Sociology

The Meaning of having Children

Family
“For us, having kids was about dedicating our lives to raising them and loving them instead of just having fun for us.” – JuliaS27

“I’m just not interested in having kids at all. Maybe I’m just selfish, but I want to enjoy life and do things without having a huge obstacle in the way.” – Craig Lloyd

Upon making the transition into adulthood, one must face the question of whether or not they want to have children. Although it is now a common question, this was not always the case when having children was an economic asset in the context of rural living. The meaning of having children has shifted in the Modern West and children are now an economic liability. Beyond this, they also restrict one’s freedom and mobility in an era where individualistic lifestyles are on the rise. So why do people decide to have children today?

Whether you relate to the first quote in this post, or the second quote, both statements characterize the modern ethos that children are now a material bourdon, but those who choose to have children do so for a psychological benefit in terms of fulfilling a need to find existential meaning. In The Normal Chaos of Love, Sociologists Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim explore the modern meaning of having children. They state that wanting children, “is increasingly connected with hopes of being rooted, of life becoming meaningful, and with a ‘claim to happiness’, based on the close relationship with the child.”

Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim state that, “in highly industrialized societies people are always trained to behave rationally, to be efficient, fast, disciplined and successful. A child represents the opposite, the ‘natural’ side of life, and that is exactly what is so appealing.” This sentiment is seen the following statement by JuliaS27:

“We’re exhausted but tonight my kids made me laugh hysterically watching Weird Al’s “Tacky.” My oldest is making a video about Minecraft, and my youngest hijacked the camera in the middle to talk about Slime. Every morning, I roll over and find one or more children (and the dog) in our bed in various spots, curled around us, flopped over us, and in that moment before my husband starts tickling everyone, I am grateful for the messy, confusing, exhausting, loving, rich life we’ve built. I love my kids fiercely, and they have taught me a great deal about life.

In a sense, parents find themselves being brought up by their children, being retaught values we “sorely miss in high-tech life,” according to Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim who also emphasize:

“Having a child, looking after it and providing for it can give life new meaning and significance, can in fact become the very core of one’s private existence. Where other aims seem arbitrary and interchangeable, belief in the afterlife vanishes and hopes in this world prove evanescent, a child provides one with a chance to find a firm footing and a home.

In the midst of modern individualistic lifestyles emphasizing “a life of one’s own,” the meaning of modern parenting has changed. Altruistically caring for another human being is integrated into one’s own need for meaning in an age of industrial rationalism. As emphasized in a previous post, The Need to be Needed is a fundamental human need. Before modern times, economic and material needs of the family secured each member’s need to feel needed since each were assets in this regard. The meaning of having children is now individualized and personal motivations for fulfillment characterize the meaning of having children, but in this new context of communal life, children give us deeper insight into Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim’s “normal chaos of love.” They teach us how to love the chaos.

This post is dedicated to Sociologist Ulrich Beck who regretfully passed away on January 1st  at the age of 70, and is survived by his wife Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim.
He will be missed as one of the great thinkers of our time.


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31 comments

  1. That’s an interesting topic. I read it last week and so many things came to mind that I started putting my thoughts on paper. I had no idea it would turn into a post of my own. I do agree with the fact that in modern times the focus has changed, and that personal motivations determine the reasons behind parenting. It seems to me, however, that this tendency is likely related to more developed countries and wealthy communities. Some cultures, economically less privileged, still see, in my opinion, the act of procreation as an attribute that they can benefit from in the future, as their kids grow up and become the breadwinners for the family. So, if that’s the case, is the shift in conscience somehow related to the degree of wealth a society has? Thanks for sharing this. I really enjoy reading your posts!

  2. The need to be needed, indeed and loving the chaos! I love the analogy you used about the fast paced city life vs. a more “natural” life that does consistent of a certain amount of chaos.

  3. I think it’s worth bearing in mind that in the West in the not too distant past, having children was simply what you did when you got married. It was the expected outcome, what was normal behaviour. And of course, it was assumed that all women wanted to have children and anyway it was seen to be their role in life. Lack of birth control or religious scruples against using it could have meant endless pregnancies for women and often too many mouths to feed properly. In the days before social security and child benefit, lots of children weren’t always an economic benefit (well not in Dickens’ London anyway). It’s hardly surprising that now that choice is possible, people exercise that right to choose and don’t have children if they don’t want to do so. Although it can be a hard choice to make, it’s better that we do have a choice – a baby every year or so whether you wanted or not must have been tough going.

  4. Children are part of society, not an add on. The rigid structures around children now in western contexts restrict the once fluidity still found in more traditional societies to this day. How different family members can raise each other’s children without recourse to legal dictates ensured that children were a part of community and not the individualised nuclear stylised family we seem now to aspire to that seems emotionally so isolating. Great post. Got me thinking…

  5. Truth and honesty, children are a key to humanity, in their creative imagination. Coming from a dysfunctional family and trying not to be a dead beat dad..

    Now with grandchildren!

    Thank you for dropping by to have a read.

  6. I grew up in a large, faith-filled family…where life fell apart, yet didn’t. All the elements that “were bigger than us”, that we agreed upon, held us together like glue. We…belonged.

    Even as we grew up and contact became less…we still felt like branches on a living tree. The need to be faithful and to “grow well”…keeps us “in the game.”

    We’re important…but we’re not the center of the universe…and neither is anyone else.

  7. Children allow us to experience once more our own childhood. This would be my basic claim in support of the modern parenting. There is no reason to not have kids, especially if we take into account that our current society is too selfish, individualistic, and competitive. Children represent a change in this paradigm, and thus help us to understand other values outside of our own value scheme. I love observing how they play, how they develop their thoughts, I patiently answer their questions, and above all, I enjoy time spent with them. It gives my life a new dimension just to go for a walk. This is true especially during the Christmas season, which you thoughtfully described in your previous post. If I was alone, I would never do that or I would think about work and other “important” stuff. This way, I can cherish our own existence.

  8. Interesting post. I’ve always wondered what the reasoning was for having kids since it’s not a necessity anymore like it was in the past. I can see that people do want to be needed. It gives them purpose, and makes them feel useful in the world. Having kids is a way for them to easily find that purpose.

    I dont think it’s for everyone, but this was new perspective I find very enlightening.

  9. I always wanted kids, but it was never meant to be.
    However, having seen members of my family and the ass-backward values about passing on the responsibility to somebody else in the family, or a friend had one and got benefits, or it seemed a good idea after watching such and such a film.
    Crazy mixed up world, but if it works for them, fine.
    Yes, having kids is restrictive, but then so is having a dog (my preference), any pet or chickens. 🙂

    1. Although it’s about self gains, Beck would call this particular example “Altruistic individualism.” Individualism is not necessarily a bad thing; it just depends on its particular form.

    1. Just letting you know that this post is meant to demonstrate how having children has taken on a more individualized meaning throughout modern times. It is not meant to argue for or against having them. My own thoughts are much closer to the second intro quote at this point in time.

      1. Oh, yes! I am aware. I just belive it will help her see things through a different perspective. Trust me, I am not trying to change her mind, or anyone else’s for that matter. I only want to let her have some insight on modern belifs. As for you, I am sure your point of view has reasons behind it, but I will not test my limits. It really is wonderful post. Thank you.

  10. First there was art for art’s sake and now there is kids for kids’ sake!

    Such an amazing time to be alive!

    As we secure our life-spans with a basic standard of living we are becoming more honest to our needs and desires. The incredible amount of freedom to think and then to do as you think has completely redefined the ways of human life. And we are always in a constant state of flux – defining the society and getting defined by it.

    The world population is at 7 billion today. It was around 2 at the beginning of this century. I think with the growing numbers almost every form of conceivable way to live finds takers and propagators. The sample set that we are dealing with is so large that anything is possible!

    Anyway, a good post. You say the need to be needed is a fundamental human need. I think it just sucks that even after all this evolution of lifestyles and the mind the selfish gene rules.

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