Why Children Are Better Than Pets

Why Children Are Better Than Pets
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Several months ago, Pope Francis warned married couples not to forego children in favor of having "a dog, two cats," and offered a cautionary description of childless old age "in solitude, with the bitterness of loneliness."

The admonition, possibly influenced by record low birth rates in Italy and elsewhere, evoked several surreal scenes in my head from Raising Arizona, the Coen brothers' own cautionary tale which speaks to the primal desire for offspring, the yearning for perpetuation of self, and the radical transformation babies effectuate on everyone from adoptive mothers to ex-cons.

After desperately childless couple Herbert and Edwina (H.I. and Ed) resort to stealing infant Nathan Junior from his parents and fellow quintuplets, the baby's mere presence compels all who come in contact with him -- including prison escapees Gale and Evelle -- to exclaim, "I LOVE HIM! I LOVE HIM SO MUCH!" Nathan Junior gets re-Christened along the way as everyone craves and steals the babe for their own, first as "H.I. Junior," then "Gale Junior" after the ex-cons fall under his spell. Each successive parent's heart transforms in a diaper-buying, bottle-feeding frenzy of selfless care-taking.

The altruism culminates when Ed confronts the only baby-stealing character unaltered by Nathan Junior: grenade-toting Lone Biker of the Apocalypse Leonard Smalls, hateful of "little things -- the helpless and the gentle creatures." She stands in the way of Nathan Junior and the grenade, screaming "Give me that baby, you warthog from Hell," after which the grenade destroys the biker whose tattoo, interestingly, says "Momma Never Loved Me."

H.I. and Ed penitently return Nathan Junior on their own recognizance, and the story concludes with Ed's surreal dream bringing to life what Pope Francis wishes for his married couples: Ed and H.I. in old age being visited by children and grandchildren in a place "where all parents are strong and wise and capable, and all children are happy and loved."

The Pope, childless himself, obviously realizes that those without progeny can and do go on to lead selfless, meaningful, and legacy-filled lives. In general, however, the negative effects of childlessness extend beyond elderly loneliness, and even beyond a dearth of work force youth to pay for Medicaid and Social Security. What would a society of adults skewed toward childlessness, like the perpetually barren Time magazine beach couple, look and act like without having acquired the altruism, personal growth, and wisdom that bringing up children generally bequeaths on those who undergo parenthood?

Bill Gates, for one, exponentially increased his philanthropic donations after having three children, observing that "We've raised our kids in a religious way; they've gone to the Catholic church that Melinda goes to and I participate in. I've been very lucky, and therefore I owe it to try and reduce the inequity in the world." Four-time cancer survivor Jon Hunstman, Sr. contributes in excess of 1.2 billion to various causes, but as the father of 9, focuses on curing cancer -- the one inheritance he doesn't wish to bequeath on his 56 grandchildren -- establishing the Huntsman Cancer Institute and, in 2008, receiving the American Cancer Society's Medal of Honor for Cancer Philanthropy.

Billionaires notwithstanding, however, the world has even greater need of regular wage earners lending their limited resources to societal betterment, and children somehow spur that motivation in spades, even if only peripherally. I've been roped into countless philanthropic endeavors via boy scout clean-ups, classroom donations to Water.org, youth group food drives, and student-driven coat collections. Which isn't to say those without children can't, or don't, contribute-just that curmudgeons like me probably wouldn't find themselves lobbying their state legislatures for educational improvement or jumping up and down at honk-n-waves for local candidates were it not in hopes that the world might improve for our kids as a result.

Yet even societal betterment fails to describe the collective wisdom and personal growth children foist upon unsuspecting progenitors who find themselves continually widening their comfort zones and connecting with disciplines and people they would not have encountered on their own. I never thought I could endure endless rounds of wrestling meets, watching a firstborn son get his torso mangled and face shoved into the floor, or find solidarity with team parents much more sports-crazed than I. Neither would I have pictured myself, a bookworm with little upper body strength, "belaying" a group of rock-climbing fourth graders, or for that matter becoming an amateur early literacy expert after getting drafted into a school district's reading task force.

At that point, extricating myself from other involved parents bent on changing the world became well nigh impossible. They talked me into lobbying state legislators, speaking at educational hearings, supporting local bills, joining a charter school bandwagon, and then-unthinkable for a self-respecting English major-delving into math reform. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, my kids unwittingly offered minor expertise in everything from childhood psychology to adolescent pathology, from Suzuki cello to oboe reed repair, from the ins-and-outs of food service industry jobs to the hunt for colleges less inclined to induce bankruptcy.

And with every area of interest that children pursue, parents discover, they bring along mentors and friends who alter our lives and perceptions and create alliances unlikely to form otherwise. Family Ties and Cosby show episodes capture this interweaving nicely, with Alex's liberal parents tolerating his Reagan-loving compatriots or Mallory's fashion crazed friends, and the Huxtables mingling with a kid's teacher from Brazil or engaging with a variety of classmates traipsing through the door. My kids have brought home honor roll friends and friends who've dealt with poverty and depression. Their buddies' parents have managed mutual funds, worked manual labor, and raised kids single-handedly, all the while showing us different ways of being a successful family.

Children's teachers widening our social sphere have included a swing band clarinetist, a piano teacher bringing by newborn ducks for a visit, and a Kung Fu master who sent home weekly notes about integrity and honor. I wish I had kept the personal letter the martial arts teacher wrote to my son explaining how a debilitating disease would soon rob him of physical abilities, but never of his ability to live with hope and dignity. And the kids' bosses, yet another set of mentors, have included a fried chicken establishment owner who made struggling employees' car and rent payments, and who once had his work van, parked at home, set on fire by animal activists. Still, he stayed upbeat and generous, a walking illustration of perseverance and decency.

Granted, anyone can encounter resilient and diverse role models to learn from, with or without children, at work or in the community. And having kids also guarantees a fair share of negative teacher-friend-mentor brush-ups as well. So perhaps the most challenging aspect of a society less prone to children would consist of a core of adults not forced into the selflessness and humility that is real parenthood's hallmark. Mother Teresa and others naturally prone to benevolence definitely provide the exceptions, but without children, a more narcissistic realm of adulthood can't help but emerge.

Comedian Jim Gaffigan, who describes his early career as marked by a "lazy, gluttonous, selfish point of view," now raises five kids with his wife in Manhattan and admits that "having five kids dramatically changed me," replacing narcissism with the gift of never having the luxury of forgetting about parental responsibilities, and also giving him "an incredible skill set." Having his routine constantly upended -- "If a baby's crying, you can't really dismiss it" -- not only rearranged his priorities in ways he could not have imagined, but also offered some of the "sweeter, special moments" that, exhaustion and chaos aside, compel him to describe "the whole parenting thing [as] just amazing."

Writer Susan Cheever echoes this sense of life upended and priorities overhauled in her motherhood essay "Real Me." Until age 38, instead of having children, she had adventures -- trips, careers, affairs -- until undergoing "the adventure to end all adventures" by having a baby. "I didn't understand," she explains, "that having a child would make all my other experiences seem hollow, frantic, and a little silly. I didn't know that my child would become my whole experience, the standard against which I measured all other feelings and found them wanting."

Interestingly, the emotional intensity of paradigms shifting and egocentric worldviews giving way are not contingent on the birth of a perfect child. In fact, the more parents have to give, it seems, the more meaningful their internship in self-denial, with parents of children with disabilities often becoming the most indefatigable mothers and fathers on the planet, offering unimaginable caretaking that would stretch even the most diehard workaholics.

Perhaps in these parents of children who will never walk (or eat, go to the bathroom, or communicate) on their own, parenthood reaches its apogee. Those who live with their sons' and daughters' disabilities or mental illnesses responsibly and selflessly show the rest of us that, as writer-mother Catherine Thomas points out, our children are not here "to make us look good." These parents mirror in a larger way the expanded compassion that grows in all but the most benighted of parents as we suffer with our children through failed tests, rejected tryouts, spurned offers of friendship, and denied applications. Yes, parental love glories in the sweet moments and victories large and small, but it forges better souls through the shared compassion of defeat.

That empathy then reaches outward to others -- hopefully creating an adult world less narcissistic and undoubtedly more humble for all the grown-ups accustomed to having everything from their appearance to their taste in music, movies, and clothes ridiculed by teenagers. Who know everything. These grown-ups' last vestiges of pride, like mine, have been swept into the ash bin after wearing countless mom-stained outfits, driving used junk heaps to subsidize music lessons, and after having encountered, at occasional parent-teacher conferences, a list of missing assignments longer than the ones turned in.

Wisdom and self-actualization, empathy and humility are not limited to parents. And don't get me, or His Holiness, wrong. I am ridiculously attached to my dog. I undergo a Wordsworthian sense of childhood wonder at his antics and know that pets entail sacrifice and social entanglements-to a point. I'm also more than happy not to worry excessively about Frodo (he is small and Hobbit-like) and how much time he wastes on his cell phone or what his midterms look like.

I simply doubt that dogs and cats will transform me or the next generation of grown-ups in the way Nathan Junior did to H.I. and his fellow convicts. We need that metamorphosis. An early scene from Raising Arizona depicts a counselor telling a group of prisoners that most men their age are getting married and raising children and "wouldn't accept prison as a substitute." To which Gale responds, "Well, sometimes your career's gotta come before family." Which is easy to say -- until a baby comes into your life and changes everything.

Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer based in Salt Lake City.

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