Learning from their whooping crane failure?

Birth rates in western countries have declined to far below replacement levels of 2.1. Why did these countries’ last few generations give up having kids?

Conventional reasons given are that people can now rely on insurance, pensions and promises of government programs of social security in their old age, and women have joined the labor force in increasing numbers. They need fewer kids to help them than agricultural societies once did, and still do in most of the world, where agriculture still employs at least 50% of the population.

Others, David Goldman prominent among them, have related the decline to the diminished role religious beliefs have come to play in the West, the desire for selfish “immortality” (expressed in frenzies of individual fame) has replaced the belief in tribal immortality, which can only be achieved by raising children – though not by just “making” kids.

There may be another reason. Youngsters learn parenting skills from their parents through observation, but in the last few decades much fewer in the younger generation had options to acquire such skills. These decades saw the increase in the number of single parents, working multiple jobs; high percentage of marriages have been ending in divorce and most homes have both parents working full time.

Children have had limited abilities to observe parenting skills. Also, adolescents have been leaving parents’ home at the hormone-raging age rather than compromise with strict parents, make kids and get welfare. Neither them nor their kids have had the options to observe what “parenting” means.  Kids growing up in such households see themselves as having been a burden: they no longer observed the disciplining pleasures children’s mere existence brought about in once traditional households since time immemorial.

Parents in such traditional households had to get up in the morning. They couldn’t go out in the evenings and weekends on the spur of moment, never mind taking off for vacations, just like that. They had to work hard – harder than if they did not have kids, and keep constantly in mind that they must set an example – disciplining their kids in particular. Briefly: conceiving kids is easy.  Parenting is not, and never was.

In 2014, almost 25 million children in the US lived in single-parent households. According to the 2012 Census, of the 65 million grandparents, 7 million, or 10%, lived with at least one grandchild, up from 7% in 1992; 4.2 million households (3% of the total) contained both grandchildren under 18 and their grandparents, one third of them having no parents present. Even where some parents might have been present, the Census notes that in 2012, 2.7 million grandparents were raising their grandchildren; about 39% of these grandparent caregivers were poor, had low levels of education and have cared for their grandchildren for five years or more. These numbers are not conducive for kids to absorb parenting skills.

Although we differ from the animal kingdom, old and very recent lessons observed in that kingdom appear to bear heavily on the above conclusion that parenting skills are acquired by observing parents in action. Caring substitutes – introduced and paid by governments — are no good substitutes. They actually destroy parenthood.

Whooping Crane parenting experiment

It is well known that animals raised in zoos have problems mating and surviving in the wild. It appears that not only they do not learn from their parents in the zoo, but with such parents not having had “natural parenting” either, the new generation is utterly disoriented. Until recently though, government biologists in the US claimed big success in having been able to teach Whooping Cranes to migrate, and cite this as example of “human social engineers” being able to set example of good parenting in the animal kingdom. The experience is now over, the government scientists admitting total failure and closing the program. Here is what happened.

Scientists have been raising Whooping Crane chicks for 15 years, disguising themselves in Whooping Crane costumes. They tried to teach them to migrate to other humans in similar bird-disguise with pilots in disguise costumes too, flying ultra-light aircraft leading the birds to the promised land of South of Florida.

Peter Fasbender, the program’s supervisor, admits that all the birds turned out to be lousy parents: “They copulate, they know how to lay eggs, but they are just incapable of parenting.” They are just not learning how to be parents from other cranes, and after 15 years, Fasbender concludes, “they just do not get it.” The birds wander from their eggs – exactly like many deadbeat welfare fathers or mothers do. Subsidized schools offer no remedies for parents lacking parenting skills.

When parenting, perhaps we must remember Cole Porter’s famous lyrics, ”Birds do it, bees do it; Even educated fleas do it; Let’s do it, let’s fall in love,” and also Stephen Sondheim’s “Careful the things you say; Children will listen, careful the things you do; Children will see and learn; Children may not obey but children will listen; Children will look to you for which way to turn; Learn what to be; Careful before you say ‘Listen to me.‘”

Yes, making babies is easy. Parenting is not. It is the biggest debt that responsible parents have been undertaking, and as leverage disciplines management, so did such self-leverage discipline parents. That is until the government moved heavily into the business weakening, even eliminating personal responsibility for this debt.

Bureaucrats and academia forgot the simple fact that kids do not ask to be born: they do not owe anything to anybody. The parents bring them to life, whatever the reason. If the kids turn out to be good to their parents during rainy days, have a sense of obligation – that’s fine.  That may be due to their parents’ skills in parenting, passed down generations through observation, having been forgotten.

Remember King Lear passing on his kingdom to his “loving” daughters? Once the daughters put their hands on it, they threw their father to the dogs. Shakespeare was on to something about the unwritten intricacies of parenting skills.

All the numerical evidence combined with the cultural ones shed light on the unintended, disastrous consequences of well intentioned policies – the declining birth rates in western countries being just one of them. Perhaps it’s time to change them fast and drastically.

An example would be complementing “sex education,” with the far more important “parenting classes.” Then, drastically change welfare programs so that hormone-raged teenagers can’t easily flee their parents’ homes, have kids, get eternal assistance, unable ever to set example of the discipline that making a living requires, or to teach their own kids any discipline. Last, but not least, have institutions – national service or mandatory military – teach younger generations that rights come with obligations.

These changes would help gradually to create a new generation of responsible parents. At the same time, if the goal is for already responsible parents to have more kids, there are other options that can be explored. Former Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio proposed a tax plan that would let working parents deduct the costs of raising kids. His argument was that if companies are allowed to deduct R&D, which hold promise for their future, then why not allow such deduction for kids, who are the future. But a better alternative would be to lower tax rates, allowing more scope to what parents can do, rather than further complicating the tax code.

Reuven Brenner holds the Repap Chair at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management.  The article draws on his books. The last one is A World of Chance.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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