January 7, 2011

YESTERDAY’S LINK to the Reason item on minivans produced this email from reader Barbara Hamill:

As an unrepentant fan of my very cool Honda Odyssey, I have to point out the following: You know who will love the minivan the most in 20 years? The Social Security Administration and all those retired Boomers who were too cool to drive one. Not so much retroactive love for, just for example, the Toyota Highlander, whose owners lament as they peer into their inferior vehicles that, while they’d love to have a third child, there’s no room for the car seat.

Well, squeezing in three carseats is hard — you might manage it in mine (which has a 3d row seat) but it’s not as friendly as a minivan, even though the Highlander is really just a minivan with plausible deniability. This reminds me, though, that I wrote a column a while back on how raised societal expectations make parenting much more expensive, and have thus contributed to the “baby bust.” I even mention the carseat thing, which is a real burden.


Today’s middle-class kids are always under the adult eye. It’s not clear that the kids are better off for all this supervision — and they’re certainly fatter, perhaps because they get around less outside — but the burden on parents is much, much higher. And it’s exacted in a million tiny yet irritating other ways. Some are worthwhile — car seats, for example, are probably a net gain in safety — but even there the cost is high: I heard a radio host in Knoxville making fun of SUVs and minivans: When he was a kid, he boasted, his parents took their five children cross-country in an Impala sedan. Nowadays, you’d never make it without being cited for neglect. And you can’t get five kids in a sedan if they all have to have car seats, which these days they seem to require until they’re 18. . . .

There’s also the decline in parental prestige over generations. My mother reports that when she was a newlywed (she was married in 1959) you weren’t seen as fully a member of the adult world until you had kids. Nowadays to have kids means something closer to an expulsion from the adult world. People in the suburbs buy SUVs instead of minivans not because they need the four-wheel-drive capabilities, but because the SUVs lack the minivan’s close association with low-prestige activities like parenting, and instead provide the aura of high-prestige activities like whitewater kayaking. Why should kayaking be more prestigious than parenting? Because parenting isn’t prestigious in our society. If it were, childless people would drive minivans just to partake of the aura.

In these sorts of ways, parenting has become more expensive in non-financial as well as financial terms. It takes up more time and emotional energy than it used to, and there’s less reward in terms of social approbation. This is like a big social tax on parenting and, as we all know, when things are taxed we get less of them. Yes, people still have children, and some people even have big families. But at the margin, which is where change occurs, people are less likely to do things as they grow more expensive and less rewarded.

Still true.

UPDATE: Hanah Volokh writes: “Tangentially related to your post today on how societal expectations make parenting a more difficult task, you might be interested in a forthcoming law review article by Gaia Bernstein and Zvi Triger, ‘Over-Parenting,’ about how the legal system also enforces what they call ‘intensive parenting’ norms that may not always be in the best interests of the child. Certainly they are not best if you subscribe to the Free Range Parenting school of thought. The article is available here.”

“Intensive parenting” norms have more to do with the anxieties of upper-middle-class women than with the welfare of children.

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