The Moral Significance of Having Children

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The birthrate in the United States has hit its lowest level since 1979. Some chalk this up to the pandemic. But others speculate that “the economy, immigration rates and lacking pro-family policies are possible reasons.”

We’ve probably also heard silly statements similar to this one.

Economic conditions, lack of geographic stability/a shifting global population, environmental concerns, and government policy can affect family formation. But are these symptoms? Or is there a deeper malaise?

Is there some other reasons we do not wish to have children?

In A Community of Character, Stanley Hauerwas wrote an essay, “The Moral Value of the Family, and said:

Like it or not, one of the most morally substantive things any of us ever has the opportunity to do is to have children. A child represents our willingness to go on in the face of difficulties, suffering, and the ambiguities of modern life and is thus our claim that we have something worthwhile to pass on. The refusal to have children can be an act of ultimate despair that masks the deepest kind of self-hate and disgust. Fear and rejection of parenthood, the tendency to view the family as nothing more than companionable marriage, and the understanding of marriage as one of a series of nonbinding commitments, are but indications that our society has a growing distrust of our ability to deal with the future.

Family formation is a moral responsibility, and it is a setting for significant moral formation. Hauerwas stresses the necessity of inter-generational ties, the importance of elderly persons in the lives of young parents and children, and the fact that families teach how to care for those we do not choose, “those we find ourselves joined to by accident of birth.” The family also teaches us how to practice hospitality and the welcome of the stranger, and through the telling of family stories we find ourselves incorporated into a history that preceded us, and that will continue beyond us. We are bound not only by birth, but by time.

Hauerwas challenges us to reclaim family formation and childbearing as a moral responsibility, where older parents pass on wisdom to younger parents, and where all family members pass on what is good and true about human existence to successive generations. Rather than passing off children to “experts,” it is time we care for children as families.

Hauerwas concludes the essay:

In closing, a brief mention of what I think religious faith has to do with marriage and the family. It is not merely that the Judeo-Christian tradition keeps people on the straight and narrow sexual path necessary to sustain marriage. On the contrary, I begin my classes on marriage with the observation that both Christianity and marriage teach us that life is not chiefly about ‘happiness.’ Rather, the Hebrew-Christian tradition helps sustain the virtue of hope in a world which rarely provides evidence that such hope is justified. There may be a secular analogue to such hope, but for those of us who identify with Judaism or Christianity, our continuing formation of families witnesses to our belief that the falseness of this world is finally bounded by a more profound truth.

Christianity provides a hope that goes beyond the state of the economy, the environment, migration concerns, or government policy. And, it provides the resources to help individuals work toward economic health and justice, creation care, stability and hospitality, and public policy that benefits the common good.

I have often reflected on the challenges of parenthood. Molly and I were not “ready” for children. I do not think anyone is ever “ready,” for even if we think we are “ready,” we will change. Our conditions will change. Speaking personally, part of the change rendered in me is the discovery of a love that binds and compels, that draws and drives, a deepening concern not first for my own interests, but for the interests of those who have been gifted into the world by God.

As Hauerwas observes, the world seldom provides reasons for “hope.” It is rather effective in providing reasons for despair. My hope, then, must be rooted elsewhere: in God and God’s coming future.

If you are considering marriage, be wise, firstly. But, I encourage you: get married. Make a commitment. With God’s help, keep it. And if you are married, even if you don’t think you are “ready,” please be open to welcoming a child into the world. Why? Because, with God, we have an everlasting hope.

Discern, then Respond

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