Travel Teams and Other Perils of Parenthood

REVIEW: ‘Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be’ by Timothy P. Carney

March 17, 2024

In a recent interview on NPR, a reporter asked a 20-year-old woman with sickle cell disease how she would feel about a new treatment on the market, noting that the side effects include hair loss and sterility. The woman remained almost giddy—not merely because she already owned a closet full of wigs, but because, she noted, "I don't want kids anyway, so that is a free form of birth control."

Without diminishing from the seriousness of her illness—maybe she was just trying to look on the bright side?—it is still striking how often and how easily young women are proclaiming their desire to remain childless. How we arrived at the declining birthrates all over the world—but particularly in the United States and Europe—is a complex story. But Tim Carney—my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be—offers a readable and nuanced explanation for the phenomenon.

Family Unfriendly begins with the problems faced by people who actually have children and then works backward in time to the decisions young people are making about dating, marriage, and childbearing. Carney, who has six children of his own and lives in a community with other large families—think 10 or 12 children—describes the problems that families like his face. Oddly, finances are at the bottom of the list, despite the fact that Carney is not an investment banker and his wife stays at home with their children.

Rather, he describes how things like travel sports make it hard for parents to enjoy parenting and kids to enjoy being kids. He compares the current culture of athletics—in which kids specialize in one sport, are more prone to injury as a result, and tend to burn out early—to his own days as a high school athlete. One of his baseball teammates was good enough to go pro, but actually played more than one sport in high school. Parents back then did not pay through the nose for private coaching and they didn’t spend every weekend in their cars shlepping to tournaments hours away. They didn’t even attend every game! "The best team for your kid," Carney writes, "is often the one that practices across the street. … Instead of ‘Next Level Lacrosse,’ maybe look up next-door lacrosse. Sports and activities should work for your family, not the other way around."

Unfortunately, with sports—as with many other extracurricular activities—it’s a race to the top (or the bottom). All the parents around you are paying more money and spending more time, and even if you would rather your child just play for fun, the options are dwindling. I know; I’ve tried. When my son was eight, we signed him up for our town recreational baseball league. They had to forfeit half the games because his teammates had games for other teams that conflicted with the rec games.

Parents are spending more time and money supervising their children and driving them from one place to another—"car hell," Carney calls it—but they are enjoying it less. They are worried about being judged by other parents, being investigated by child protection. They fear their kids won’t get into a good college or get a good job. They are lonely because neighborhoods are empty and everyone is in their cars. They are tired and frustrated because their kids are anxious and depressed. Ten years ago, Jennifer Senior wrote a book about parenting called All Joy and No Fun, which apparently doesn’t need to be updated very much.

Carney says that the "‘demands of modern parenthood’ are not demanded by your children or by human nature." And he argues that raising kids should be like "smoking a pork shoulder: it’s not going to be quick and you do need to check the thermometer from time to time, but you’ll get the best outcome if you avoid constantly lifting the lid and prodding the meat."

What Carney adds, though, are reports from the fronts where parents are still happy and adding to their broods. From his own community, where the families gather at the field behind the church to play ball on Friday nights while the adults sit around and have beers while only supervising minimally, to the Orthodox Jewish community next door where children walk to school and synagogue and go from one house to another with little supervision, to Idaho where Mormon kids enjoy similar freedoms, Carney finds a vision of family life that is actually fun. Not always, of course, but often.

Religious communities are able to form their own subcultures that are friendly to large families. These subcultures sometimes spill out into the larger culture as he found in Israel where even secular couples have a higher than replacement birthrate. A culture that lets children roam free, expecting them to walk to school, for instance, makes it easier for everyone raising kids, regardless of whether they themselves subscribe to a religious belief that more kids is better.

There are public policies that make raising more kids easier: roads that are narrower and have bigger sidewalks; zoning laws that allow for smaller houses, smaller yards, and in-law suites (to allow young couples to buy and also get some help from the grandparents for child care); policies that ensure schools, churches, and businesses are integrated into residential neighborhoods; free-range parenting laws that allow older kids more freedom without inviting the prying eyes of government authorities, etc.

Money also can make things easier. But Carney does not ignore the mixed evidence on this front. First, and most obviously, wealthier people tend to have fewer children. So it’s not simply a matter of a family’s bottom line. Of course, part of the problem is that wealthier people have more expensive ambitions for their children. In his 2021 book, Little Platoons, Matt Feeney covered some similar territory to Carney, but noted that a lot of the demands on parents (particularly travel sports) can be attributed to an oversized emphasis on getting kids into elite colleges. Indeed, I have heard middle-class parents tell me they had considered having or even adopting children but worried that they couldn’t bear the cost of another college tuition.

Carney cautions against certain kinds of subsidies. He notes that the family friendly policies so often cited by liberals who extoll the virtues of Nordic states have not actually produced any significant change in birthrates. Subsidizing day care, for instance, will certainly make it easier for women to work. But that’s not necessarily what women want. And it doesn’t seem to produce more babies.

Survey after survey shows that women with young children actually want to spend less time working and more time with the children. Carney notes that giving families cash to spend either on child care or to subsidize a woman’s desire to stay at home has produced significantly better results in fecundity than universal day care. But it’s not just the government that should be making life more family friendly. Businesses should too. Instead of just offering maternity and paternity leave when children are born, he suggests puberty leave for when children start going a little haywire and may need some more time with their parents. And these policies should not just be directed toward mothers. He wants fathers to make it normal to leave the office at a reasonable hour to have dinner with their families.

Society—which includes businesses—benefits from people having more babies. There are more people to take care of old people, more people to staff stores, to come up with great innovations, and to make all of us happier. Because, despite all the talk about how babies cut into people’s time for travel and sleeping in, Carney notes the surveys that show people (including parents) are happier when there are more children around.

Optimistic societies have more babies and babies create more optimistic societies. So we are caught in a vicious cycle. In 2006, there was a small baby boomlet and then it quickly fell off with the financial downturn. But even when the economy recovered, the birthrate did not. What happened? Carney cites the rise of doomsaying about the environment and the country. The idea that the world is on fire and that our country is irrevocably immoral are really making an impression on young people. Carney writes, "The changes we need in order to make our culture more family friendly, and to emerge from this demographic valley, are all about overcoming sadness and embracing humans’ inherent value."

Carney acknowledges that he approaches this question from a religious perspective but says you don’t have to be religious in order to embrace his message. This is true, but it does make things harder. In her recent book, Never Enough, Jennifer Breheny Wallace (who is making the rounds of every wealthy suburban book club) explains why she thinks so many kids are suffering from mental health breakdowns. And in part, it is because their parents have come to see them as nothing more than achievement machines. Their worth seems defined by how they have done in school, in sports, in college admissions. And she advises parents instead of asking kids how they did on their math test at the end of the day to greet them "like the family puppy: with total unabashed joy."

Carney is at his most eloquent writing about this question—how our culture has become sterile, how it has moved away from the messy joy and pain of having children, how it has lost sight of the value of each human life and how this, in turn, has led us to create fewer human lives. "It’s precisely when we doubt our value that we need the unconditional, all-needing love of a little child to remind us, with a smile, or even simply a gaze, that we are good."

Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be
by Timothy P. Carney
Harper, 368 pp., $29.99

Naomi Schaefer Riley, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Independent Women's Forum, is the author of No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.