When Every Child Is a Choice

Paige Cody/Mother and child at the piano

John and Tori have two houses, three cars, six kids, and 45 years of parenting experience. One dog’s dead, but the second is alive. When the kids were younger, they had three nannies and one driver. Most of the kids were homeschooled, so Tori stayed home to teach them. The kids played six sports: tennis, golf, sailing, rowing, skiing, and baseball. They grew up and left for 24 years of college, which meant around two million dollars worth of tuition. John spent another half a million on private school when a few kids didn’t like homeschooling. The family is supported by one job––investment banker.

Alexandra has five kids. A million dollars a year, cash, from two doctor parents. Catholic church, Catholic school. If she won the lottery, she says, she would have 10 more kids. No sports––not enough time. One house, on a beautiful island off Florida called Key Biscayne. A small boat, instead of a big one.

I met a mom who has nine kids. Nine. She was a tomboy and never cared about being a mom, but then she fell in love with a man who wanted a big family and just had them. She made it sound so smooth, like anyone could do it.

When I asked the moms whether they would have done it––have so many kids––with less, they all weren’t sure. They wanted to say yes.

Most of the time, I got a “maybe” or “I hope so.”

Society’s Children

We have mostly solved the basics. Clean water. Enough food. Medical care. But then you get to the harder ones––love, safety, purpose––for which the bar can feel impossibly high. One person, half you. When every child is a choice, and you have them in a society that is ostensibly so bountiful, then it feels like your fault if they fall short.

Birth rates are down, and parents in developed countries are increasingly delaying child-rearing or avoiding it altogether. When they do have children, they pour their resources into a precious one or two instead of simply having more. The May 2023 Harper’s Index included an ominous list of the years that various world powers’ populations began to decline––Japan: 2011 / South Korea: 2021 / China: 2022––with the insinuation that America will be next.

A smaller population could function well in theory, but in practice, the child-free societies we know of are often quite strange and very sad. New research suggests that there are now more missing-but-wanted children in the world than unwanted ones. In response, some commentators have tried to reclaim childbearing as a radical act of frontiersmanship, declaring that more is better regardless of the circumstances. Elon Musk must be a good person, because he is rumored to have 20 kids. At least Ghengis Khan had kids while he was pillaging half the known world. Their language may be coarse, but the underlying point is sound––a society without children will not last long.

Of course, when the time comes, you don’t have society’s children. You have your children. And no one wants to hurt their children. Even if it means having fewer. Even if it were, on paper, the right thing to do.

I’m 24 now. I am the target demographic of the pro-natalist movement––over-educated, prone to thinking too hard, and the product of a small family of my own. But most educated people are so far removed from the reality of raising large groups of children that any calls for them to “breed,” or otherwise change their child-rearing habits, feel impossibly abstract.

What would it even look like in 2023 to have a lot of kids? Statistically, it is actually people like John and Tori––with over a million dollars a year in household income––who have the most children. Many of my friends are from large, wealthy families, and so I asked their parents about their experiences. They have different parenting styles: religious and secular, intensive and hands-off. But what unites them is their ability and willingness to deploy exorbitant resources to rebuild the childhood structures most Western parents would view as standard. They teach their children at home for a reasonably-priced education––then supplement with a few hundred thousand dollars of outside activities for social skills. They pay two doctor’s salaries for a house in a safe, close-knit community, where their kids can walk home without supervision.

At a certain level of wealth, it seems, the world starts to feel a little more open and hopeful, like you could fill it with infinitely more people and have plenty left to spare. You can buy them experiences. You can buy them a life.

The Meritocracy Treadmill

Growing up, I met a lot of kids. I knew rich kids and borderline kids from families large and small. I saw parents who followed the playbook––private school, violin lessons––and ones who tried to think outside the box.

I knew a girl whose mom tried to homeschool her when she was 14 to keep her away from boys. In response, she started dating a 26-year-old man who had tattoos and a lazy eye, just to prove that she could. I know a girl who was the last child of three, and her parents tried so hard with the first two kids that she was effectively “raised by Snapchat.” I know a girl with five siblings and she’s a little angel––she just got engaged. I know a boy who was also a later child, and he tried to join a cult, but then he came back so I guess it doesn’t matter. And even though I know that all the money and parental maneuvering in the world supposedly cannot change who a person is at their core, I’ve never believed that for a second.

Because you can watch how children change with their environment: how they soak up the values of a new town; how an unexpected windfall for the parents produces a posher, lazier second child. And most of the time, you can look at all the little signs of how someone was raised––the cut of their hair, the way they hold their fork––and draw a straight line from where they came from to where they will inevitably end up going.

We live in a purported meritocracy, where every generation has to work for their social position. At least, we are closer to one than most other times in human history. That has its advantages, but it also forces individuals––and their parents––to proactively assert any additional person’s right to exist.

Once you opt-in, the current meritocratic structures will push the limits of what parents are able to do. The internet has democratized access to information on how to get ahead––all the applications are online, and forums like DCUrbanMoms and College Confidential lay out your competition in plain terms. And so we have, in practice, created a meritocratic treadmill––where the same upper-middle class still self-replicates each year by squeezing into the same few thousand spots, but the effort required to do so rises with each iteration of the process. A process that once started in high school has expanded to include a complex network of feeder preschools and resume-enriching summer camps on the way to college, internships, and that crucial first job. And attempts to rectify the imbalances in these systems have only made them more complex. In Washington D.C., parents navigate a school lottery system that was designed by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, which determines whether their children will actually learn how to read in school. And as pure academics have become blasé––too many kids got 4.0s––the scope of the game has expanded to include intangibles like “passion” and “character,” which in practice can be bought and paid for by parents with enough commitment.

If you’re late to the school race or try to raise your child spontaneously, then the most straightforward avenues to their success will close. Everyone knows the rules of the game now and is preparing for the next stage years in advance. Consultants will prepare a child for private school admissions when they are four years old.

Part of the challenge of having children in the twenty-first century is that we do not immediately need more people. We do need people––in an abstract, make-the-GDP-line-go-up way—but we don’t have as much use for warm bodies anymore: generic individuals who can break stones, cook, or fight. Instead, any person exists in society on the basis of their place in the economy, and so they need a well-remunerated job or proximity to one through marriage. The increasingly obscure ways most people make their living––derivatives on top of derivatives that require years of specialized training and cultural knowledge—incentivize parents to have better children, of the type who will have an easier time supporting themselves, instead of having more. Even industries widely touted as alternatives to a traditional career, like technology or cryptocurrency, rely heavily on their math ability and cultural know-how crafted over years of socialization and specialized education.

Parents have two levers they can pull if they want to help their children: more money, and more time. And they will seemingly never brake on either. Accordingly, the cost of a private education has risen from a reasonable average of $1200 a year in 1979 to a projected $100,000 a year per child in some cities––right at the limits of what the most well-resourced parents are able to pay. Families take out second mortgages to pay for sports––hoping for scholarships, character, or just an extra edge in an increasingly byzantine college admissions process. The Common Application has 10 extracurricular slots; strong applicants regularly fill all of them.

Children today are not born more intelligent than those 70 years ago. But it has become a rite of passage in many circles to prop them up until they look that way––if only to justify their presence against other people’s children.

Even if you want to raise low-investment, free-range children, the rest of the culture has changed––dragging unwitting parents in by association. No more playing on the street: all the other kids are at soccer practice. So you bring your kids to soccer practice. You pay for soccer lessons, so they don’t embarrass themselves at practice. And now the soccer team is traveling, and they have to go or they’re off the team, so you take Saturday off and drive like all the other parents. If you live in a community where all the activities for children are structured, and the structured activities have high barriers to entry, most people will cave, even if they don’t intrinsically think their children need fancy activities. The safe, upwardly mobile neighborhoods that parents fetishize often have the highest barriers to entry.

In November 2022, the Hulu show Fleishman Is in Trouble triggered half the Eastern seaboard with its too-realistic depiction of a fracturing couple who pour their good-but-not-good-enough incomes into all the right schools, camps, and birthday presents for their kids, all for the privilege of having them not embarrassingly stand out among their peers.

Normal. That’s what everyone wants, even if the work now required is anything but normal. Just nice, normal kids.

A Precipitous Fall

For a society that is so difficult to navigate, we are incredibly unforgiving of the people who fall behind. Consciously or not, everyone treats people who haven’t been raised right poorly––often, for attributes that are not really their fault. We say “she’s a whore,” or “cheap,” which usually just means poor. We say “uneducated” or “low confidence” or “insecure.” We judge the cuts of people’s clothes. We say “he doesn’t get it” and we only help people who get it—the ones who ask the right questions, who don’t get too nervous, and who carry themselves with a certain kind of confidence. Did you know that there’s a special way to tie your Sperry Top-Siders? It’s a kind of double sailing knot with two laces, not a bow. Not that anyone wears Sperrys anymore, but there are a thousand little signs like that, of what kind of person someone is.

You live your life surrounded by other people’s children, even if you don’t think of them that way.

Since the late 1960s, nearly every indicator of personal well-being has bifurcated along education lines, and the gap is growing rapidly. People with a four-year college education are now significantly better-connected, healthier, and more involved with their communities than their non-college-educated counterparts. College-educated people are more likely to attend church. They have more friends. They are more likely to know and trust their neighbors, and, despite concerns about helicopter parenting, to live in safe neighborhoods where their kids can play outside. Their social networks are also more likely to include professionals like doctors, lawyers, and potential employers who can help them and their children navigate a society that is otherwise increasingly obscure.

In the public imagination, we have mostly held onto the Baby Boom-era idea that wealth is a matter of scale: a larger income might mean a bigger house or more clothes. But the real privilege of professional success is increasingly not any particular possession, but access to a social functionality that is now limited to the upper classes.

A safe home environment has transformed from something shared across income lines into a luxury reserved for the educated. In 1960, when fertility was at its post-war peak, nearly all children––regardless of social class––were raised in stable two-parent families that provided a launchpad for economic advancement. But today, while 95 percent of children born to college-educated parents still have two parents at home, almost 70 percent of poor children now grow up without one or both of their parents. The vast majority of poor children say that they want to get married but far fewer of them actually do, and their relationships tend to fall apart soon after they have formed. As a result, the majority of poor children are born into what sociologist Sara McLanahan calls “fragile” or “kaleidoscopic” families––kinship networks with no clear center, and parents with numerous other entanglements outside the home. Economically stressed parents are also far more likely to beat their children.

The rise of class-based residential segregation has amplified the effects of what could have been isolated incidents of social dysfunction. Social and economic mobility has collapsed since 1960, and the features of a so-called normal life—a good-enough education, close friends, and a safe place to run around—have become uncommon enough to be status symbols that conscientious parents will compete for.

As the experiences of the college-educated and uneducated have diverged, inter-class marriage rates have declined rapidly—both a key creator and indicator of social cohesion. In practice, that means fewer bosses marry their secretaries and more bankers marrying other bankers. But the results have also been catastrophic for poor children, who now have fewer helpful uncles, cousins, or even neighbors to tell them “I think you should go to college” or just model a way out.

Unlike material deprivation, which can at least be solved with money, the psychological damage poor children increasingly suffer is permanent. The afflictions that disproportionately affect the children of non-college-educated parents––physical or sexual abuse, the witnessing of violence at a young age, or having a parent who is absent or in prison––are known by researchers as adverse childhood experiences (ACES). Experiencing chronic stress as a child can shrink the size of a developing hippocampus; primates cut off from parental affection never learn how to mate or raise infants of their own. With each additional ACE, a person becomes more likely to have cancer, diabetes, or a stroke. Of course, there are confounding factors: some people beat the odds and others will fail with every advantage. But you can give a person all the benefits of modern society––cheap toys and a Publix birthday cake––and still screw with them until their brain doesn’t work right anymore.

Everyone born today should, in economic terms, be quite happy with their lot; the poorest 20 percent of America are among the wealthiest people to ever walk the earth. But as technologically advanced societies segregate between those who can participate and those who can’t, the consequences of falling out of the former category are dismal. Those who cannot keep up with the change seem to quietly wither away outside of the public view.

It’s everywhere: the feeling that to grow into a wanted, integrated member of society is somehow exceptional.

Raising Better Kids

When I was a kid––maybe seven, or eight––I used to imagine all the things that I would buy for my children. I don’t know why I cared so much. But I had so many ideas. I wanted them to have white teeth and tennis skirts and big bright smiles. Fur gloves. A Christmas tree. I wanted a white house and a pink car. As I became a teenager, my plans became less childlike. I wanted a brownstone. I wanted high walls. I even made a plan to become a surgeon––the highest-paid job on a list I found on Google. When my friend from camp got into St. Ann’s in New York and I heard the reverential way that adults said St. Ann’s, I decided that I wanted my kids to go there, too.

I liked the sound of it. It sounded like a place where you would be safe.

The problem with intensive parenting is that it works. You can, with resources and the right subject, design someone’s class presentation from the ground up. One of the moms I know––with two kids––has a daughter, Ella, who is something of a “unicorn person.” She worked for three years as a professional ballet dancer, then went to an Ivy League school. She has pretty blonde hair and can throw a good dinner party. After she graduated, she got an offer for a job that you can actually support a family on, assuming she stays at the same company forever. Of course, she probably won’t, because her boyfriend also has one of those jobs, but she met him at a party for other people who went to her fancy school, so I think it still counts.

When I met Ella’s mom, Annie, I realized how much of her personality had been, in effect, crafted. For example, her mother had been very shy as a child, and read that shyness could be genetic. To compensate, she put both of her children in performance-based activities, like singing and ballet, very early. Now, neither Ella nor her brother are shy. When Ella was younger, Annie brought her to the opera and on trips to Europe and Africa, where her daughter could acquire the cultural omnivory that is now a hallmark of the upper classes. When she didn’t like the writing instruction at Ella’s private school, she tutored her for an extra hour and half a day on the deck of their house in the Hamptons.

She wanted her kids exposed to classical music. She didn’t want them to have their brains rotted by popular culture––Ella didn’t watch TV until she was 13.

Annie is one of those fancy Upper-East-Side moms, but she also has an anarchist streak. When she first had her daughter, she didn’t want to participate in “the system”––which is particularly brutal in New York––and seriously considered homeschooling her. When Ella was in preschool, they lived in an apartment across the street from a small elementary school. And at the end of each day, Annie liked to look out the window and watch the kids leaving together, laughing and shoving each other in the street.

One afternoon, she looked over at her daughter and realized that she couldn’t keep her away from all those other kids, even if it meant submitting to a system she despised. “I couldn’t do that to her.”

Now, Ella is incredibly grateful for all her mother did for her. Sometimes, she wishes she had more siblings, but acknowledges how much easier her life will be because of how many resources she was given. She jokes that homeschooling would have been a disaster, because “I was already pretty weird.”

More than anything, Ella seems so ready to be a mom. From her vantage point, with good friends and a new job, the world is a wonderful place, full of open doors and infinite possibilities. She wants to have three kids. She is still young––a little older than me––but I can already picture it, and so can she: pushing a stroller, throwing an iced coffee in the minivan before pick-up at day school. We take a walk together outside, and she points out the car she wants to drive her kids in someday. It’s a Porsche Cayenne, which is white and sleek and has plenty of room in the back. I recognized the model right away because a girl at my old ice skating club had a car like that. I was always so jealous of her, with her straight hair and her perfect car, but then her dad died in a car crash when we were 15.

He left the car behind, but I don’t think it helped.

Something Feels Impossible

When you die, most of what you leave behind is your children. We’re just animals; I don’t know what else we would expect. Some people do transcend their biological roots––they might become great artists, or musicians, and leave behind a whole oeuvre of meaningful contributions, but for the vast majority of us, our only legacy will be more people. More life.

So why wouldn’t you want to try? A few billion years of evolution have brought us quite far. The ancient Egyptians had a 50 percent child mortality rate, and they would bury their children with little toys for them to play with in the afterlife. That’s hard––harder than anything we do for our offspring now. Now, we have cities and research universities to fight over. We can debate our own existence on computers. And now, suddenly, we don’t want to continue. Maybe we’re all just spoiled. Maybe our little monkey brains can’t handle someone else having more than us. What humans seem to really want is to have more trinkets than our five closest friends, and maybe that’s why we’re going to go extinct. Maybe we need to drink some gratitude juice. Maybe we need to get on our knees and pray. Or maybe a wealthy society is like the domino towers I used to make when I was a kid: once you build to a certain level, it gets harder each time to rebuild from scratch.

It is the most natural urge in the world to want to protect your children. We buy them all of this stuff and hope that it is enough to keep them safe. Houses. Cars. Tennis skirts. Accutane. Adderall. Talk therapy; horse therapy. Extra time on the SAT. The sneakers all their friends have. A friend who’s a professor. We try to buy them the love of their peers, and a place in the world they will enter.

But you can also make your own hope, if you want.

After our conversation, I go to a barbeque with John and Tori’s family. John’s dad was a small-town lawyer who had nine kids; six went on to have children of their own. And now we’re here, a half-century later, in the backyard of John’s coastal home with 35 cousins. And they’re all people with names. You forget that, when you talk about “children” in the abstract––they become Sarah. David. Richard. Kacie. Lawrence and John. Max is back from college. Amelia writes plays. David wants to be an investment banker like his father, although his parents hope he tries something else. Uncle James had Sally, who is playing with Ben in the ocean. And the parents are looking on, and they know they paid for it all––the burgers and beer, and maybe too many schools––but they created a whole unit, with its own energy.

They gave their children all that a person could ask for: a place in the world they will enter, and a place outside of it.

Ginevra Davis studied Symbolic Systems at Stanford and now works in art and design. She writes about technology and youth culture. You can follow her at @ginevlily.