While it may possible that Americans today have not developed an unhealthy obsession with their own children, there’s certainly a strong case for infatuation—on television, in books and on Facebook courtesy of status updates alerting us to yet another kid’s three-month birthday.
Children today seem like an unsolvable problem—an evil trick played on adults by nature itself. Helpless creatures, sucking at our resources, who could die or be injured at any minute? Eventually turning against us? Creatures we can either neglect, to our endless guilt and horror, or maniacally promote, driving us into debt and an early grave?
Children ruin us. They ruin our bank accounts. They ruin our marriages. They ruin our bodies. They ruin our sex lives. They ruin our social lives.
The least they can do for us is turn out well, goddamnit.
But in a civilization where a critical mass of anxiety-ridden olds struggle daily with these churning sensations, the competition to promote children becomes yet another unending crisis.
The cult of upward mobility is actually intensifying our feverish competition with one another for “better” kids—and our competition with our own children for our all-too-finite time and ever-imperiled well-being.
And no wonder it’s making our kids as crazy as they’re making us.
What is happening to us? Ross Douthat offers a clue when he calls ours the “Age of Individualism.” Douthat sees our individualist future as increasingly “postpatriotic, postfamilial, disaffiliated”—at least until it begins collapsing of its own weightlessness.
If that sounds like the opposite of a culture of obsessive parenting, consider that our debilitating love-hate relationship with kids could be a manifestation of our increasingly conscious decoupling from the kind of individualism political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville described. “Selfishness,” he wrote, “is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with himself and to prefer himself to everything in the world. Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself.”
But Tocqueville envisioned the painful trajectory of this new form of culture. “Among democratic nations new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition; the woof of time is every instant broken and the track of generations effaced. Those who went before are soon forgotten; of those who will come after, no one has any idea […] not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”
Take a minute to digest that shocking idea: the cult of the nuclear family, held up for decades as the triumph of American Values, turns out to be a momentary blip of unfounded optimism—a fleeting transition between the defunct aristocratic age of centuries-old bloodlines and tomorrow’s democratic age when even our connection to our own flesh and blood becomes disenchanted and, ultimately, psychologically useless.
The panicky fury showing forth in our overcare and undercare of our children is a symptom of our anger at being stuck with little beings who seem to be of decreasing use to our own well-being. And Tocqueville knew that for us it was all about well-being. “The love of well-being has now become the predominant taste of the nation,” he warned; “the great current of human passions runs in that channel and sweeps everything along in its course.”
From whence, perchance, did this obsession come? You guessed it—from democratization itself: “Distinctions of ranks are obliterated and privileges are destroyed, when hereditary property is subdivided and education and freedom are widely diffused, the desire of acquiring the comforts of the world haunts the imagination of the poor, and the dread of losing them that of the rich. Many scanty fortunes spring up; those who possess them have a sufficient share of physical gratifications to conceive a taste for these pleasures, not enough to satisfy it. They never procure them without exertion, and they never indulge in them without apprehension. They are therefore always straining to pursue or to retain gratifications so delightful, so imperfect, so fugitive.”
As discerning leftists occasionally help conservatives understand, Tocqueville reasoned that our beleaguering future would make it essential for government to play an active role in our lives. But progressives, misbelieving that the administrative bureaucracy is the most morally significant apparatus of government, tend to miss out on Tocqueville’s key insight. What government and only government can provide, he claimed, was a vision of the long-term future in which we could take personal pride.
When conservatives have bought into this idea, they have done it in a typically patriotic, go-big-or-go-home fashion—invoking the salutary effect of national greatness programs running the gamut from nation-building abroad to domestic policies focused like a laser beam on increasing upward mobility.
We all know how nation-building abroad has turned out, but our derangement at the hands of our children should alert us that the other shoe has dropped: if Tocqueville is right (and he is), on the whole, the cult of upward mobility is actually intensifying our feverish competition with one another for “better” kids—and our competition with our own children for our all-too-finite time and ever-imperiled well-being.
Wait, wait, don’t kill yourself yet. Don’t even leave your kid on the potty and hop a plane to Tahiti. It is not too late, as Devo taught us, to whip this problem good.
I should know. I have a son who’s almost five years old.
The answer is so simple, you may not believe it. But the more you meditate on it, the deeper its wisdom becomes. All it takes is a simple retort to Tocqueville’s gloomy prognostications. Why, exactly, should we in the democratic age abandon the idea of families that stretch across generations?
Why shouldn’t we focus, as did the ancients Old World and New, on our place in a human slipstream that extends to the seventh generation in both directions? How differently would you raise your children if you thought of them as someone’s great-grandparent, not just as somebody’s grandchild?
Adopting this or that policy “for our kids and grandkids” has become such an empty cliché in America because it reveals how idiotically our imaginations have been trained to stop just a handful of decades out.
If we think of ourselves and our kids as similarly woven into a family line that reaches deep throughout time, government can meet us with a proactive effort of its own: ensuring through tax policy that families are able to work toward, and keep, modest fortunes sustained over generations.
Parents are more apt to build wealth than amass debt if they aren’t desperate to catapult their children into a higher class before either of them die. Children are less apt to squander inherited wealth if they haven’t grown up in thrall to a crazed competition for personal time and well-being.
It might seem crazy to think about your great-great-great-great grandchild the next time you start freaking out over your kid. Then again, how’s the alternative working for us?