On this day, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, let us consider the situation of children in the modern world.
Elizabeth Marquardt raised the fundamental question in the title of her ground-breaking report, The Revolution in Parenthood: The Emerging Global Clash Between Parents’ Rights and Children’s Needs. Most homilies preached in Catholic Churches today will focus on abortion, in which the lives of millions of children are sacrificed for the needs – and legal rights – of adults. Marquardt’s 44-page monograph provides a larger context which helps to illuminate the political struggles around the issue. She studies the needs of the children in opposition to the desires and rights of parents. How did this opposition come about?
Social scientists place the heart of that change in the Industrial Revolution. Until that time, children were often part of the domestic economy – whether on the farm or in a craft or service occupation or business. From an early age, children participated in the work of the family, both contributing to the family’s livelihood and the learning the myriads of skills they would need as adults. The children of cooks learned to cook; of farmers learned to farm. Children were contributors to the family, and valued.
The Industrial Revolution caused a revolution in family life. On the one hand, fewer people were needed in agricultural production, as machines operated by a few people did the work of many – and children were unsuited for much of the work because of their size and lower skill level. On the other hand, many types of work left the home and went into factories. For a time, children did find work in factories – in fact, they were prized workers in some of the textile mills and coal mines where their small size allowed them to do some tasks – often dangerous ones. In time, child labor laws were enacted to protect children from long hours in dangerous jobs and to make sure they got a basic education – laws which also helped bolster the wages of adults.
This was the moment when the shift occurred. No longer able to contribute much to the family’s livelihood, at least until reaching adolescence, a child became a financial liability, a mouth to feed, rather than a financial asset. In these crass economic terms, there were still some benefits to having children – perhaps economic help before they married, and care in one’s old age. Increasingly, though, children’s value was seen in their non-economic contribution: they brought joy to parents, continued the family name and heritage, made a family complete, brought honor and recognition. But the balance within families was shifting from a focus on what benefits the parents could give to the children. Instead, the question became what benefits the children brought to the parents.
Another revolution, the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, produced an acceleration of this trend. As sociologistSara McLanahan reports in The Vanishing Father, in the move to no-fault divorce, parenting was seen as a function more than a relationship. People thought a child would “forget” a relationship with a divorced parent in a year or so, making connections with the new partner of the remaining parent. A 1975 Saturday Night Live episode featured “New Dad Insurance” – a new dad to walk in seamlessly to take the place of the one now missing. As Marquardt demonstrates, many changes ensued: high divorce rates, high rates of cohabitation and births-outside-of-marriage, parents with children from multiple partners, and now the technological conception of children who may have as many as five legal parents (donors, surrogates, and the couple who started the scenario). In some of these, children become the baggage of the old relationship which can’t easily be jettisoned. In others, the child is given responsibility for making all the dreams of hopeful parents come true – a tremendous burden for a little baby.
In our world today, we find children forced to commit heinous acts as they are conscripted to be child soldiers, trafficked as sex slaves, or sold into low-wage bondage to pick crops for our consumption (chocolate is bittersweet!). In developing nations, discretionary spending on consumer goods outpaces our willingness to pay taxes to provide excellent schools and colleges. We have evidence of the harmful effects of our modern media on children – laced with violence and explicit sexuality – but we worry that controls would place barriers or limits to adults’ access to such material.
On this Feast, the Church does not call on us to mourn the children who died 2000 years ago for the desire of one adult, Herod, to hang on to his power. We are called to mourn the millions of children whose needs we fail to see, or fail to take seriously, or fail to act to protect. And, having mourned, we are also called to make the world safer for these beloved holy innocent ones.