For 100 years, the US government has tracked the birth rate. It is now at historic lows. There are many reasons, but one has to do with the dramatic change in the way society regards the economic value of kids.
To illustrate the point, let’s reflect on the continuing popularity of Anne of Green Gables, the 1908 book by Canadian writer Lucy M. Montgomery. Yes, it is charming, and ridiculously so. It’s beyond me why the new Netflix rendering (Anne with an E) is getting bad reviews. It’s probably because so many people are attached to the book and the myriad previous cinematic renderings. Still, I find the new one delightful in every way, and I’ve been thinking on precisely why.
Before the Progressive Era, children were regarded as aspiring adults with as many responsibilities as they could handle.
Beyond the solid acting and timeless story of a brilliant orphan growing up and finding her way in the world, the show introduces us into a time gone by. It is set on Prince Edward Island sometime in the late 19th century, before cars, phones, and indoor temperature control. So, sure, that’s different. So is the language and cultural mores.
The Status of Kids
That’s not what truly strikes us, however. What is dazzling to watch is the completely different relationship between kids and adults that existed then. The status of kids in society was unlike today.
They were aspiring adults and given as many responsibilities as they could handle within their range of competence, which was always shifting in the direction of more and more.
There was no Department of Labor and Department of Human Resources to “protect” them from living full lives. Kids in those days were regarded as valuable because they were tangibly productive. They worked, gained skills, and produced for their families or otherwise worked for businesses here and there. They were assets. As they gained skills, discipline, and a work ethic, they could become ever more valuable to their custodians and communities. This is a major reason why people wanted them. And the kids, in turn, were socialized to be grateful to their benefactors whether at home or work.
And notice from the story of Anne that a main job of kids in those days was to care for people in their aging years. So kids were valuable on both ends of the life spectrum: as co-workers when the kids are young and then as helpers as their custodians age.
What’s different today? Now kids are mostly a financial cost and defined as such, because the law, educational system, and welfare state make it that way. Oh sure, people still love their kids. Emotionally and spiritually, we speak piously and beautifully of the infinite value of their lives.
And, of course, everyone agrees. There is a social status that comes with having kids and they can be an entryway to new friend networks.
And yet. Let’s talk dollars and cents. When considering whether to have kids, people know that they will contribute little to household management, and nothing positive to the bottom line, and then they must consider how much they will have to spend. You can look it up on online cost calculators. For example, if you are married and want two kids in the American South, you are going to spend $732K. That’s a daunting figure, and that’s before you start shelling out for college.
In return for which, they offer…the infinite value of their very existence.
Is it any wonder that the birthrate has fallen to its lowest level in more than 100 years? Yes, there are other reasons having to do with technology and greater economic certainty. Still, if you forcibly reduce the value of anything, and people have any choice over it, they will produce less and less of it. This is precisely what has happened to the status of children over the last century.
Why Would You Want to Be Anne?
How did this happen? Let’s look at the story of Anne.
If you forcibly reduce the value of anything, and people have any choice over it, they will produce less and less of it.
Anne is 13 years old when the story starts. She has lived a very hard life due to circumstances beyond her control. She has lived in the orphanage but gets a new start when a family adopts her, in order to get a obtain a worker who only needs room and board. The family asked for a boy from the orphanage but there was some mix up and they sent a girl. The adoptive family (an aging brother and sister) reluctantly agree to keep her only after she charms them and proves that she can bring productivity to the household. She shows off her skills, among which include her incredible erudition.
It was a much poorer world, obviously, and only the rich kids could afford to be in school full time. Anne was mostly self taught but she loved reading, dreaming, fantasizing, imagining. She read whenever she could, by candlelight, exhausted at the end of the day. And she was brilliant, even without focus or being institutionalized.
A reason this story has riveted children for so many generations comes down to the challenges, opportunities, tragedies, and triumphs she experiences in an exciting, varied, interesting life – which is to say, a life in an economically free society. She was a child in a world that aspired for her to become an adult, and deal with actual adult-like tasks and responsibilities. Yes, that involved schooling but this was not forced and it was not the only purpose of her life. She could even drink wine!
Back then, kids were not nationalized by the state, their every move controlled by public institutions, and forbidden from working by the government. They were challenged with as many adult responsibilities as they could handle. That Anne works hard, can do anything a boy can do, picks up vast skills, and her path of learning is largely unscripted is a real source of delight for readers and viewers. She proves herself up to the task.
Soon after the book was written, public policy concerning kids began to change. Public schooling was made nearly universal in the developed world. Private schooling began its long path of decline to the point that by mid-century they were operated either by churches or only available to the rich. These public schools entered on the trajectory of every government project: planned, managed from the top, treating every student as an unindividuated unit of an aggregate, soldiers in a. kid army, each put through the paces for twelve years.
During the New Deal, “Child labor” was completely banned. It remains so today, with rare exceptions.
Then school was