Are the Childless Necessarily Selfish

The Childfree Life Time Magazine Cover

Selfish, decadent, irresponsible are just a few of the words sometimes used to describe those of us who have chosen not to have children. Oftentimes these charges are nothing more than a kneejerk reaction to an emerging lifestyle choice that is at odds with longstanding tradition. It’s common for such criticisms to be levied at people who buck convention. But that fact alone doesn’t prove the accusations untrue.

So when we saw that Time Magazine had titled this week’s cover story The Childfree Life, we hoped it might address these charges. And while the article takes a sympathetic stance regarding childless women, it ducks the central question. Are we and others like us selfish for not having children?

In order to pick up the conversation where Time leaves off we first need to agree on what it means to be selfish. Selfishness is not merely acting in one’s own interest. If that were enough, everything from brushing your teeth to going to work would qualify.

We don’t generally consider it selfish to eat a meal but we should all agree that it’s selfish to gobble up the last bits of food on a crowded life raft. Both instances involve eating, but only when we do it at the expense of others is it recognizable as a selfish act.

Who is the aggrieved party here?

With that in mind it’s fair to ask whose interests, exactly, are disadvantaged by someone’s decision to forgo children? I can think of two possible candidates.

The most obvious is the child who never gets to experience life. Clearly by not having children we’re advancing our own interests over those of our unconceived baby. But this raises a thorny philosophical issue. Do the unconceived have interests we need to consider? In some ways, yes.

It’s commonly accepted that we have an obligation to protect the interests of future generations. We have a responsibility, for example, to be good stewards of the earth. It would be selfish of us to deplete the world’s resources and leave a barren planet behind.

But the potential offspring of the childless do not factor into that equation. The world we leave behind is not theirs to inherit. It’s not just that they don’t currently exist. They’re not merely unborn. They’ll never exist. They have no interests, either now or in the future. Because it’s not possible for us to undermine interests that don’t exist, it’s not possible for us to act selfishly against them.

To demonstrate why this must be true, let’s consider what happens if we draw the opposite conclusion: that we have an obligation to give life to the currently unconceived. That obligation would not end when we have one child, or even ten. There’s always another child awaiting conception. Who are we to deny its rights?

Under this line of thinking every fertile female has a responsibility to have as many children as she is physically able to bear, regardless of age or marital status. To do otherwise would selfishly disregard the interests of all those potential people. Clearly that can’t be right because following through on this philosophy would lead to great harm on a massive scale.

No shortage of people

Even so, going childless isn’t something every couple can choose. If we really do have a responsibility to future generations  (our second possible aggrieved party) part of that responsibility surely includes peopling that generation. Don’t we have an obligation to do our part?

Not necessarily. 

If the world were running out of willing parents we might have a responsibility to “step up” in this regard. But that is not even remotely the case today. Over the past dozen years we’ve added a billion new people to the planet and are expected to add another billion over the next twelve. By 2050, the U.N. estimates the world population will be a third larger than it is today. 

We humans may have many problems, but under-populating the world isn’t one of them. Over populating it might be.   

Knowing this the baby scolds have adopted a more nuanced approach. Instead of arguing that the future of mankind depends on each of us having multiple children, they claim the future of our economy does. In a recent New York Times article titled More Babies Please, Ross Douthat puts it this way:

Today’s babies are tomorrow’s taxpayers and workers and entrepreneurs, and relatively youthful populations speed economic growth and keep spending commitments affordable.”

He goes on to argue that declining American fertility rates threaten our economic dynamism. So it might. But there is a far easier way to grow our population of taxpayers and workers than browbeating people into having more children. We can simply open our doors to the throngs of educated and ambitious foreigners who would love to immigrate here if only it were easier.

But instead of welcoming the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, we’re haggling over how high and thick a border fence we should construct. It’s the height of irony to be told we must have children to grow our population while also being told we need to limit newcomers from entering our ranks.

Don’t they know that my baby would take some other American’s job one day?

But it doesn’t have to. We’re reasonable people who are willing to prove our selflessness by promising not to flood the American labor market with our offspring. Alternatively, if the country wants more young workers we’d be willing to donate all the potential jobs that would have been occupied by all of our potential children to an equal number of qualified foreigners.

Either way, we’re delighted to do our part.

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77 Comments on “Are the Childless Necessarily Selfish”

  1. TinLizzie72 August 9, 2013 at 8:48 am #

    I haven’t see the Time article, but I just read two articles this morning about two different families – one just had their 12th baby (all boys!), and the other has 7. There will always be families who want a huge number of kids, while there are families who want one or none. So it all balances out, right?


  2. LP August 9, 2013 at 9:05 am #

    Reblogged this on The LP Record and commented:
    “Childless” seems to be such a taboo subject in American society today that people don’t even talk about it–especially outside of major metropolitan areas. Often, a heavy silence pervades the air around a “childfree” person. I have even experienced [sill to my surprise, every time] a type of “-ism” historically directed at many other basic human characteristics in this country (race, sex, etc.) I think “class” might even be uttered aloud today with more candor than “childfree-ness,”
    As with every other instance of tunnel vision and absence of empathy towards one’s fellow human being. Stretching, opening, and releasing one’s mind — especially from false assumptions — permits a potential opening of opportunities, experiences–often joy–in one’s life. Imagining oneself in the ‘shoes’ of another can be a liberating experience for all.


  3. Matt Mead Photography LLC August 9, 2013 at 9:37 am #

    Thank you for posting this….my wife and I have also chosen to not have children. We have heard ridiculous arguments from folks like, “Who will take care of you when you’re old?” In my opinion, THAT is a selfish reason to have children.


    • Brian August 9, 2013 at 10:31 am #



    • Les Petits Pas de Juls August 9, 2013 at 10:39 am #

      that’s always one of the first question we get too after we tell our friends that we’re not to have children either… they can’t understand that choice and why we’re making it at 33 years old. but all the reasons above, added to the personnal ones every couple who make that choice have, are very valid ones and need no more explanation.


      • Matt Mead Photography LLC August 9, 2013 at 10:42 am #

        Absolutely! Very well said! My wife and I are both 37 years old and don’t understand why other people get themselves in a twist over why WE aren’t having children.


        • Brian August 9, 2013 at 10:53 am #

          It might be hard to discuss people’s motivations here without insulting someone but the kind of response you mention sounds a lot like resentment. I can’t think of any other reason. Of course, I’d welcome comments offering another explanation.


  4. Karen August 9, 2013 at 9:37 am #

    As one who chose to reproduce I’m willing to bet that every parent secretly envies the childless at some time or another!! Selfish? Who are we to say?!


  5. judlaw August 9, 2013 at 10:01 am #

    For every couple who chooses to not have children, there are as many or more who choose to have several, so it all works out. The New York times quote is disturbing. That is a very selfish reason to have babies!

    A great post.


    • Brian August 9, 2013 at 10:35 am #

      The funny thing about the Times argument is that it is actually a collectivist one – that we should have babies for the greater good. It’s a strange line of thinking coming from a self described conservative writer. But politics, as they say, makes for strange bedfellows.


      • Rotten Ray August 9, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

        I recently attended the baptism of a nephew’s twins. Some things were said at the baptism that makes me think that the Catholic church seems to have the same philosophy – have children and make sure they are all Catholic. … for the “greater good” of the Catholic church!


  6. Robin August 9, 2013 at 10:08 am #

    Excellent rebuttal and it’s interesting that I chose to resubscribe to your blog the day this was posted. 🙂
    I’ve have never seen myself having kids, and reading Shirley Radl’s book “Mother’s Day is Over” in the mid-70s kind of sealed the deal. Fortunately my husband had the same viewpoint so after 10 years of marriage we made a permanent decision. Friends said “Oh, you’ll be sorry!” but after 40 years of marriage, I’ve never once regretted not having them. We also heard “Who will take care of you when you’re old?” and I have to admit that does worry me a bit but I work with elderly library patrons (and used to work in a nursing home) and have discovered kids don’t always step up to the plate and help. And I’ve been lucky as only two people have had the nerve to tell me I’m selfish, and neither one was important in my life–in fact, my mother was delighted to have a place to go where there weren’t any (my brother did more than his part).
    Sometimes I think it’s more “selfish” for couples to have children to fulfill a desire for them or to have more babies because they just love infants (the latter always boggles my mind–what do you do them once they become toddlers? Turn them loose?).
    Anyway, thanks so much for posting this, and I had to admit to being curious as to whether you two would have children once you “settled down” but guess you answered that question without my being nosy and asking.
    BTW, LOVED having lunch with Shannon yesterday. Looking forward to hearing of your next adventures in the NW and CA.


    • Brian August 9, 2013 at 10:29 am #

      Thanks for following along and for the comment. It’s true. People have children for a lot of reasons (and sometimes for no reason whatsoever.) Not all of those reasons are good or selfless ones. Topping that list is “who will take care of me when I’m old?”


  7. John August 9, 2013 at 10:12 am #

    Good post. This is something my wife and I talk about here and there. We both have children from prior marriages. If couples choose to remain child-free, it is strictly their business. People make this into a political issue and it’s just not.

    The quote from the article is an example of liberals and liberal thinking. Note that money tops the list. Childless couples are wonderful, their choice is nobody’s business but their own. America – land of the politically correct.


  8. Gina left the mall August 9, 2013 at 10:15 am #

    I think it would be selfish to have a child to satisfy “societal peer pressure” versus truly wanting one. Being a mom is wonderful, but not every day is rainbows and ponies. For me, the underlying, overwhelming, odds-defying (it took me 4yrs to have my daughter) desire to have a child gives me strength when I need it. And makes the joyful parts 100x more so.

    I would never judge someone for making a different choice. But then again, I don’t judge people in the great Work vs Stay-At-Home wars either. I think kindness, support and respect for each other would be the real non-selfish approach.


    • Brian August 9, 2013 at 10:21 am #

      You raise a point I never got around to in the article (it’s long enough already.) If we return to an era where people are pressured into having children, the unavoidable result is people having unwanted children. That isn’t a bug in the program, by the way. It’s a feature.


    • amoralegria August 10, 2013 at 11:29 pm #

      Well said, Gina!


  9. digger666 August 9, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    Your observation ” It’s the height of irony to be told we must have children to grow our population while also being told we need to limit newcomers from entering our ranks” may be too restrained; there’s more than a hint of racism behind the exhortations to patriotic breeding and closed borders.

    Great post, by the way.


  10. digger666 August 9, 2013 at 10:30 am #

    Reblogged this on digger666 and commented:
    It’s not often Shannon and Brian stray travel writing into social and political issues. Here they do so with some vigour.


  11. Les Petits Pas de Juls August 9, 2013 at 10:43 am #

    if only my friends spoke english and could read this!!! I don’t have a “valid” reason not to have children, I just don’t feel like it and don’t feel selfish about that choice. The only moment I feel selfish is when I realize it might only be because I don’t want to share my husband with anyone else! 😉


    • Brian August 9, 2013 at 10:54 am #

      It seems like you shouldn’t need a valid reason for not having children but should definitely have a reason for having children.


      • Les Petits Pas de Juls August 9, 2013 at 11:38 am #

        definitely agree with that one and don’t have the reason to have them so I’ll keep doing what I do now and enjoy my friends’ kids when they’re nice and smiling and happy and give them back when they’re grumpy 😉


      • Rotten Ray August 9, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

        Absolutely agree. I also think that parents should be required to take parenting classes before having their first child.


  12. B August 9, 2013 at 11:18 am #

    A friend of mine without children – who is thinking he and his partner won’t – recently asked a group of us to convince him that there was some good reason he should. As in Gina’s case, we had a good long time to consider this issue so I was able to answer him both thoroughly and confidently: there isn’t a good reason. The reasons provided by the other parents (who went first) didn’t hold up to scrutiny at all (I did try to be tactful).

    I told him that if, as in our case, he wanted children then I would see nothing wrong with that (I spent a lot of time on that question, too, years ago) and would give him my blessing, but since he doesn’t (and his partner agrees), he really shouldn’t let it bother him. He has many fulfilling things in his life. As you said – who is the aggrieved party?


    • Brian August 9, 2013 at 11:30 am #

      Not knowing why you’re taking on a life-long commitment sounds like reason enough not to.


      • B August 9, 2013 at 11:33 am #

        It’s not that you don’t know why. You’re taking it on because you want to. That’s it.


        • B August 9, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

          Sorry, I realised after posting that last comment you were probably talking about my friend. Yes, quite. If I’m asked again I’ll put it like that.


  13. foreveryouforeverme August 9, 2013 at 11:25 am #

    this article made my day… i get asked often if i will have children by clients and family members and it makes me angry and upset… i have never pictured myself being a mother nor have i ever felt particularly maternal. i have a great life and career, i love my husband… we enjoy traveling and wonderful restaurants… we take classes and host parties etc etc … i wonder how much more i’m suppossed to achieve in other people’s eyes? why isn’t all this enough? we have chosen to be happy and to accept whatever comes our way ( wether there be little feet or not ) .


    • Brian August 9, 2013 at 11:38 am #

      I can only empathize. Society does make it much harder on women, in almost every regard. You’re vilified for not having children or for having too many. For not breast feeding, for staying home or for going to work. It’s enough to make you think there are ulterior motives at play.


  14. belladonic haze August 9, 2013 at 12:07 pm #

    No kids. Just dogs. No college funds to save for, no drunk driving accidents, rehab, etc. Makes life much easier. 😉


  15. Jeanine McElwain August 9, 2013 at 12:20 pm #

    Seems to me the truly “unselfish” (maybe) are those who forego adding to the gene pool and take on an adopted child, especially one with special needs, or even more than one.


  16. cravesadventure August 9, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

    We are child free and the choice was ours to make. I try and not judge people when it comes to having children or not having children. It is a choice and not necessarily a selfish choice either (sometimes life has made other plans for you). Great Post – Happy Weekend!


  17. Deb August 9, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

    Interesting post.

    First I would say I think statements made with regards to immigration at the end of your post are over simplified. All immigration is not the same. Not all immigration benefits a country. My husband recently became a citizen and the official speech about being a beneficial citizen was quite “candid” and to the point.

    Having children or not is one’s choice. Fine. But here is the thing. On a weekly basis I will be out in public with my 5 children and a complete stranger will come up to me unsolicited and tell me why they chose not to have kids. Why do these people feel it is necessary to do this? Why do they think I care? Clearly choosing to be “child-free” isn’t as taboo as people make out it is when this happens all the time. I don’t go up to strangers stating they should have a herd of children, why do strangers come up to me justifying their child free choices? I guess I am just saying that I don’t think the whole child free thing is exactly as taboo as some people say with so many strangers needing to invade my space and profess their choices.


    • Brian August 9, 2013 at 5:24 pm #

      Thanks for your comments.

      With regard to immigration, this post obviously wasn’t intended to offer a deep dive on the subject, so yes, it’s simplified. But whether all immigrants benefit the country is besides the point (not all naturally born citizens are good for the country either). If someone’s arguing, as Mr. Douthat does and others do, that we need to have more babies to increase our population then isn’t it fair to ask if we can’t achieve the same goals by just loosening our immigration restrictions?

      As to the other, there are certainly always folks who feel the need to press their personal choices on to others. You’ll notice that we don’t do that at all in this article. Nowhere here do we disparage anyone who’s made a different choice. We’re just responding to the charge that we’re selfish for making the choice we made.


  18. janalinesmalman August 9, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

    I actually like this post a lot! Each person is free to choose how they want to live their life and having children or not having children is part of that choice. Being constantly described as being selfish for choosing not to have children is so unfair. It is a choice, there is nothing selfish about it. Thanks for this post.


    • Brian August 9, 2013 at 5:26 pm #

      Thanks for your comments.


  19. Rotten Ray August 9, 2013 at 4:25 pm #

    DINKS – Double Income No Kids

    We like it. Some don’t, but that is because some did not like the freedom we had not having kids. And when we think about it, we had many kids, none of ours, that we could return on a Sunday evening to the parents after having a (usually) pleasant weekend with the kids.

    Being pestered by parents that wanted grandchildren was annoying. Eventually, they got over it. We were always told we would be good parents. We think we would have been. We did not want to be. We made the right decision.

    When we would get into discussions about kids and when we were accused of being selfish, we would point out that it is they, the ones with kids that are selfish, that they are the ones that are so needy as to need kids to be self-satisfied. They would tell us it’s a blessing and we are missing out. We would remind them of all the times they griped, sometimes vehemently, about their kids being so bad.

    Parents ask about who will take care of us in old age. We ask them, do they really think that their kids will take care of them. Some of the kids would; others would or could not.

    With some parents, we have asked them why they even bothered to have children. Much of the time it was because the kids were “accidents.” Those kids do not always grow up to be the best of people.

    When this type of story hits the news, I wonder about all those that want children and cannot. How do they feel when they are accused of being selfish? Do they explain their pain?


  20. Debra Kolkka August 9, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

    There are far too many people in the world. Not having babies is a great option. Governments want us to have children because they want economies to grow. At some point they are going to have to learn to make things work another way because the planet clearly cannot continue to support an ever increasing population.


    • Brian August 9, 2013 at 5:36 pm #

      Certainly if we’re concerned about the welfare of future generations not over populating the planet would be high on the list of things to do.


    • amoralegria August 10, 2013 at 11:34 pm #

      Excellent point, I agree!


  21. Gunta August 9, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

    Fantastic post! Great discussion launched. I’ve often thought that people ought to be licensed to have kids, but that’ll never happen.


    • Brian August 9, 2013 at 5:40 pm #

      Can’t really see that happening either. But it is such a huge and important responsibility that, at the very least, people should take it on thoughtfully and deliberately. And that is something that can’t happen unless those who are unwilling or unready to have children have the right to say “no thanks.”


    • Patricia November 1, 2013 at 12:39 am #

      Gunta, I have said the same thing for years! We require people to get a license to show they have learned how to drive, or how to cut someone’s hair, or how to give a massage. But becoming a parent has no prerequisites.

      Sadly, as you say, it will never happen.

      I can’t say that I’ve ever had anyone question my decision to remain childless to my face, but I’m sure the judgments are made by some. I have always been confounded by the claim that this choice reflects selfishness. Indeed, as others have said, I find it much more selfish to choose to have children for your own gratification, never mind to take care of you in your old age. What a ridiculous argument.


  22. traveljody August 9, 2013 at 5:43 pm #

    My husband and I are always being asked when we plan to start trying for a family! Firstly, I think that’s an incredibly personal question, some people are not able to have children and this question can be incredibly upsetting for them. Secondly, I am still surprised in these times at how many people ‘assume’ that having a family is the next logical step.

    My husband and I are both incredibly selfish, not just with our free time and money but also with each other. We have often talked through how the addition of a small person might change the dynamic of our relationship and I freely admit that I don’t want our relationship to change, to be tested to the point of almost breaking and I don’t want to have to share my husbands attention with anybody else! For us, for now, being childless is completely the right decision and it’s not something we can see changing.

    I find it interesting that having grown up in the 90’s and being of an era where young women were encouraged to have careers and be equal to their partners/husbands, suddenly there seems to be a worry that they should now be encouraged to stay at home and raise babies…..damned if you do and damned if you don’t!


  23. Nadine Feldman August 9, 2013 at 6:34 pm #

    I’m in an interesting position to comment, because I was unable to have children of my own but ended up with two stepchildren at age 46 (teenagers, no less!).

    First, I think it’s each couples’ decision whether or not to have kids. We are under no obligation to live our lives to please anyone else. If that’s selfish, so be it. Anyone else who judges those who choose to be childless is a bit jealous, I think!

    That said, I was astonished to learn, upon becoming a full-time stepmom (their mother is not in their lives), just how much time and energy it takes to deal with kids. I became much more appreciative of my parents, who raised five children, because I had a glimpse of what was involved. I’ve had to learn that there are times when my needs take a back seat…and that’s been good for me.

    My hat goes off to those parents who raise children from infancy to full adulthood. It’s a tough job, tougher than I ever imagined. However, parenthood is not for everyone. We need to honor all the different paths that people take


  24. Jason August 9, 2013 at 9:44 pm #

    The ideal is for each person to make up their own mind, on what ultimately is a life changing decision like no other.

    Each parent, in a utopian world, gives a huge amount to their children, while not relinquishing their self actualisation, their interests or dreams. Children, given an opportunity to grow in a loving environment, with guidance and the opportunity learn from experience, give back in so many ways.

    In reality, life is so often not this simple. Is it a reasonable assumption that in relationships founded on friendship, love, commitment, chemistry and trust, the truth is that consensus on fundamental decisions is the cornerstone of happiness and the longevity of the relationship?

    There are plenty of scenarios for the alternate; unplanned pregnancy or when one partner wants children, the other doesn’t.

    Life is challenging, think of the heartbreak for a couple that desperately try to have kids but can’t.

    Then there are those who have kids and, quite frankly, are the antithesis of the parenting ideal. This is truly sad. Some will overcome the rough start, many do not.

    The people that make a conscious decision, to have kids or not, are blessed. It is their choice. Once the decision is made, go ahead and fore fill the dreams and aspirations that the decision was based on.

    For those who do not have that choice, or perhaps not a clear cut choice, refer to the wise person who said: It is not what happens it you in life, but how you choose to take it.

    To borrow another phase from someone that I admire: Tread your own path.


  25. Jason August 9, 2013 at 9:49 pm #

    *It is not what happens to you in life, but how you choose to take it


  26. eric.rial August 10, 2013 at 2:03 am #

    I’ve got to say that I feel pretty selfish having 4 kids… I really didn’t care how many global resources they gobbled up, I just wanted to enjoy raising them. Having kids, or not, is a personal choice about what you want to do with your life, and what’s important to you. Raising children is a lot of work, so is hiking up Half Dome, but both of them are extremely rewarding. I would be the last person to argue that raising kids is the only meaningful way to live your life. Your blog points to another meaningful way to live. Enjoying the world and sharing it with others is a terrific way to live!

    I think the whole argument may have been started by parents of these couples (or singles) who want to be Grandparents!


  27. bluuerthanbluue August 10, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    Good day,

    I just need to reblog this… if you don’t mind! Thanks…


  28. Barbra & Jack Donachy August 10, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

    Or is that the parents having four, five and more children are the selfish ones? As forests continued to be leveled in the name of crop production and our seas continue to be fished out in the name of feeding 9 billion people, overpopulation is the most pressing matter we face. It is decidedly Not all balancing out.


  29. amoralegria August 10, 2013 at 11:42 pm #

    I’m glad you took time off from your travel posts (which I always enjoy) to pursue this question. I think the New York Times quote was simply irresponsible. We can’t make such personal decisions as having children based on growing the economy. I also think it would be better for people to have fewer children, 3 or less, in order to not use up the Earth’s resources, but I wouldn’t advocate an “official” policy like the one-child policy in China.

    I had one child myself and would have liked to have another, but my second husband had a child from his previous marriage (as did I) and didn’t want any more, nor to adopt any, so I had to accept this decision, and now am glad I did. I am at the age in which I don’t presume to judge people for their lifestyle choices. Everyone’s situation is different, everyone’s personal story is their own journey.

    I think it’s fantastic that you two have made this decision and have chosen instead to travel. I’d love to do the same!!!


  30. Allison August 11, 2013 at 1:33 am #

    Amazing number of comments on this topic! Having kids,or not, is such a hot button. I had my tubes tied when I was 30 – no boyfriend, no husband, just knew what I did not want. It was so liberating to have it behind me. Know what you want and stick to your somethings. I was going to say guns, but it’s politically incorrect.


    • Brian August 11, 2013 at 10:59 am #

      Go ahead, stick to your guns. 🙂


  31. Jean August 11, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

    Got to say that I’m just tired of the writing examining the child-free folks. Making a decision not to have children, is also a serious decision and one that does get revisited occasionally. But no regrets, here.

    We’re not bothering anyone. End of story. 🙂 (From the eldest in a family of 6 kids. I saw the stress on parents: that was enough plus being built-in, free baby-sitter for young siblings. What could my parents do since they were poor?)


  32. E v e l y n August 11, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

    I haven’t read the article. As someone who suffers from infertility and has taken desperate measures to have kids I’m not going to judge anyone’s decisions because I think that happens too often already (Why did you wait so long to try having kids? Why don’t you just adopt?). I actually read an article today that said 70% of people who suffer from infertility hide it so I have to wonder if some of these supposedly selfish people who are living a ‘child free’ life didn’t have a choice about it.

    Regarding overpopulation, this makes me question some of the decisions I’ve made in truth. Regarding the rights of the unconcieved, I’ve concieved many potential people during many courses of IVF and can tell you that they don’t all make it. It’s just the way it is in the best of conditions. I’ve also spent a wad on treatments so I’m sure I’m doing more than my part to stimulate the economy.

    Regardless, as someone who is facing a childless life against my wishes I congratulate your choice and don’t see it as selfish in the least bit.


  33. Meghan J. Ward August 13, 2013 at 11:03 am #

    The economic argument is an interesting one, and one I hadn’t really considered before. I often heard childless people called ‘selfish’ – or some synonym of the word – more so due to the fact that they didn’t have a child to care for, so their lives could revolve more around themselves. I don’t know if this is selfish or even all that negative – just a choice.

    But parents often say that those who aren’t parents just don’t know how much they are missing out on; that being a parent is the most incredible thing you can do in life. But what you don’t know, you don’t know. I know I’m glad I crossed onto the ‘parenting’ side, but I don’t believe that everyone should be a parent. I would rather see people choose not to be parents than see a lot of absent or neglectful parents out there.

    Raising children is a responsibility, and something very important to our future economy. Raising them to be active contributors to society will help that – not simply bringing them into the world.

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a thought-provoking piece!


    • Brian August 13, 2013 at 11:29 am #

      Hi Meghan,
      Part of the reason I wrote this piece is because I wanted to explore a little deeper the thinking in your first paragraph. It seemed to me that the charge of selfishness was based mostly on the reasoning you identify. I ultimately came to the conclusion that attention to self isn’t, by itself, enough. Having to identify an actual harm done in advancing your personal interest ends up being a good litmus test for selfishness. Not only does it exclude the childless but also the parent who has a child not for the child’s sake but because they believe “it is the most incredible thing [the parent] can do in life.” It turns out, then, that even having children for purely self-centered reasons (“who will take care of me when I’m old”) is not necessarily selfish so long as no harm is done.


      • Meghan J. Ward August 13, 2013 at 11:31 am #

        Great points all around. Your title could easily read the opposite: Are those with children necessarily “selfless?” 🙂


        • Brian August 13, 2013 at 11:39 am #

          That could very easily be an entirely new post. 🙂


  34. hermitsdoor August 13, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

    Two good points made. Another argument that I have heard for having children is that they will take care of you as you age. Sorry, I have seen too many lonely seniors, and have too many friends who are getting their as their children have little to do with them. Granted some were overbearing or neglectful parents, who children are behaving just as they were taught. Some were terrific parents, but the generations have different interests from spending time with people (like reading blogs?… no texts…). The senior retirement communities are booming, filled with aging adults fending for themselves, or hiring someone to do it for them.
    (Full disclosure, our household has always remained at two)


  35. cavegirlmba August 17, 2013 at 11:35 am #

    Excellent. Finally someone who addresses this issue.


  36. gabrielle157 August 20, 2013 at 11:40 pm #

    I think that, for many people, it’s hard to get past the idea of it just seeming unnatural for a couple to not want kids. And so they have to search for some other defect. Having children is supposed to be part of being a complete adult, and so you must have something wrong with you to not want that, right? Of course, there is no requirement that a person be good, mature, or unselfish in order to become a parent… in fact, the requirements are quite low.

    I, personally, have always wanted to have children–and to have a good number of them. And so it’s always been difficult for me to understand (in a way that I could imagine feeling that way) all of the factors that cause people to opt out of having children. But I given the complications of overpopulation, my partner and I have made it our plan to adopt. It just seems like the right thing to do for us, if we have the heart and the resources. So far we have the heart… it’s the second part we’re waiting for!

    Thanks for the post!


    • Brian August 21, 2013 at 12:34 am #

      I’m not sure I know what is natural. There’s certainly no evolutionary imperative for people to want children because wanting sex is sufficient to get the job done. Or at least it was throughout most of human history. It’s not clear to me, and I’m not aware of any research into the question, of whether we have a natural desire for children or that we’re just responding to normal societal pressure to do what everyone else is doing – nurture vs. nature, if you will.

      But I will say that the consistently observed decline in fertility rates with increases in education, income, and gender equality seems to suggest a significant environmental factor at play.

      More importantly, good for you – and good luck – on your plans to adopt.


      • gabrielle157 August 21, 2013 at 7:54 am #

        Yes, I agree with you. Expectations of what is “natural” at this point is largely socially constructed, and that is what I had hoped to communicate in my reply. While at some point the evolutionary drive was definitely more focused on simply getting your genes out there, most of us would like to think we are not bound by those primal needs anymore. There is still compelling research happening about kin selection and what people will do to protect genetic relations (I think Richard Dawkin’s “The Selfish Gene” is basically a classic at this point), but the choices that man makes are much more complex than “natural” or “unnatural.”

        The idea that I was trying to communicate is that when people don’t understand something about someone, they might call their ways “unnatural” because it is not congruent with their personal experience–whether it is an introvert’s lack of interest for large social events, nonconformity to gender roles, or homosexuality. People want to believe that their own habits are natural, and so they have to justify deviation from this with some defect–in the case of wanting children as you discuss here, selfishness.

        Anyhooo… the verdict’s still out on the environmental vs. genetic reasons for decline in fertility rates (and again, with the complexity of human choice, the nature vs. nurture debate becomes a mostly irrelevant distinction to make–if the question is: nature or nurture? we might as well answer “yes.”). Lower fertility rates may be a result of increasing the likelihood of your genes surviving by showering all your resources on one child, for example. I will say that this decline that you’re talking about is very evident in Chile right now, and the demographic shift that’s happening here is the same one that was happening in the States some twenty or thirty years ago. And part of it is definitely a shift in cultural values.

        What is there to conclude? People don’t need to worry so much about whether other people’s actions natural or unnatural or selfish or not. We make many life decisions without thinking about them, but let’s not console ourselves of this thoughtlessness by calling it natural or selfless.


        • Brian August 21, 2013 at 10:23 am #

          I got your meaning 😉 Your comment just got me thinking about the topic. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  37. Tish Farrell August 24, 2013 at 1:26 pm #

    My mother ever harped on about her childless sister and sister-in-law being selfish women and therefore ‘not good’ with children, yet both these childless women created long and lasting relationships with members of younger generations who were in need of sensible non-parental guidance and support. They were both genuinely loving people. My own mother, the self-styled expert in child rearing, was manipulative and self-centred. We were not allowed to have thoughts of our own. I have also known women of my generation who have tricked their partners into parenthood when they expressly said they did not want children. The fact is that these days people have many choices as to how to live their lives. Those who overly concern themselves with other people’s presumed selfishness, perhaps are envious of the choices they did not make for themselves. Sad that people need to spend so much energy sniping at others. Great post. Most thought-provoking.


  38. photobycraig August 27, 2013 at 1:26 pm #

    Fantastic article! My first wife and I were given grief over not having children. It was a choice we made and one I don’t regret. My second wife has one, but I have no influence in his life so as far as I am concerned I am still childless. I am very happy I never had children. It has allowed me to do much in my life that I wanted.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog! Much appreciated! 🙂


  39. janstring August 30, 2013 at 11:08 am #

    Hi Brian and Shannon,

    I read with interest your article. I always wanted a business, my husband always wanted a family. Different people want different things in life.

    Having a family has been an absolute joy – but then my parents and childhood was full of love and care – which I think is exactly why I didn’t crave or need to have my own children. Yet I think, having a family means priorities change, each time you have to take another into consideration and keeping another person alive – although it is done everyday is a big responsibility. i think there will always be enough people having kids. Enjoy your life and do what you want in it. Just try to remain open minded to different people’s challenges. If we can all do that – whether or not we have kids then that would be grand in my eyes!

    Everybody has different reasons why they do or don’t have children. Don’t they?


  40. CurlyTraveller December 23, 2013 at 8:44 pm #

    Well spoken, well argumented.
    I love that you write intelligent, opiniated articles on your blog. Like the one about N. korea.
    I am childless myself. Out of choice. And I never considered it selfish.. Choosing to have children as well as not having children are for me equally valid and equally selfish choices.


    • Brian December 24, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

      Thanks “Curly.” We always aspire to write thoughtful posts. We’re glad that you enjoyed this one.


  41. janstring December 24, 2013 at 3:09 am #

    I respond as a person who never wanted children (they weren’t part of my life plan) but has had them anyway. Both are now 20 and 18 respectively. It has been tough being a mum – the responsibilities that have sat with me from the point I looked into my children’s eyes the moment they were born, it has drawn out a part of me that I didn’t know existed and has developed me as an individual, growing my understanding of the world and mankind.

    Yet if I hadn’t had children I would have just known a different life – For me being childless would have meant that each decision I made would have be done so without the thought of someone else’s welfare in the forefront of my mind constantly. I recognise the challenges having a family has brought to my life but also the love, joy and delight.
    There is no right or wrong here – just personal choice. As I read, it’s not as if we are underpopulated in our respective countries. Happy holidays 🙂



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