Whose family? The revolt of the child-free

Les Walker doesn't have anything against kids. Neither does his wife, Cheri. They just don't want any of their own. Until recently, that would have qualified the 30-something Walker and his wife as a "childless" couple. The Walkers, though, see themselves as "childfree."

It's a term used increasingly by people who choose not to have children, and who belong to a groundbreaking generation that, for the first time, is openly debating the merits of childbearing and child-rearing.

In some quarters, the conversation has become bitter, as some child-free individuals and couples argue that society puts more value in parents - in the form of tax breaks or time off from work - and that children in general seem more indulged and less disciplined than in previous generations.

For the Walkers, their decision was due in part "to the fact that our married friends who had children seemed miserable," says Les, who is director of photography for Surfing magazine and has been married for six years.

"We're very busy, and the time that we are not working, we're really into being with each other. In a way, you could say that's selfish, but it's smart, because we know what we want and what we don't want."

Couples like the Walkers - and their slightly older counterparts, the 13 million baby boomers who are childless - represent yet another cultural shift that is surfacing in the wake of feminism and birth control. It's a shift that, in the end, will carve out new definitions of family and family values.

The widespread ability to control fertility is what's behind the change. "Until this generation, if someone didn't have a child, it wasn't really a matter of choice. Typically, it was because of an inability to conceive," says Steven Nock, a demographer and sociologist at the University of Virginia. "But now, we are talking about childlessness as a decision. That's a very significant thing."

Social observers stop short of referring to increasingly vocal child-free individuals and groups as a "movement," but they do acknowledge what appears to be a growing social rift between some nonparents and parents.

Social groups for the childless - sporting names like No Kidding! - are sprouting chapters around the country. On the Internet, child-free Web sites abound, some of them openly hostile to children, with names like "I'd Rather Talk to My Toaster" and "Society for the Prevention of Childbirth."

And a recent book, "The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless," by Elinor Burkett, has become must-reading for those who argue that tax breaks for parents are unfairly subsidized by the childless, and that employers should offer benefit packages that allow nonparents the kind of leave offered to workers with children.

The debate is cropping up all over the country - from workplaces to newspaper columns - as parents often respond to critics by claiming that American culture is hostile to children, in contrast to European countries, where parents receive generous financial support and children are welcome in public places.

A faculty feud

Lyn Mikel Brown, a feminist and professor at Colby College in Maine (and the mother of a young daughter), says that on her campus, debate among the faculty has been growing over day-care proposals and tuition breaks for professors with children. She also says some of her female colleagues who don't have children resent being expected to attend meetings that professors with children are allowed to skip.

"I see both sides," says Ms. Brown. "If you just say 'kids,' you don't have to say anymore, you don't have to explain yourself. But people without children have private lives that may have other equally important issues, but we're not acknowledging them that way. We seem to understand the structure of family only in a narrow, nuclear sense.

"But I also feel, as someone who has a child, that I want others to value my child as well," she says. "I want to value the raising of children generally in this culture."

Media coverage of the subject tends to focus on the divisive nature of the discussion, dwelling on the parents-versus-nonparents aspect of the debate. But social observers say that at least part of the current child-free friction is caused by something much deeper, by a society in flux. At issue, they say, are things like changing attitudes about individual rights versus collective responsibilities; rapidly-developing birth and fertility technologies that have allowed parents to choose children as if they were commodities; and a society so affluent, with such increasingly independent individuals living in it, that self-absorption has become something of a way of life.

"It's all about how we're going to find a common ground of culture that makes people work together," says Ruth Wooden, president of the National Parenting Association, who has spent years researching attitudes about parenting and children. "The Constitution talks about individual rights, but it also talks about the common good."

Who, truly, is self-absorbed?

Ms. Wooden says she finds self-absorption among both parents and nonparents. The former, she says, can be self-absorbed by thinking "how important their children are," taking them to inappropriate places like fine restaurants and "forcing them into the adult world."

Child-free individuals who are openly hostile to children, she says, are also self-absorbed, expressing a "self-centeredness that is an outgrowth of [too much] individualism."

Although many observers say these issues aren't likely to be addressed in a substantive way anytime soon - especially not in a campaign season when both major-party candidates seem to outdo each other at times with their emphasis on children and family values - they say the problem won't go away. Current statistics project that 8 or 9 of every 10 women will have at least one child by the age of 50, but some demographers predict those numbers will drop in coming years to 6 or 7 of every 10 women - meaning that the number of childless individuals or couples will rise accordingly.

"Whenever we get into any of these great divides, whether it's race or any of these things, we start looking at others as expendable in some ways," warns Mr. Nock. "But children are not expendable. Collectively, we all invest in children. We're a society that has always collectivized that cost."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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