Timothy P. Carney joins Jordan McGillis to discuss his book Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be.

Audio Transcript

Jordan McGillis: Welcome to 10 Blocks. I’m Jordan McGillis, economics editor of City Journal. Joining me today is Tim Carney. Tim is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and he’s a columnist at the Washington Examiner. His latest book is Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be. Tim, thank you for joining the show.

Tim Carney: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Jordan McGillis: Okay, I want to start where you started in this book, Family Unfriendly, with the travel-ball trap. Take us through your experience with falling into that trap, what the trap is, and why families can’t find a way out of it.

Tim Carney: So yes, the book starts with a coach telling my son, baseball isn’t fun, winning baseball is fun. This was because we had accidentally after years of avoiding anything like travel sports and just doing a local little league or even a t-ball league, we had started up ourselves that we had sort of just decided, well, he’s kind of good. We’ll at least give him a tryout. And I didn’t think he’d make it and then he made it. I just thought, oh, $800, that’s an expensive price. We were used to paying $120 for local baseball, but this is going to be real high-level. This might set him up to make sure he makes varsity one day, give him real training. And we always wanted what was best for our son, and we let other people’s standards of best take over what we knew was right. And so, he was practicing too much during the week.

He wasn’t able to play with his friends, and he had coaches who told him that this game wasn’t fun, that it was a job or something. I don’t know. It was a job for them. They were getting paid a decent amount. And this takes over youth sports in so many communities. There are places where the little leagues are withering away because all the good baseball players have gone off and are playing expensive, intensive travel ball. It harms families. It takes over your family schedule. I’ve had many dads say, I thought my wife and I would control our family schedule. It turns out our swim coach does. And so, it’s corrosive to communities. It corrodes family culture, but I think the most important thing it does is contribute to this epidemic of childhood anxiety and it makes parents think, oh my gosh, raising kids is so much more work than I thought it would be. And I certainly can’t imagine you look at these families and you can’t imagine having more than one or two kids.

Jordan McGillis: The point you mentioned there that struck me was other people’s standards and this some sort of cliche idea of keeping up with the Joneses does seem to fit with particular phenomenon in our society. When the other families are doing it, it’s hard to keep yourself out of it even if you and many others don’t really want to participate.

Tim Carney: And so sometimes it’s just because that’s what other people do. Sometimes it’s because, again, if your local little league doesn’t have any pitchers who can throw strikes, well you have no other choice but to sign up for the elite league. And sometimes I’ve talked to coaches, high school coaches who say, I tell my families they have to play travel ball if they want to even try out. Not saying your kid won’t be good enough to make the cut, but saying, actually no, your kid is shirking if he’s playing little league in the spring and then playing some second sport in the winter or the fall. And so all of these reasons, that’s why I call it a trap because some parents really do start off and say, my kid’s really good. He wants to do this all the time. Let’s sign him up and give him the best possible training. But a lot of people, they get sucked into it for one reason or another.

Jordan McGillis: Do you attribute much of it to the pursuit of college scholarships?

Tim Carney: I think that some of it, and when I started off, I assume that was a lot of it, but as I investigated it more, experienced it a little bit myself, talked to other parents involved. Again, I do think it’s what’s expected. And to step back a little bit, I think this is also true for why parents sort of helicopter more, why safety has taken over parenting so much in part because that’s the cultural norm. Why is it the cultural norm? There’s all sorts of reasons, but one thing that overlays both of these, the sort of overambitious travel stuff, the safety is one thing that overlays both of them is a different mindset that we’ve gone from 60 years ago it was just expected you grow up, you get married, you have kids, you can opt out of that path if you want, but that’s sort of the normal path. Now it’s exceptional. Most people in their early thirties don’t have a kid, don’t live in a home with a child, and we’re all supposed to be the authors of our own life on a blank page. And so once a kid became something that you deliberately, intentionally exquisitely planned, you feel like, well, I have to do everything just right.

Jordan McGillis: That is a theme that comes up throughout your book that the evolution of our culture toward more individualism away from communitarian religious norms has led to this very deliberate planning of early adulthood that leads to some of these troubles when people do if they decide to have kids.

Tim Carney: Exactly. And so, I mean, I think it a makes us believe that we can plan our families. I say, no child was ever planned even if you intended to have this kid now at this point, you didn’t get to choose what kid it was. And we have this illusion that we can actually control our lives and our family’s lives not realizing that so much is unchosen, unpredictable, et cetera. But those things creep in. But also the idea that there’s a social responsibility to help people raise kids has also gone out the door. If in a company or a town there’s vast expenditures that only help parents and kids and don’t help the non-parents and kids, people will cry. No, that’s unfair. If you chose to have kids, that’s your problem. That mindset, you chose to have kids, that’s your problem. It’s not society’s job to help you raise kids. That I think is also downstream from this sort of everything’s chosen, nothing’s given mindset that characterizes the modern Western mind.

Jordan McGillis: I’m a bit torn myself about particular safety protocols that we have around children these days. It’s become popular to use that term. Safety is what you have used. There are some benefits, obviously, that have come with a more safety-oriented outlook for children. Just having car seats in cars is a good thing. You point out in the book there could be some anti-natalist effects of that. Can you tell us more about the positives and negatives of increased safety expectations?

Tim Carney: Well, so I mean on car seats in particular, I point to a study called “Car Seats as Contraception,” which is a study that uses the fact that the car seat mandates in the U.S. rolled out on a state-by-state level at different times and that they found a significant drop in the birth rate, particularly among married couples with two kids were much less likely to have a third kid indicating that it was in fact the fact that you can’t fit a child, you can’t fit three people, even if two of them have car seats in the back, and you’ve got to upgrade your car. And so the expense of getting three rows, the expense becomes a lot bigger and that the number of lives saved by car seat mandates was pretty low. According to this study, I’m not a car seat expert. What I will say is as a parent, I’m appreciative of lots of things becoming safer and having more knowledge.

For instance, there’s enough data out there for me to know that a swimming pool or the ocean, a lake, that those are the actual dangers like accidental death to children. It really is disproportionately about car accidents and about accidental drownings. So having that data makes it easier for me to relax in most situations and be really intense when it comes to water. The house we’re renting now has a swimming pool, and so we had to change the way we live a little. We had to erect some more gates, that kind of thing. But also to know, wait a second, the stranger abductions don’t really happen, especially if you live in a low-crime neighborhood or even a medium-crime neighborhood, you can let your kids run around. So I’m appreciative that we have really good crime-and-safety data, and obviously toys becoming safer, less choking hazards, that’s a good thing. More knowledge about how kids choke on food. That’s a good thing. But on the other hand, you just look at what’s taken over the parenting mindset. I had one woman say to me when I was talking about letting your kids ride to a park, I talked about risk assessment and risk mitigation. And she said, parenting isn’t about risk minimization, it’s about risk elimination. And I just thought, wow, once you’re in that mindset, you’re never ever going to be able to relax or let your kids do anything fun.

Jordan McGillis: That seems like a particularly upper-middle-class mindset. Can you talk about the dynamics of household income and these sorts of attitudes and birth rates generally?

Tim Carney: I think if we’re talking either about the safety-is-helicopter-parenting or the travel-team-slash-expert-ball-coach, that stuff started in the upper-middle class, and it has trickled down. Safety is, and I did reporting on this and I monitored Facebook groups and I asked all sorts of questions, and cultural trends tend to trickle down, and these things have, in fact, it was a focus group that with a study we conducted of men and women in their twenties, early thirties who don’t have kids, aren’t sure if they want them. And a lot of guys just said, if I can’t give my kid the best of everything, I just don’t want to do it. Meaning trips to Disney World, live in the best school district, et cetera, and other women who are just terrified of being what they called absentee moms, by which they meant missing one of your kids’ games.

I do think, and these were working-class, middle-class parents who were in this focus group. And so I do think that those trends have trickled down. But as far as childhood anxiety and falling birth rates, I attribute those in the upper-middle class definitely to over parenting. In the working class, the biggest cause of childhood and the biggest cause of falling birth rates is the lack of stable marriage. And Charles Murray charted this in Coming Apart. Daniel Patrick Moynihan talked about this in inner-city African-American communities, but now we know that it’s true across working class America in all regions of all races. And so that would be the major distinction I would say, is that the working class, the biggest contributor is a lack of stable marriages.

Jordan McGillis: Can you talk about how the curves look in terms of income and marriage? Is there a significant discrepancy between the working class, middle class, and upper class on marriage?

Tim Carney: On marriage? For sure. I mean, I think the most interesting question and in my book five years ago, Alienated America, I had this chart. I thought about how there’s a delay in marriage among the college-educated and more college, and then you have more people getting masters and Ph.D.s,, and a delay in marriage can look like a reduction in marriage. There’s also obviously a huge drop off in divorce since the 1980s, but there’s a class difference in divorce. In the eighties, we thought it was like the rich women divorcing to get the money and it was cool, yada yada, but now it’s more downscale. So, I asked the question, who is married? Women married at age 40, so that takes into account delay in marriage and divorce in the 1960, there was no class difference in women married at age 40. It was 86 percent across all classes.

By 2016, there was a massive class difference. It was two-thirds of college educated women were married at age 40 and less than half of women who never went to college were married at age 40. And so, in marriage, there’s definitely, as you go up in income, as you go up in education, you’re more likely to get married even if it’s later and you’re more likely to stay married. But then on birth rates, the curve is different. You have people talk about a U-shaped curve. This isn’t quite a U-shaped curve because the higher birth rates are only at the extremes that the poorest women are more likely to have kids. And then it’s a birth rate of about 1.7 across the board. The wealthier are not more likely to have kids, which is important. Everybody says, oh, we can’t afford kids. Well, you give people an extra $50,000 a year, they don’t become any more likely to have kids. The very, very wealthy by which I’m talking about like Elon Musk, they have more kids.

Jordan McGillis: Where is that exact point where you do start seeing the uptick? Is that a household income of 500,000 annually? Is it a million?

Tim Carney: It would be between $200,000 and $500,000. So that’s where you see the uptick. So that’s not the top 20 percent, that’s what the top 4 percent, that’s how high you have to get to see an increase in birth rates.

Jordan McGillis: These changes regarding marriage. What are some of the factors over the last five decades or so to which you attribute the decline?

Tim Carney: There’s all sorts of ones we could look at. I think it’s about the collapse of community support. I think marriage is difficult. Raising kids is difficult. Two people trying to do it on their own, like some romantic Bruce Springsteen song or something like the world’s against us, but we’re going to make it yada, yada. That’s too difficult. I think I talk about secularization a lot in part because I think the lack of religious belief is important, but I think when it comes to marriage, more important might be the lack of community support. And for the working class and the middle class, church has been a prime institution of community support, the kind of place where you find slightly older role models where you make sure that the husband and the wife both actually have friends that matter. You make sure they have babysitters for their kids so they can have a date night. You make sure they have things they can go to as a family that supports the family. You make it easier for people to have places to meet in real life rather than relying on dating apps. And so, the collapse of the Bowling Alone, the Coming Apart of Charles Murray’s book, I really believe that it’s the fact that we belong to fewer things makes it harder to get and stay married and makes it harder to raise children.

Jordan McGillis: As a millennial father, when I read books like Bowling Alone and I think about this mid-century culture of men’s clubs, I’m a bit bewildered because there’s a lot of cultural pressure these days for dads to be super engaged at home. And then simultaneously we’re hearing about this era where men were going out on weeknights and spending time together. It doesn’t seem like these things can really fit together.

Tim Carney: Nicely. Yeah, I mean, so I think it’s a good trend that men, so fathers have doubled compared to 1965. The amount of time that they spend on parenting tasks is sort of one read on the time use data that’s out there. And certainly, when I think about belonging to a club, sometimes when I travel, I’ll be speaking at a conference, at a university club or something, I’m like, this is awesome. I’m just imagining my dad just playing poker after going for a swim, or the VFW halls, or something like that, that one of the reasons that the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the American Legion halls are emptier is because dads are more likely to be home with their kids. So that’s all positive, but you can have more involved dads and still more single-sex socialization.

In fact, I was just thinking, when you write books sometimes you have a million book ideas. I decided this probably isn’t worth a book, but a good magazine piece would just be a robust defense of guys hanging out with the guys and doing it more. And I remember when I started to realize that a lot of millennials don’t do that in my social circles. Almost all my friends are married and if we’re at a party, it’s just the guys, the book clubs, there’s one for men, one for the women, we’ll go on daddy-son hikes, daddy-daughter hikes. A lot of the socialization is sex segregated. And I think that is good and supportive for men. And I think men in particular have really suffered from the lack of man-only spaces, which doesn’t have to be the smoky bar where you’re ignoring your kids, but could be the book club that is once a month after you’ve put your youngest to bed.

Jordan McGillis: Let’s not marginalize those smoky bars. We need those too.

Tim Carney: I definitely support the smoky bars.

Jordan McGillis: So something empirical in the book that actually caught me off guard quite a bit pertained to fertility rates in the first half of the 20th century. You cite scholar Jan Van Bavel, who found that fertility actually fell after World War I from about 3.3 kids per woman to the early 1930s when it was about 2.1 kids per woman. Then it stabilized, and then it rose after World War II. What happened during this decline from World War I to the Depression, which would counteract where it would counter the narrative that wealth leads to more children. People were getting wealthier in the 1920s, but they were having fewer kids during that decade

Tim Carney: And in fact, so I could have fallen into a deep, deep rabbit hole on interwar birth rates. But the papers I read, one of them looked across geographies and found that where wealth increased more as far as metro areas, states, counties, that’s where birth rates fell the most. And there were some of the demographers said, well, there was just a real big increase in fashion. Skinnier fashion models became a thing in the flapper era, and it’s hard to be skinny when you’re pregnant or just had a baby. And maybe I don’t know enough to say whether the flapper dresses didn’t go well. I would think the short hair would go well with having a baby.

Jordan McGillis: Flapper dress with sort of that curtain style would nicely sit over a baby bump to me.

Tim Carney: Again, we need somebody who knows about empire waste versus flapper dress to comment on this, which is not me, but they just said, I mean, one writer just said it was vanity that men and women became more vain about their appearance. And for women particularly, that was a deterrent, an additional deterrent to have kids, having more money. A lot of people, if you ask around a lot of my older millennial friends, guys who are in their mid-thirties and have no interest in starting a family, they just say, look, there’s just more fun stuff to do now than there was 30 years ago. People used to not have kids because just kind of, there wasn’t as much to do. He says, video games are better now. The restaurants in DC are better now, and so that’s why we don’t have kids because you weren’t giving up as much back then. And so it could have been that the 1920s, the roaring ‘20s were just too fun to stop and have kids.

Jordan McGillis: And then talk to me about the post-World War II baby boom, a lot of cultural confidence. We love America and we’re going to make more Americans. Is that what was happening?

Tim Carney: That’s one of my explanations. Yeah, and I think that’s the underappreciated one, but for starters, again, when I was reading that inter-war stuff about the following birth rates in the ‘20s and then leveling off in the ‘30s, it was taken as a given that birth rates just don’t rise. They will not go up that we were on a constant march down, and maybe we would flatten out at about the replacement level, but of course, the baby boom, it wasn’t just a makeup for babies that didn’t happen during the war. It was unprecedented, unforeseen. It lasted for a generation. Marriage became more common, young marriage became more common, family sizes got bigger, more people had kids. And part of the way I explained it is exactly what you say is that the men got off the boat just having defeated two evil empires and the women greeted them on the pier just having kept the economy running for four years. They smooch on the pier, they go to the chapel and they start having babies. And that the confidence, the belief that we are good, I think is a predictor of birthrights. I quote Pope Francis saying something to that effect, a sort of a hope for the future. I dedicate the last chapter to its opposite to what I call civilizational sadness, a belief that we’re not good and that I think is taking hold in the west and it’s helping to drive down birth rates.

Jordan McGillis: I’m glad that you bring up the West as a culture, as a civilization because that draws attention to that. There are other cultures and civilizations and those large cultures, China, India, they also have declining and low birth rates. So how do you explain India, which is rising? It has a fast-growing economy, it has a population that is increasingly enthusiastic about its nationhood, and yet its population is expected to stabilize and then ultimately fall.

Tim Carney: Well, so India, that’s a great question. I get asked a lot about Japan, Korea, and China. So India is below replacement. It did just pass China in babies, is just below replacement. It has a higher birth rate than any of the other large economies besides Indonesia, which is the largest country that has an above-replacement fertility. There are parts of India the most religious that do have high replacement, but part of the explanation is just modern life that more women getting educated, more people having birth control, more people having a decision on when to marry and who to marry, those are going to drive down birth rates. Christianity drove down birth rates  compared to pagan religions because it said sex should happen in marriage and women have to consent to marriage. And so there are all sorts of forces of modernity that will have downward effects on birth rates. But I think you’re right to say that I don’t think the civilizational sadness is an explanation for India, but I do think it applies in different ways in Northern Europe.

Jordan McGillis: Aspects of modernity. In terms of the points of modernity, how much of American decline, decline in other advanced economies, can you attribute to simple introduction of oral contraceptive?

Tim Carney: I think that it’s big and it’s bigger than we understand. So, a couple things. 1960 is when the FDA approved the pill. A lot of the cultural effects of it really started in 1970s, and I have some thoughts about that, but that’s really something I would love to read about. Why, whether it’s the birth rates falling, or the sexual revolution kicking in, the increase in the belief that sex outside of marriage is fine, all of that stuff. There was almost a 10-year lag before that happened, and some people put it on when Medicaid started covering the pill. But I think that’s a very interesting question, but that lag, the pill didn’t change chemically. I think it shows that there was a cultural effect that slowly built up and sort of came to fruition fully with the sexual revolution starting in the late ‘60s.

So one thing is just women had babies. They didn’t want to have more before the pill, but more importantly, statistically more importantly is people started delaying marriage and one reason people started delaying marriage is because it was easier to have consequence-free sex with a variety of people. And so that pushed back marriage, and that pushing back marriage really, really contributes massively to falling birth rates. The argument I make on what I think is another massive, important effect of the pill goes back to what I was saying earlier. Once it becomes a choice, once it’s something that we deliberately choose, we agonize over, we plan for, and heck, if you’re responsible and you take that pill every day, you can prevent, then it’s sort of your fault. So conservatives have been talking for a while about how men get let off the hook in the age of the pill.

You don’t have to care for the child because that was unexpected and unplanned because that’s a woman’s fault. But I think all of the culture gets let off the hook. If you had a kid either A, you were irresponsible or B, you planned this thing, it’s like if you bought a boat, I would say, I’ll help you with your boat carburetor a couple times, but at some point, it’s on you. You’re the one who went out and bought the boat. So that I think is one of the biggest anti-family effects of the pill is making every child seem like a consumption item. And so, it’s your responsibility, and it’s not the culture’s responsibility to help you.

Jordan McGillis: There’s this interesting countervailing trend to the sexual revolution, which is that evidently there’s actually been a sex recession among young people in recent years. If you look at reported rates of engagement in premarital sex, gen X, millennials and Gen Z have been trending downward. As we move into the 2020s, part of that can perhaps be attributed to this phenomenon of a lot of 20 somethings not being able to afford their own place to live, and so they’re back at home with their parents. What’s going on with the sex recession and the boomerang phenomenon, and is there a relationship at all?

Tim Carney: Yes, I think that, well, so first of all, married people do have more sex and always have than unmarried people despite what the culture might suggest. And so, a decrease and a delay in marriage is one part of the sex recession. Another thing is, and Christine Emba wrote a fine book on this called Rethinking Sex about how asking a girl out on a date can be interpreted as asking her to have sex with you. And Emba covers it really well. And without going into too much sort of unpleasant depth, it’s a deterrent for both women and men to date at all. Once there are fewer guardrails in society of what’s acceptable, what’s expected, what’s normal, there’s no standards. There’s no expectations, and so everybody just gets a little more scared of it. And I do think that that is a big part of it as far as yes, living with your parents. So it’s funny, I write a lot in the book about how living close to your parents drives up birth rates and it’s good, but if close means in the basement, it’s bad whether you’re married or not for birth rates and presumably for sex as well.

So, they’re definitely related, but I think the way I covered in one of the later chapters is saying that there are two equilibria. I mean, if you start from the good premise of general equality, and we don’t tolerate non-consensual sex, the two equilibria are kind of judgy and prudish with a lot of monogamous marriage or sort of guard-railed, barren, and more porn-watching, less sex-having. So that’s my hypothesis there is that we’ve landed on that second one, because we’ve moved away from norms and customs and traditions regarding dating and courting and how they relate to sex.

Jordan McGillis: I think the most pronounced recommendations in your book pertain to individuals and their pursuit and formation of chosen communities. Though you emphasize the importance of unchosen as well, meeting family, but you are recommending to people go and find those places where they can live this family-oriented life. But on the public policy side, given that this is a policy podcast, what are a few things that government can do when it should avoid doing to try to give us a little bit of a boost in our birth rates?

Tim Carney: So I actually usually respond first with a very local thing, which is sidewalks, crosswalks, and playgrounds make every neighborhood possibly a walkable, bikeable one, and I don’t mean 70-mile bike trails for the weekend warriors. I mean for the kid to ride his bike to the basketball court, to play the pickup game, for the kid to walk to school, for the pack of kids, to roam around all summer with no supervision and not get run over by cars. This also involves fighting crime, making that a priority, especially in places where we’ve had a crime wave in the last few years. So make your community be one where kids can walk around while mom and dad are sitting on the back patio with the next-door neighbors. That would be immensely liberating for kids and parents, and I think lead to more kids and less anxious kids as you go up the scale, a general approach is say, how can we accommodate and help families?

So my old county, Montgomery County, Maryland, which I attack a lot in the book, their library system and their park system are actually very pro-family. There’s constantly the Tuesday at 10:00 am baby, toddler, and mom story hour at the library. Those sorts of things. Think what do parents need and help provide them. I think a child tax credit a little bigger than we currently have. I wrote about that in the Wall Street Journal. I wrote about that in Family Unfriendly. I think that would be good. I wouldn’t go massive, and I definitely would not subsidize childcare. If people want to spend their larger child tax credit on childcare, some will. But I think that subsidizing childcare is directly subsidizing work, and that our culture in a lot of ways, parents are too focused on work and need to become more focused on family. And so, we shouldn’t be subsidizing work by subsidizing childcare.

Jordan McGillis: Tim Carney’s book is Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be. Tim, thanks so much.

Tim Carney: Thank you for having me.

Photo: Hans Neleman / Stone via Getty Images

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