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Responsible Parenting: A Test of Character?

Isabel V. Sawhill

In this essay from the Center on Children and Families’ Essay Series on Character and Opportunity, Isabel Sawhill notes that social norms can help to build or reinforce character strengths. Without a new ethic of responsible parenting, Sawhill says social mobility will continue to be limited for those at the bottom.

A well-functioning liberal democracy is based on the everyday practice of civic virtues or what in another context we might call character. Without those virtues, the amount of intervention required to promote social and individual welfare, including upward mobility, would be inefficient, and overly intrusive. Government may require that children be vaccinated or attend school, but unless parents see the need for this and voluntarily cooperate with such requirements, they would not work in practice. Government can establish laws governing taxes or safe driving speeds but it cannot have an auditor for every citizen or a policeman on every corner and it must have the consent of the governed to impose such rules in the first place. Social norms are the private analogue to government rules and regulations. They establish standards of behavior to which most people conform. The punishment for nonconformity is not a fine or a prison sentence but social stigma and loss of respect or affection from significant others.

Although more efficient and less intrusive than government for guiding our behavior, social norms can also be individually stifling, even repressive. In addition, norms that may have once been useful for supporting the collective good may later become outdated and unproductive. But social norms are, in my view, exceedingly powerful shapers of individual behavior. The economist James Duesenberry once said that economics is all about how people make choices and sociology is all about why they don’t have any choices to make. Theories of human behavior need, in my view, to consider both.

As Richard Reeves has noted, some of these civic virtues or traits – what he calls persistence (hard work) and prudence (self-control or deferred gratification) – are more important than others for an individual’s chance of being upwardly mobile. I want to apply these ideas to a topic of great interest to me: unplanned childbearing, and its implications for upward mobility and opportunity.

Many young adults are drifting into early and unplanned childbearing outside of marriage, often before they have completed their education or formed a stable relationship with another adult. Roughly 40 percent of all births now occur outside of marriage and most of these are unplanned. All of the evidence, detailed in my book, Generation Unbound, points to this being detrimental to both the parents and their children’s life prospects. I have argued that what is needed, in this context, is a new ethic of responsible parenting, by which I mean: Not having a child before you and your partner really want a child and are prepared to care for it. With such an ethic in place, the amount of government assistance needed in cases where, through no fault of their own, parents still needed help, would be more affordable, and more acceptable to the taxpaying public. Such cases could include death of a parent, the low wages earned by both parents, the lack of child care to enable them to work, a child with special needs, and so forth.

But it would not include the large number of children who are born to adults who did not want a child (or another child) at a particular stage of their lives.

What’s behind this drifting into relationships and into parenthood without marriage? Some of it is the result of changing social norms. Fifty years ago children born outside of marriage were considered “illegitimate.” Not anymore. Even the term sounds old-fashioned and pejorative. In addition, some young adults may see little or no reason to delay childbearing given their limited economic prospects. But unintended childbearing rates are three or four times as high among the poor as among the middle class: this is hard to reconcile with a purely economic argument. The disadvantaged are not actively choosing to have as many children, or to have them as early in life. Less discussed is another important reason for drifting into parenthood: the simple fact that all of us lack will power and make mistakes; we don’t always end up doing what we intend to do. We don’t reach for a condom in the heat of the moment. We don’t think about the college tuition we are going to have to pay when we have a baby now. More generally, we lack a sense of self-efficacy or control over our lives. In a sample of 103 college women in their twenties, a relatively advantaged group, Paula England and her colleagues found that efficacy has strong effects on contraceptive use, even after controlling for many other variables including the strength of the desire to have children. And in a large survey of American women, 44 percent agreed or strongly agreed that “it doesn’t matter whether you use birth control or not; when it’s you time to get pregnant it will happen.” These findings suggest that a large portion of the population is fatalistic in their attitudes. If character means being more self-directed, more future-oriented, and more willing to control one’s impulses, and if these attributes, in turn, produce more social mobility, these findings are discouraging.

Social norms, I believe, can help to build or reinforce character strengths. The old social norm was “don’t have a child outside of marriage.” That norm was useful but it has now eroded to the point where it has little salience to the youngest generation. The new norm needs to be “don’t have a child until you and your partner are ready to be parents.” A new ethic of responsible parenting (backed up by more affordable and effective forms of birth control) may or may not be feasible. But without it, social mobility will continue to be limited for those at the bottom.

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