What are we going to do with the kids? Society seems to value kids, yet we aren’t doing much to help raise them well. It’s clear the efforts to make divorce harder for those couples with minor children isn’t going to work and who knows if making marriage harder would work either.
But maybe it isn’t about marriage at all. Maybe it’s about creating the best society in which to raise kids. And maybe we’re not doing that right.
The New York Times highlighted some interesting parenting arrangements with its recent article, Making a Child, Minus the Couple. Gays and lesbians have been creating parenting partnerships for years, but recently, numerous social networks have sprung up to match prospective parent to prospective parent, hetero and/or gay — a decidedly odd twist to online dating sites. Dating and love don’t factor into it at all, nor does sex. It’s all about those people who want to have a baby and want someone — anyone — to help them raise that baby.
Is love between the parents even essential? Maybe not.
“Certainly, from a research standpoint, I don’t think having a romantic relationship is necessary to have a good co-parenting relationship. Research shows that if parents can have a warm, cooperative, co-parenting relationship, then that’s going to be positive for the child’s development,” says Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, an associate professor in the Ohio State University department of human sciences.
Of course, most of us don’t think of raising a baby from a “research standpoint.”
Others laud how parenting partnerships get people to focus on the realities of child-rearing early, way before junior is born. As Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of Family Equality Council, notes:
That level of thoughtfulness really benefits kids — these are people who have thought about how do I want to raise a child, whom do I want to raise a child with — that can only be good for children. We should all think that hard about how we are going to have our kids and what we’re going to do once they’re in the world. If everybody gave that kind of thought to having children, we’d probably have better outcomes.
Maybe we should legislate that kind of thoughtfulness. But more on that shortly.
It’s clear that as a society we’re becoming much more accepting of different ways in which to raise kids. Some 40 percent of first babies born today are to single moms, many of whom are cohabiting. And fewer people say having children is a “very important reason to get married,” a recent Pew study indicates.
So, do we even need to be married to have kids? No, according to Judith Stacey, sociology professor at New York University and author of Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China. Marriage “is not a universal, necessary, or intrinsically superior institution for sustaining children and families,” she says.
In fact, Stacey says “our needs for both eros and domesticity are at often at odds.” Binding parenting to marriage makes a child’s well-being too vulnerable to “Cupid’s antics.”
Instead, she advocates that:
A democratic society should encourage dignity, respect, and success for all of the honest, consensual, and responsible modes of living, loving, and caretaking to its citizens diverse. The state should be trying to ensure that citizens can freely enter and sustain supportive relationships and freely exit abusive ones. It has a legitimate interest in promoting responsible, committed care and protection for children and other dependents.
I don’t disagree with that, but that doesn’t answer an essential question: who should become parents — everyone, or only those who can prove themselves able to fully take on the responsibilities, regardless if they’re married, single, divorced, gay, straight or polyamorous?
Many have joked about the idea that people who want to have kids should be licensed — is that a bad idea? We can’t marry without applying for a license; we can’t hunt, fish, scuba dive, drive, fly, run a business or walk dogs other than our own without getting a license. Shouldn’t we get a license to parent, too?
What would be so wrong about insisting individuals who want to raise children — whether they’re single, married, living together, in a civil union or whatever; straight or gay; and whether the child is biological or adopted — take parenting classes, outline a parenting plan, and have to prove him/herself financial responsible before he/she could apply for a parenting license and pop out a baby?
Without a doubt, it should be an individual license, not a couples’ license; people make bad partner decisions all the time — why should the kids suffer for that? But if two people who each have a license want to have a baby together, more power to them. The state could encourage that relationship by giving additional incentives for each year that partnership remains together.
Of course, this is not a new idea; people have been talking about licensing parents for 30-plus years. So why don’t we have licensing yet? As they say, it’s complicated.
I’m sure many people would object to any more intrusion into such a private matter. And while the decision to have a baby is indeed private, society pays a huge, huge cost for crappy parenting — everything from crime to abuse to addictions to obesity and related health problems to the poorly educated and unemployable. Why aren’t we holding parents accountable for their bad behaviors?
And, of course, the state already deals with some forms of bad parenting, neglect and child abuse. But even the American Academy of Pediatricians argues that we should be doing more. The state should:
encourage and support individuals who want to care for children, presume that any couple or individual is capable of adequate child-rearing, and ensure that all adults who are raising children (whether married or not) have the material resources and support necessary to be good parents. Such a policy would (1) set a reasonable minimal threshold for state recognition, (2) be vigilant in identifying cases falling below this threshold, and then (3) either assist or disqualify underperforming arrangements. It would also, appropriately, decouple arguments about legitimate and illegitimate types of relationships from arguments about what is best for children.
- What do you think we should do to better support children’s needs?
- Would requiring education and a license create better parents?
- Do the parents of a child need to be romantic partners?