Have kids?

Have kids? #

Global fertility rates are declining, with over half of all countries and territories below replacement level in 2021. Since 2000, fertility declines have varied widely, and only a few countries saw slight rebounds, none reaching replacement level.1 In contemporary society, many traditional reasons for having children are increasingly challenged by evolving cultural and personal priorities.

Dwindling justification #

The natural biological drive to reproduce has historically ensured the continuation of genes and lineage. However, advancements in family planning technology, particularly hormonal birth control for women,2 have largely decoupled sex from procreation. This separation has given individuals greater control over their reproductive choices, reducing the role of instinct.

Traditionally, many religions and cultures have emphasized procreation as a duty or life’s purpose. Yet, in the last two decades, there has been a notable decline in regular religious attendance, especially in the United States. This decline correlates with a rising percentage of Americans who identify as having no religious affiliation, thereby diminishing the influence of religious and cultural imperatives on the decision to have children.3

The desire to leave a legacy is a strong motivator for some to have children, viewing offspring as a way to ensure that their values, traditions, and memories endure. However, the concept of legacy has broadened. Many people now seek fulfillment and a sense of continuity through their work, creative endeavors, or societal contributions, rather than through biological progeny.

For some, the dream of experiencing pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing remains a compelling reason to have children. However, this desire is not universal, and some individuals find it difficult to envision themselves in the role of a parent. The once-standard expectation of becoming a parent is no longer a given. When individuals cannot picture themselves successfully navigating the complexities of raising a child, they might opt out of parenthood altogether.

Urban living imposes constraints on space and resources, making child-rearing particularly challenging in densely populated cities where the cost of living is high. This urban lifestyle often leads individuals to reconsider or postpone the decision to have children.

In many cultures, having children is deeply intertwined with life and family heritage. Social and familial expectations can strongly influence the decision to procreate. However, several factors are contributing to a shift in these expectations.

  • Changing Gender Roles: With more women pursuing higher education and careers, traditional roles of motherhood are evolving. This shift has led to a re-evaluation of the importance of having children.
  • Career Priorities: Modern work environments demand significant time and energy away from the home, leading many to prioritize career and personal achievements over starting a family.
  • Delayed Parenthood: Educational and career pursuits often lead individuals to delay parenthood. This delay frequently results in smaller family sizes or decisions against having children altogether.
  • Value Shifts: Societal values are increasingly focusing on individual fulfillment and personal freedom over traditional family structures. The desire for personal experiences, travel, and self-development often supersedes the inclination to raise a family.

What is a child? #

The role of children has evolved from crucial economic contributors in agrarian societies, where their labor was vital for family survival, to becoming economic burdens in modern times. During the Industrial Revolution, children worked in factories and mines, serving as cheap labor until child labor laws and compulsory education emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These reforms aimed to protect children and promote their education but also extended their period of economic dependency. Today, rising costs of childcare, education, and changing social norms have further shifted children’s role from economic assets to investments in future potential, emphasizing their status as dependents rather than earners within families.

In addition, children are less regarded as a source of support and care for parents in old age. The presence of a strong social security system redistributes the responsibility of elderly care from the individual family to society as a whole. Government programs and policies are designed to support the elderly, providing a safety net that was once solely the responsibility of the family. This redistribution ensures that even those without children or with children who are unable to provide care are still supported in their old age.

If the economic case for having children isn’t particularly strong, what are they good for? For one thing, true children (i.e., not adopted) are genetically similar to their parents. This genetic connection often confers an increased propensity for close, enduring relationships.456 Children often share physical traits, temperaments, and even interests with their parents, which can enhance understanding and empathy within the family unit. These shared characteristics create a foundation for strong, supportive relationships that are not easily replicated elsewhere. The deep bonds forged through genetic similarity can lead to lifelong friendships and a profound sense of connection.

If you are lucky enough7 to share a close bond with one or both of your parents, you already understand the value of this relationship. However, it is a natural part of life that you will almost certainly outlive them. When that inevitable day comes and your beloved parents are no longer with you, who will stand by your side? Embrace your newborn as a future best friend who will always be there for you, a lifelong companion.

What kind of relationship? #

Building a strong bond with your child can feel daunting, especially if you didn’t have skilled parental figures yourself. Psychology is one place to look for help, specifically attachment theory and parenting styles. Developed by John Bowlby, attachment theory explores how early relationships shape long-term bonds. He proposed that children instinctively seek closeness and security from caregivers, forming attachments for survival. Mary Ainsworth built on this idea, identifying different attachment styles (secure, anxious-ambivalent, avoidant) through her “Strange Situation” research.8 These styles are closely linked to parenting styles, categorized as authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and uninvolved.9

However, some in the IFS community argue (including myself) that attachment theory and parenting styles are overly simplistic. We propose that attachments aren’t formed between people, but between Parts and Self of one person with other Parts and Self of another person.10 Let us take a closer look at authoritarian and authoritative parenting styles, and beyond.

Authoritarian #

Authoritarian parenting is characterized by high demands and low responsiveness; strict rules and expectations; little open dialogue between parent and child; and punitive measures for discipline.

  • Parent:

    • Managers: Authoritarian parents likely have strong Manager parts that are controlling, strict, and perfectionistic. These Managers aim to maintain order and control, perhaps to prevent the activation of their own Exiles who might carry fears of failure, inadequacy, or chaos.
    • Firefighters: When their strict rules are challenged, these parents might have Firefighter parts that react harshly, perhaps with anger or punitive measures, to quickly suppress the perceived threat to their control.
    • Exiles: These parents might have Exiles that carry deep-seated fears or traumas related to disorder, failure, or being judged as inadequate.
  • Child:

    • Managers: Children raised in authoritarian environments may develop strong Manager parts that are anxious, perfectionistic, or overly self-critical to comply with the high demands and avoid punishment.
    • Firefighters: These children might also develop Firefighter parts that seek ways to numb or distract from the pressure, such as through rebellious behaviors, secretive actions, or escapism.
    • Exiles: They may carry Exiles that hold feelings of worthlessness, fear, or anger due to the lack of emotional responsiveness and support.

Authoritative #

Authoritative parenting is characterized by high demands but also high responsiveness; clear rules and expectations with explanations; open dialogue and supportive communication; and use of reasoning and discussion for discipline.

  • Parent:

    • Managers: Authoritative parents also have Manager parts, but these parts are balanced and flexible. They are oriented towards structure and guidance but are not rigid or controlling. These Managers are more nurturing, aiming to support the child’s growth and development while setting clear boundaries.
    • Self-Leadership: In authoritative parents, the Self is more likely to be in a leadership role. The Self provides guidance to the Managers and ensures that parenting decisions are made from a place of compassion, understanding, and empathy.
    • Exiles and Firefighters: Authoritative parents may still have Exiles carrying fears or vulnerabilities, but these are more likely to be acknowledged and addressed rather than suppressed. Their Firefighter parts are less reactive and more regulated, stepping in only when truly necessary and in a measured way.
  • Child:

    • Managers: Children raised with authoritative parenting are likely to develop Manager parts that are organized and self-disciplined but also flexible and open to new experiences. These Managers are guided by the internalized balance and fairness modeled by their parents.
    • Self-Leadership: These children are more likely to have their Self in a leadership position, fostering a sense of confidence, self-worth, and autonomy. They learn to make decisions from a place of inner balance and understanding.
    • Exiles: Exiles in these children are more likely to feel acknowledged and supported. They are less likely to be burdened by deep-seated fears or feelings of inadequacy because their emotional needs are met with responsiveness and empathy.
    • Firefighters: Firefighter parts in these children are less likely to engage in extreme behaviors, as there is less need to numb or distract from unresolved pain. When they do appear, they are more regulated and manageable.

Beyond the parent-child power dynamic #

Traditional parenting styles accept the parent-child power imbalance as a given. In IFS, this kind of push-pull in a relationship is regarded as a polarity; the focus isn’t on the parent and child as individuals, but on the roles dictated by the power dynamic between them. True intimacy flourishes when we move beyond this power dynamic.

IFS teaches clients to nurture their inner children. A similar approach also translates to parenting outer children. In fact, therapists trained in IFS may have an advantage in parenting, having honed their skills by guiding clients. However, the most comprehensive model comes from “Intimacy from the Inside Out,” the IFS framework for couples.11 These proven techniques foster deep connection between partners in a couple; they are equally effective in the parent-child relationship. The aim? Communion via play,1213 available when parent and child each voluntarily step back from Parts-driven behavior.

Making the most of the relationship with your child requires some discernment. Putting too much emphasis on friendship can be regarded as permissive parenting. Balancing when to be a parent and when to be a friend depends on the situation and your capacity. Understanding parenting through frameworks like attachment theory and the IFS model can help you navigate this balance, ensuring a relationship that fosters both guidance and deep connection.

Conclusion #

Various cultural, economic, and personal factors have led to decades of decline in global fertility rates. If the decision is made to have children, the role children play in the family has also changed. Instead of economic assets, children have largely become a burden due to rising costs of childcare, education, and changing social norms. The argument for having children is hard to understand … until we focus on the profound potential of the parent-child bond.

Notes #

  1. Bhattacharjee, N. V., Schumacher, A. E., Aali, A., Abate, Y. H., Abbasgholizadeh, R., Abbasian, M., … & Bahri, R. A. (2024). Global fertility in 204 countries and territories, 1950–2021, with forecasts to 2100: a comprehensive demographic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2021. The Lancet, 403(10440), 2057-2099. ↩︎

  2. Hill, S. (2019). This is your brain on birth control: The surprising science of women, hormones, and the law of unintended consequences. Penguin. ↩︎

  3. Church Attendance Has Declined in Most U.S. Religious Groups ↩︎

  4. Segal, N. L., Hershberger, S. L., & Arad, S. (2003). Meeting One’s Twin: Perceived Social Closeness and Familiarity. Evolutionary Psychology, 1(1). ↩︎

  5. Segal, N. L. (2021). Deliberately divided: Inside the controversial study of twins and triplets adopted apart. Rowman & Littlefield. ↩︎

  6. Christakis, N. A., & Fowler, J. H. (2014). Friendship and natural selection. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(supplement_3), 10796-10801. ↩︎

  7. Sapolsky, R. M. (2023). Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will. Penguin Press. ↩︎

  8. Bretherton, I. (2013). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. In Attachment theory (pp. 45-84). Routledge. ↩︎

  9. Kim, S. H., Baek, M., & Park, S. (2021). Association of parent–child experiences with insecure attachment in adulthood: A systematic review and meta‐analysis. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 13(1), 58-76. ↩︎

  10. Parenting through the Lens of IFS Therapy: From Tears to Transformation ↩︎

  11. Herbine-Blank, T. & Sweezy, M. (2021). Internal Family Systems Couple Therapy Skills Manual: Healing Relationships with Intimacy From the Inside Out PESI Publishing, Inc. ↩︎

  12. Cohen, L. J. (2002). Playful Parenting. Ballantine Books. ↩︎

  13. Cohen, L. J. (2013). The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears. Ballantine Books. ↩︎