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Resist Pelagian Parenting

What if parenthood was a means of sanctification and could accelerate our progress toward something higher than self-satisfaction and hedonism? How would that change the way we view obstacles to parenting in our culture?

This is the ground Timothy Carney surveys in Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be, a rare work that combines rigorous social science and cultural analysis with Roman Catholic wisdom and wit. The book moves from the practical (“have lower ambitions for your kids”) to the political (chapters on urban planning and pro-family policy) to the civilizational and spiritual—all while sustaining an underlying sense of humor.

Guided by Carney—a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and senior columnist at the Washington Examiner—we learn the difference culture can make. “Pregnancy,” Carney observes, “is contagious” (164). Catholics, already renowned for their large families, have even larger families when they’re enmeshed with Latter-day Saints in Utah. In Israel, surrounded by Orthodox Jewish families with five or more children, even secular families are larger than the norm in the United States or Europe. Clearly, something more than individual beliefs and preferences is driving these outcomes.

However, culture isn’t always benevolent. While parenthood is (and always will be) challenging, modern culture makes it uniquely brutal in two important ways: loneliness and perfectionism.

Parenting Alone

Every aspect of our modern lives, including parenthood, is lonelier than it used to be, especially for stay-at-home parents. In the mid-20th century, the vast majority of married couples lived on one income, freeing up the other spouse (almost always the wife) to cultivate community life. But today, single-income households barely make up a third of the country. Spouses who choose to stay at home are losing out on the community of other stay-at-home parents that helped previous generations stay sane through early parenthood. There are simply fewer people at playgrounds and other shared spaces for children and their parents to meet and play with during the normal working day. Faced with a choice between being lonely at home or in community at work, parents understandably choose community.

Every aspect of our modern lives, including parenthood, is lonelier than it used to be, especially for stay-at-home parents.

But our culture is worse off for it. Civil society is built on the presence and labor of stay-at-home parents; without them, it falls into a vicious cycle. As Jane Jacobs argued in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, public spaces devoid of people become unsafe. Fortunately, it works the other way as well, as Carney argues: “An America with more moms and dads at home throughout the day will be an America with safer neighborhoods, which in turn is an America with freer kids and freer parents. An America with more full-time moms and dads is an America with happier kids, healthier kids, and, in the long run, more kids” (234).

We need to stop treating families with young children like they’re a drag on society. In reality, they’re its lifeblood. Carney’s point here is counterintuitive but correct:

We owe it to our parents to let them care for our kids. We owe it to not-yet-married twentysomethings to have them look after little tots. We owe it to the never-married or those who couldn’t or didn’t ever have children to leave them with some part of caring for the children of the community. (95)

Without children to make claims “on our time, on our resources, on our bodies, and on our love,” we fall all too easily for the myth of autonomy (260). As Carney describes it, “Autonomy precludes being dependent on anyone. . . . Trusting another person with your fate, leaning on someone, is weakness—it’s a betrayal of your own self-determination” (258). Children remind us it’s normal to need someone to tie our shoes, open a juice box, or wipe our nose.

Perfectionistic Pelagian Parenting

The primary temptation of our modern parenting, however, is that we have to fashion perfect people. Carney calls it the “Travel Team Trap”; we might call it “Pelagian Parenting.” Parents become seemingly convinced they must prepare their children for the rigors of college applications by decades before an application is due, carting kids across state borders every weekend for sports and extracurriculars if they’re to amount to anything. Moreover, every nuclear family must achieve this on its own, which is another form of autonomy.

Our culture’s push for autonomy is a modern spin on an old heresy. Much like the Pelagianism that arose in the fifth century, the myth of autonomy misrepresents what it means to be human. It claims human beings can handle things on their own, that with enough muscle and gumption, we’re wholly self-sufficient to meet life’s greatest demands—whether something so grandiose as earning our salvation or mundane as keeping our children quiet for the full duration of the Sunday sermon.

By God’s providence, young children quickly smash our sense of autonomy and independence as we’re at our wits’ ends in trying to keep our kids alive and in line, even in a healthy two-parent household. Carney notes, “To have children is to surrender autonomy—and that’s why they are an invaluable blessing” (261). Whether we’re parents or merely press-ganged into the nursery on Sunday, caring for children requires learning how to surrender. As Carney acknowledges, “The road of surrender and love is and always has been the only path to happiness” (259). Parents who try to control their children’s behavior to keep them safe and quiet end up being unhappy and often with emotionally fragile children.

Young children quickly smash our sense of autonomy and independence as we’re at our wits’ ends in trying to keep our kids alive and in line.

Behind Pelagian Parenting lies a fear of loss of control, manifested not just in zealous overscheduling but in what Carney calls “helicopter mandates” driven by a distorted sense of danger (50). Both aspects are driven by the fear of failing our children by letting “something preventable . . . happen to them” (52). Growing evidence indicates that “helicopter parenting” contributes to anxiety and depression among kids whose parents fight too hard to keep them safe. The irony is that our overparenting is a much more realistic threat to our children’s wellbeing than what keeps us worrying (death, kidnapping, spontaneous combustion). As it turns out, we even have to learn to surrender our fears. One of the ways we can do that is by having more kids, because even engaged parents don’t have time to hover when they have lots of kids.

Become Holy

Conservative commentators have sometimes suggested we need to have big families so we can “reclaim the culture.” Reading Family Unfriendly convinced me that’s not quite right. Rather than arguing that the future belongs to the fecund, Carney makes the case that having children can help us become better people. He writes with tongue in cheek,

The Bible tells us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. As a parent, all I have to do is wake up and—voilà! There are hungry, naked people already in my house. They’re right there! Parenthood is mercy and self-giving made easy—or if not always easy, at least simple. (298)

Such opportunities for service are a means of common grace.

We don’t need big families—the apostle Paul might even prefer some of us remain single—but we should make having big families easier. Doing so might be essential to reclaiming ourselves as fully human: creatures made by our Maker for mutual dependence and surrender.

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