What Makes America Family Unfriendly? A Q&A with Tim Carney

Published May 9, 2024

Public Discourse

In this interview, journalist Tim Carney joins contributing editor Patrick Brown to discuss how America’s family-unfriendly culture is deterring couples from having children, how overparenting and unattainable standards in childrearing have made family life appear unappealing, and how a combination of policy and interpersonal solutions, including robust community support, can foster a family-friendly culture. Carney’s book Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be was released in March.

Patrick Brown: Tim, thanks for joining Public Discourse to discuss your new book, Family Unfriendly. Your book covers so much ground. It feels unfair to ask this, but if you had to pinpoint the top cause, or the top two causes, of what made our culture more family-unfriendly, what would they be?  

Tim Carney: I attribute our culture’s increasing hostility to marriage and children to three main factors: a lack of community support, our culture’s hyper-individualism, and modern man’s high esteem for planning.  

To the first point, it really does “take a village” to raise a child. The nuclear family is, of course, an indispensable institution, but it cannot stand on its own. Every parent can tell you that. Parents need neighbors, babysitters, pastors, coaches, teachers, and especially, extended family, to help raise and nurture our children. We need babysitters (free and paid) to give us much-needed breaks from the hard work of raising young children. We need older couples in our lives to show us that it can be done, and to give us a glimpse of the rewards that await us. We need other parents with whom to share the absurdities and aggravations and joys of parenting. We need confessors. We need playmates for our kids as well as adult authority figures who haven’t spent all their capital shouting “put away your laundry!!!”

Man is a social animal, and so we all need community and belonging. It’s easy, in your single or childless adulthood, to think that community is simply nice. As a parent, it becomes absolutely necessary.

Yet, as Robert Putnam documented in Bowling Alone, Americans are more and more isolated. We don’t know our neighbors; we don’t join community associations; we don’t have hobbies. We’re lonely. And a lonely society is a family-unfriendly society.

To my second point, I think our family-unfriendliness is also partly due to the spirit of the age, which is overly individualistic. I believe we subconsciously mistake our state of alienation for a state of liberation. This has all sorts of downstream effects on our culture. 

The belief that childrearing is prohibitively expensive could be understood as a fruit of our collapsing civil society. Some people today don’t even consider that extended family, neighbors, churches, and other little platoons can, at least theoretically, provide real support to parents. They fall into believing that the only places to turn for help are the market and the state. Parents without community support then shift more burden onto themselves. This not only strains them, but also, it restricts their children’s freedom to explore the world and engage in risky, unsupervised play independent of adult supervision. This has deleterious effects on kids’ mental health.

If you hold individual autonomy as the highest good, you’ll be averse to family for many reasons. For starters, marriage undermines autonomy. Aside from the very uncool idea of subordinating yourself to your husband or wife, there’s the problem of the baby: a baby demolishes the very clean moral system that worships autonomy and holds consent as the only moral test. I put it this way in the book: 

A baby demolishes the coherence of an autonomy philosophy, because of what young children so clearly lack and what they so clearly have. Young children clearly lack the rationality that is the foundation of all philosophies of autonomy. And they so clearly have a claim on us—on our time, on our resources, on our bodies, and on our love.

Children not only are dependent on us; they also strip us of our own independence. To have children is to surrender autonomy. 

To my third point, children also clash with the planner mentality so prevalent in the modern wealthy world. Having kids used to be part of the natural course of adulthood. Folks could opt out, but the standard was that growing up meant getting married and having kids.

Now, though, nothing can be just the way it’s done, including family. Having kids is postponed, agonized over, and planned meticulously. People try to wait until they’re ready to have kids—and of course nobody is ever ready to have kids.

Not to mention, kids are not terribly plannable. Mike Tyson put it well: everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. Having a baby is a punch in the face. It shatters our illusion of control.

PB: You spend a lot of time talking about the pressures on suburban, college-educated parents: travel ball, college admissions pressures, etc. But as you know, the biggest decline in fertility rates since the Great Recession has been among unmarried women having fewer babies out of wedlock, and fewer tying the knot in general. Do you sense a class divide in what is making parenthood feel more stressful and less fun? Or are the pressures of the upper class filtering down to parents without a college degree as well?  

TC: I think two dynamics are at play in the working class. First, cultural norms tend to trickle down from the upper class, and overparenting is doing that. 

Here’s a nugget of data to give an insight into how parenting has changed: time-use surveys indicate that from 1965 to 2000, dads more than doubled the amount of time per week they spent strictly taking care of kids. In that same period, while moms took up paid jobs at much greater rates, and while families got smaller, moms increased their parenting hours by 50 percent.

This is what economists call “quality-over-quantity” parenting, and I (and many others) argue that it’s largely harmful—to both parents and kids.

You could boil most overparenting down to two pathologies: over-ambition and excessive fear.

Overambitious parents overschedule their kids and choose expensive and intensive sports teams and music programs over fun and local ones. They turn kids’ games into jobs. They deprive their kids of independent play and boredom—both of which are essential to development.

This travel-team rat race is typical of elite behavior, but it’s creeping into the working class. That’s what cultural trends do. 

As part of the research for Family Unfriendly, I ran focus groups of young men and women who were undecided on having kids or opposed. From working-class men and women alike I heard comments like, “I don’t want to have kids until I’m sure I can give them the very best of everything.”

So that’s the matter of upper-class parenting pathologies trickling down to the working class.

The pathology more concentrated in the working class is the lack of stable marriages. Most women who didn’t go to college are unmarried at age forty. Most births to non-college women are outside of marriage.

In rural West Virginia, I met a young woman who said she wants to have kids. Then she added that she has decided she personally doesn’t want to have children until she’s married. She expressed this as if it were her own personal conviction, to which she had individually reasoned. That’s because she lives in a culture where the bond between marriage and family formation has totally frayed.

PB: There is something in this book for pretty much everyone, from an urbanism that prioritizes kids to a feminism that breaks through the old, tired binaries. As you did the research for this book, is there anything you found yourself changing your mind about?  

TC: I definitely value kid-walkability and kid-bikeability much more than I did before doing all these interviews and reading the studies on independent play. It’s not merely nice for kids to be able to roam free, it’s nearly essential. 

First of all, parents need a break from kids, and unstructured play does just that.

More importantly, kids need independent, unsupervised play—this is the sort of play that will be exploratory. Experts have pinned the rise in childhood anxiety on the lack of independent play. A 2023 paper in the Journal of Pediatrics concluded that “a primary cause of the rise in mental disorders is a decline over decades in opportunities for children and teens to play, roam, and engage in other activities independent of direct oversight and control by adults.”

The best way to give kids this play is to let them wander the neighborhood aimlessly, which is far better than surfing the web or scrolling on social media.

Also, in a more kid-walkable and kid-bikeable place, kids don’t need parents in order to get to the places they need to go—their friends’ house, the corner store, a job, a little league game, school, the pickup basketball courts. They can just go. They can develop the independence they need to be healthy, confident adults.

Our cities and suburbs are not optimal for kids walking and biking. In my old Maryland neighborhood, our young kids couldn’t safely walk to the grocery store across the street because that street had three or four lanes of traffic in each direction. What happens is that parents then have to drive their kids everywhere. I call this “Car Hell.”

Here’s what I wrote in my book:

When the kids are little, you have to buckle them into the car seat. And because you absolutely, positively cannot leave kids in the car for half a second unaccompanied, you’re buckling and unbuckling and re-buckling and re-unbuckling if you are going to more than one place. Maybe they’re potty trained, but that doesn’t help much in the car. And (I would like a major medical school to study this) the instant you strap your kids into the car, at least one child will be overcome by an overwhelming, life-threatening thirst. It could be a kid who has never once asked for water and who never drank the water you gave him at home or used the water fountain at the park you were just at. But when you are driving the twenty minutes home from that park, he will die unless you get him water now.

When the kids are older, Car Hell takes on a different nature— maybe the kids aren’t as miserable every minute they are in the car, but now they have so many more places to go. If your teenager’s school, sports, activities, parties, and even hangouts with their buddies are a car ride away, the chances are you’re driving them to all of the above. You have suddenly taken on a second job as an unpaid cabbie, and because you sometimes have to say no, your kids don’t see their friends or play pickup basketball as much as they’d like. Into that void rushes social media.

A second place in which I’ve changed my thinking while researching for this book is on childcare subsidies. I’ve gone from neutral to generally negative. 

I think the feminist experiments of northern Europe have proved that subsidizing childcare really subsidizes work and, in turn, shifts a culture more towards workism. This is anti-family. 

Instead of subsidizing childcare, give parents money. They can spend that money on daycare or they could use the extra money to dial down their paid work. They might put that money toward renovating a granny flat. They might use the money to rent a house closer to their friends who run an informal childcare co-op. It’s about giving them the freedom to use the funds as they see fit, then trusting them to do so.

PB: Conservatives, of course, have talked about family values for a long time, and yet we’ve seen the breakdown of the family and the decline in fertility continue apace. What do you think is the Right’s biggest blind spot on creating a society in which families are actively valued? And how does it differ from the Left’s?  

TC: The Right has overemphasized the nuclear family, and the Left has disregarded the nuclear family. The nuclear family is a necessary but insufficient condition for children’s thriving and society’s health. It’s like the heart: you can’t live without it, but it can’t survive on its own. 

You see this come up these days in discussions over social media and smartphones. Some folks are calling for federal age limits on social media accounts. A common response is that “it’s the parents’ job to keep their kids off of these things.” But it’s really hard for parents to do this on their own if every other kid has an iPhone and communicates by Instagram messenger.

Parents need a support system. They need other parents on the same page. They need schools to ban phones inside the schools.

It’s the same with letting the kids run the neighborhood: it’s a lot more fun if other kids are free to run the neighborhood, too.

PB: I think anyone reading this book is going to feel tremendously jealous of the community you’ve built and the balance between work and home you seem to not just advocate, but live. What’s the biggest takeaway that people should apply in their own lives, neighborhoods, or church communities to make life more friendly to families?  

TC: Immerse yourself in vital community institutions, particularly religious and educational ones. Throw yourself in head-first so that you call these institutions “we” and “us.”  

For my wife and me, this is mostly our children’s schools and the Catholic parishes we have called home in Maryland and now in Virginia.

Katie coached softball, ran Friday cookouts, sat on the principal’s advisory committee, and served as a substitute teacher. I launched a tee-ball program, taught Sunday school, and coached various sports at various levels.

These institutions are where our kids learn math, reading, and religion. It’s where they make friends, play sports, and receive their sacraments. This is where they attend funerals and weddings. It’s where they volunteer and where they receive support.

I told a story in my last book about the time our baby needed to go to the Intensive Care Unit for four days because of trouble breathing. My kids later commented that that week was their best week ever of eating. If you live in a tight-knit community, you know why: friends and family all brought us so much food that our extra fridge and freezer filled up. What I noticed, though, was that this wasn’t merely a swarm of friends. Everyone who brought us food was connected to us through some institution: a book club, an employer, a parish, a baseball team, a nonprofit board.

The time and effort we pour into these institutions are repaid a thousand fold whenever we’re in need. Less acutely but more importantly, these institutions are our indispensable partners in raising our kids.

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.

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