by Aidan Moretti and Shirlene Wang
Ask Americans what is most important in their lives, and it’s clear that families come first. In a November 2010 Pew Research study, 76% of adults say that their family is the single most important element of their lives. This is a value that remains true across key demographic characteristics such as gender, age, and race.
Traditionally, we define a family a group of people affiliated by consanguinity, affinity, or co-residence. Now, the definition of family is changing to include family types such as unmarried parents, gay parents, couples without children, and single parents. An interesting piece of data from the Pew Research study conducted in collaboration with Time magazine shows that when analyzing what Americans constitute as a family, people believe the presence of children made a non-traditional family model seem more family like. According to the survey, “Virtually all respondents (99%) agree that a married couple with children fit in their definition of family.” However, only 88% agree that a married couple without children is a family. The people polled were more accepting of a gay couple if the couple had adopted a child. 63% of the population agrees that a same-sex couple with children is a family while only 45% agree a same-sex couple without children constitutes a family. The modern definition of family revolves around the presence of children.
For many Americans, being a good parent is “one of the most important things in their life,” more so than “having a successful marriage”. But parenthood correlates with the value that people place on family. 82% of all parents say family is the most important part of their lives, compared with 60% of adults who are not parents. No matter what the family type is, adults in families that include children place a higher value on family than do those in families without children.
It is obvious why we as humans value parenting; the biological purpose of life is to reproduce. But as individuals, reasons for parenting are more varied. Members of the Yahoo! Answers community reasons such as “Because it is what life is all about,” “As an expression of love between two people,” “To add great richness to your life,” and “To pass on your own genes”. America is obsessed with the idea and image of parenting. Our current interest in kids and parenting is neither normal nor historical. The “parenthood” concept is, in fact, a recent invention, a type of obsession, and even a form of insanity. Magazines and experts, like in Parenting magazine, arrived on the scene about a century ago and turned child care into a science. Parenthood has become a kind of magical ideal—a role impossible to actually fulfill due to time, personality, or financial constraints—think June Cleaver, or her modern equivalent, Angelina Jolie. Parenthood is not only supposed to take over our schedules and bank accounts, but transform our identities. When you have a kid, you are no longer an adult or an individual—you are a parent.
Many people now are becoming parents because they assume becoming a parent will make them happy. When mothers who gave birth in 2008 were asked why they decided to have their first (or only) child, the overwhelming majority of parents (87%) answered, “They joy of having children.” The image of the joy of parenting is constantly illuminated in the media. In a guest post for “Motherlode: Adventures in Parenting” a side blog of The New York Times, Anna Quindlen looks back on all the chapters of parenting. As she describes:
“And toddlers — they were great, too. The way they would march across the lawn once they acquired motor skills, then run back to the shelter of mom legs, then sally forth again. The way they would mangle their words and chew their consonants and name things obsessively: Hot dog. Big bird. Good boy. The way they would dress themselves and then wind up looking as though they’d done so in the dark, color-blind.”
These positive images of the exploration and wonder of toddlers have been observed by all of us. However, the article leaves out details of the pains of parenting. Biased articles only highlighting the joys of parenting do not present a realistic image for young impressionable people. Happiness should not factor prominently into people’s decisions to have children. Americans choose to have children for many reasons, but the presence of children in a family always makes life more difficult as it is more responsibility. Children may provide moments of joy, but they also provide frustration, anxiety, and heartbreak.
When asked characteristics of a good parent, people often list characteristics such as “responsive, involved, supportive, flexible, nurturing, patient, loving, and balanced.” Parenting style is defined as behaviors and actions that determine parent-child interactions. According to psychologist Diana Baumrind, the best parents have two aspects that are particularly important: the degree of parental warmth (support and acceptance) and parental expectations. Parents who do not have time for their children are failing them.
Attachment style influences a child’s internal working model. Their relationship with their caregiver influences their future attachments. One of the factors that influence a child’s identity formation is parenting. Neglect and feelings of rejection lead to an identity diffusion status. The child has no sense of his or her identity but doesn’t make an effort or commitment to develop one.
Everyone should be able to be a parent. However, being a parent is a privilege that people should never enter blindly. Becoming a parent is a serious commitment. Parents have a responsibility to develop a relationship with their child. But it takes work—in more ways than just financial. Children are more than happiness and fun and being loved. If one is not ready to take on the responsibility, one should not take on the task. It is unfair to children to live an unfulfilled life because their parents aren’t prepared for the responsibility.