So much is written and discussed about parents and children these days that it comes as a surprise to realize that a similar preoccupation can be found with the apparently declining birthrate. Various surveys have found a precipitous drop in fertility rates throughout the world, in middle-and low-income countries and even more so in rich ones.
China has received particular attention because its previously enforced one child policy has been amended to permit the birth of second children. Despite this, the birthrate has barely changed. The Chinese government had sought to engineer its population to reduce quantity in order to improve quality. This meant raising and educating children who could compete in the world economy.
This led to the “professionalization” of child-rearing shaped by the theories of educators, health and child psychology experts. Raising a “quality” child became a matter not only of keeping up with the latest child-rearing advice but a commitment to spending whatever it takes such as special lessons, tutoring, playing an instrument or whatever.
Those studying the lack of interest in having second children attribute this to the economic pressures on young couples. The competition is intense for education and enrichment in an economy where setting a child down the right path can mean life-changing opportunities while heading down the wrong one means insecurity and struggle.
Although Chinese parents have been described as trying to duplicate the American experience of raising children, factors in both countries have contributed to the pressure on parents. In China, as access to college has expanded, the value of a diploma is worth less than it once was and competition for places in top schools has gown. The need to invest heavily in a child from early on had become more compelling and arranging the details of a child’s education has become almost a full-time job for mothers.
This certainly sounds like a description of child-rearing challenges facing American parents. There definitely is a preoccupation with seeking child-rearing information and advice perhaps driven in part by the increased competition children face for educational and job opportunities. What the Chinese have termed “quality” is simply one way of describing the attempt to raise the most successful child possible in a hyper-competitive environment.
Various other factors have been offered as an explanation for the pressures preventing larger families. One is the changed role of women and the resulting issues of child care and family management with two working parents. This puts a focus on the lack of affordable, quality child-care, and the dearth of family friendly policies generally in the workplace.
Another aspect of this change is the delay in child-bearing by many women who seek educational and work opportunities. This reinforces a focus on the nature of the American workplace, which is still based on an older model of gender division of labor. While true, also noted is the fact that the declining birthrate is also true in countries that are a model of policies supporting family leave, long maternity benefits and government supported child-care.
Perhaps most interesting as an explanation for the decline in child-bearing is a sense of generalized anxieties around parenthood in our precarious era. To many it feels risky to bring a child into the world as it is today. This overlaps the increased concern world-wide about the fate of the planet and environmental sustainability.
This concern can be found in the anxieties expressed by parents about the unnamed dangers their children face in a world over which they have no control. Yet the role children are playing in demanding attention for threats they perceive in the environment, such as guns in schools and raging fires, speaks to our success as parents in raising responsible children ready to play a role in the future of the planet.