Today I saw a Twitter thread where the issue of raising children came up, and how best professionals can manage the challenge when public schools are not available in the same way as they were in the past with distance learning (this is all due to COVID-19). All sorts of “culture war” topics get entangled into this.
For example, many groups of two-income families are entertaining the possibility of private instructors. This raises objections from those who assert that this exacerbates inequalities. It probably does. But what are the options right now for such families? Nothing I can see on the horizon.*
On a recent podcast, I asserted that my politics today begin and end with the question: “But is it good for the nuclear family?” I am not interested in a long philosophical inquiry into this question. Society is perpetuated by people who have children. Humans are a good. They are the ends. Not the means. I do not think reproduction should be incumbent on anyone, but neither do I think it is healthy that children are viewed now by some as a luxury consumption good.
The brittleness of modern child-rearing practices brings to mind something highlighted in Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mothers and Others: in both our historical and evolutionary past “alloparenting”, where someone who is not the mother or father takes care of the child, has been ubiquitous. It is in developed WEIRD societies that alloparenting has faded. And, I believe that alloparenting has diminished the most in college-educated professionals, who often live far from their relatives, and exist in communities where independence and some level of self-containment is expected. Rather than informal and customary alloparents, children are taken care of by professionals.
Alloparenting has been rationalized. Made efficient. Transformed into economic units of exchange. Unfortunately, it seems this sort of alloparenting is more brittle to an exogenous shock.
This is I think related to the arguments in Joe Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. The collapse of kindreds, the rise of atomized nuclear families, and the organic development of civil society generated the economic bounty and innovation we see around us today.
But reading Henrich’s book I began to worry that WEIRD individualist societies were fragile. And their equilibrium was meta-stable at best. Without growth, the frontier, and economic bounty, I am skeptical that the WEIRD way can maintain itself, as society retrenches back to the traditional social arrangements of kith and kin.
* One option is that one parent stays at home. That’s how we do it. But most people plan on a certain level of income, and some people are single-parents. So it’s not feasible to imagine millions of people shifting their lives so rapidly.