United Families International: Dedicated to informing you about the issues and forces impacting the family.
Contributed by Jenet Erickson
The first article in this series focused on how societies benefit from an orientation toward nurturing children within families. As that article discussed, not only are children critical to the economic development of nations, but a focus on children orients society toward marriage with all of the profound benefits a marriage-centered culture brings. But it is not just societies that need children. Nurturing children also brings profound benefits to those who nurture them.
Becoming a parent – a metamorphosis
For example, men who marry and have children experience what scholars call “the marriage premium.” When compared their single peers, they tend to earn $16,000 more per year, have an earning power that is 16-24% greater, experience more emotionally and satisfying intimacy, and have a life span that averages 10 years longer. In the process of nurturing children, they also experience lower levels of testosterone, which is associated with more responsible behaviors and responsive parenting. In studies involving animals, experienced fathers show enhanced boldness, food-finding abilities and problem-solving skills. Other changes direct the father’s attention to caretaking and make him less vulnerable to distractions. Even the brain appears to change. The prefrontal cortex of experienced marmoset fathers shows changes in cell structure and an increase in hormones associated with bonding. Many of these changes associated with fatherhood have lasting benefits, including greater happiness over the long run.
For mothers, the biological changes associated with nurturing children also predict positive, long-term benefits. Mother rats with the most mothering experience, for example, learned most efficiently and retained their knowledge longest. In the process of multitasking as caregivers they had to prioritize tasks, tune out distractions, solve problems, make decisions, and change strategies when circumstances required. They also acquired greater physical agility, balance, coordination, and strength in the process.
The creative potential unleashed through marriage and family
But the gains associated with parenthood are not just physiological. Founder of Harvard’s Sociology department Pitirim Sorokin called marriage and parenthood “The marriage-family school.” He concluded, “The cultivation of mutual love and the task of educating their children stimulate married persons to release and develop their best creative impulses. For surely the mission of molding their own and their children’s personalities is as ennobling as the creation of a masterpiece in the arts or sciences…Marriage [and family] is the most universal and the most democratic school for the development of the creative potential of every human being.”
Robert D. Hales, a former leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, expanded on Sorokin’s insight when he said:
“Motherhood (and Fatherhood) is the ideal opportunity for lifelong learning. It’s exponential, not linear. Just think of the learning process of a mother throughout the lifetime of her children…because their needs are so varied and far-reaching…For example, in the process of rearing her children, a mother studies such topics as child development; nutrition; health care; physiology; psychology; nursing with medical research and care; and educational tutoring in many diverse fields such as math, science, geography, literature, English, and foreign languages. She develops gifts such as music, athletics, dance, and public speaking. The learning examples could continue endlessly. Just think of the spiritual learning that is required as a mother teaches about gospel principles…”
Renowned ethnographer, Kathryn Edin, revealed the powerful positive influence of children in her extensive interviewing of low-income, inner-city mothers. As she summarized, “Over and over again mothers tell us their children helped put their lives back together.” In their words: “I’d have no direction if I hadn’t had a child.” “There was no point to live for…Now I try to stay focused on what I want in life for my kids…” “[Being a mother] makes me feel like a whole other person…I have to do better.” One African American mother remembered vividly how her mother wanted her to get a diploma and “live her life,” before having children. But in this mother’s words, “that baby was life!” Motherhood gave these mothers connection, a place in the world, a purpose to give their lives for; the possibility of validation, purpose, connection, and order.
Marriage, then family – an order of sacrifice and devotion
Considering the challenges these mothers face raising children in poverty, without the support of a spouse, highlights the essential need for a culture to order marriage before childbearing. In Sorokin’s words, “Marriage [should be] the social evidence of the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and civic maturity of the individual… Sexual relations within marriage are the acceptance of ‘responsibilities’ and ‘privileges’ …ordered to the creation of children.” Marriage marks the “momentous transformation of a boy into a husband-father, and of a girl into a wife-mother” with “corresponding changes in their social position, privileges, and responsibilities–a change accepted socially, civilly, theologically, legally, and so forth.”
The very process of fully devoting oneself to others in marriage and childbearing saves us. There is nothing like it. As Michael Novak powerfully concluded, “To have children is, plainly, to cease being a child oneself…My bonds to them hold me back from many sorts of opportunities. And yet these do not feel like bonds. They are, I know, my liberation… They force me to be a different sort of human being, in a way in which I want and need to be forced.”
The love, devotion, and sacrifice that children invite from us as parents, the willingness to not “count the cost” in sacrificing for one’s own, starkly contrasts with a culture centered on self-fulfillment, autonomy, and protection from intrusions of other people. Which is exactly why we so desperately need the process of caring for children. The “morality of kinship,” developed through devotion to children is, in the words of Howard and Kathleen Bahr, “the essential glue of a moral society.”
When children experience the devotion and sacrifice of their parents, they are enabled to develop an ethic of love and devotion. They build upon that ethic when they similarly choose to sacrifice and devote themselves to their own spouses and children, and to the parents who become dependent on them. The love and devotion of parents becomes then, “the basal principle of human social relationships.”
Sorokin warned of what happens when these natural feelings of parental devotion, love and care for children decline: “If this fountainhead of unselfish care and spontaneous help is drying up, most of the forms of interhuman solidarity will also dry up… After all, charity or love does begin at home, at the cradle of the helpless baby. If there is no baby, no cradle, there can be no loving and caring parents, and no family-school to teach children the basic ABC’s of unselfish conduct toward their fellowmen and the world at large.”
Children – the defining feature of civilization at its peak
In contrast, when we devote our lives to the nurturing of children, “our individuality has a use and a worth.” We are invited to become our best because their vulnerability and our commitment to them demand that of us. In turn we experience the profound meaning and joy only possible through such devotion. As Wendell Berry poetically writes, “it is only to the people who know us, love us, and depend on us [of which children are the ultimate expression], that we are indispensable as the persons we uniquely are….These bonds give the word ‘love’ its only chance to mean, for only they can give it a history, a community, and a place.”
When we consider what an orientation toward nurturing children means for societies and individuals, it becomes clearer why Carle Zimmerman’s sweeping analysis concluded that that the defining feature of civilizations at the peak of progress was their orientation to children. As individuals and as a society we need to experience the development that follows from devotion to the nurturing of children within families. In fact, we may need it even more than children do.