In the time that the New Testament was written (and still today in the less developed and non-Christian world) people had children because they needed their labor.  This is not to say that people did not love their children, but they would have had them even if they did not, because children were the original social safety net, providing not only critical labor but also care and support in the parents’ old age, widowhood, illness, or disability.  When the apostle Paul writes that fathers were not to misuse their children but instead to use the obedience owed parents to bring their children up in “nurture and admonition (or discipline) of the Lord,” he challenged the sensibilities of the entire ancient world.

People today no longer have children as a source of labor.  Instead, in our age of wealth, children no longer contribute anything to their families economically and require a great deal of expensive education.  One of the ways in which children have become most expensive, however, is in the value of time that parents have to put into their upbringing.  Relative to the ancient and less developed world, children have become scarce, with the birth rate in most developed countries in Europe and Asia falling well below replacement level.  That the birth rate in the United States remains somewhere around 2 per woman is due largely to immigration of people from those less developed countries.

Two items in the newspaper that provide insight into the impact of this trend:

“Toxic Parents,” Marc Fisher,Washington Post Magazine, July 30, 2006 quotes Allan Shedlin, “a former school principal who runs a business in BEthesday coaching parents on child-rearing.  Kids thrive on firm boundaries, Shedlin preaches, but he sees more parents than ever who can’t bring themselves to set limits for children of any age.

“More and more parents are spending less and less time with their children, so when they do spent time, they want it to be free of conflicts.  And they think setting limits produces conflicts.”

So when children are a luxury good, parents cannot be bothered with teaching their child discipline.  Instead, we increasingly expect the schools and other professionals to teach good manners, responsible alcohol or drug use, good sportmanship and sexual ethics.  If what we really want is a nice child we can enjoy — radio show host Scott Wilder suggests that we treat children today almost like pets — we aren’t going to do anything that might make those interactions unpleasant.

The second article is about a new book by Madeline Levine, The Price of Privilege (Harper Collins).  (“Sick of expectations:  Pressure to Compete, Not Connect, Leaves Many Affluent Teens Miserable, Says a Psychologist and Author,” Sandra G. Boodman, Washington Post, August 1, 2006, F1, 4.)  Levine, a clinical psychologist who works with the wealthy children of Marin County, California, finds that being treated as a luxury item (my phrasing, not hers) is damaging to children.  “Unabashedly materialistic and disinterested in the wider world, they are both bored and ‘often boring’….A large number suffer from depression, anxiety and substance abuse.  She also gives information that fits my view of parents treating children as a source of status:  teenagers are forced to view their peers as competitors who might score higher on the SATs or get into a better college than they do.  They have little unscheduled free time and hence no “interior” life.

“I just had parents who came into my office with their crying daughter and said, ‘We just wasted $160,000.”  Why did they think that?  BEcause they sent their kid to a private school and she wants to go to the University of Colorado instead of, say, Georgetown,” Levine says.”

“We have smaller families, we have more time to obsess about perfecting each child.  Many parents can’t stand to see their children unhappy or angry or disappointed, which is part of life.”

Other bits of data I’ve come across lately:  Parents are not only much more involved in children’s college admissions process than they were in the past, employers not report parents calling them up to negotiate their children’s job offers.  A comment that children today have no privacy.

So Paul’s advice to parents applies to the modern world of wealthy as much as to his society, in which children were to be used for the parents’ own pleasure.  Although the physical circumstances are very different, we still have to resist the temptation to use children for our own desires for status or an intelligent household pet.  The Christian must use the freedoms of our developed, enlightened age to give his and her children the nurture, structure, discipline and education that is in keeping with a godly life.