or your attempts to a read a book in a cafe are interrupted by a restless child, just stop and think for a moment. Someday, someone’s deference to ‘biological tradition’ just might be serving you a latte, removing your tumour, or changing your bed pan.