A couple of weeks ago I posted the first installment of 4 Ways the Childfree Create Family, describing how the childfree fulfill two of four common functions of families. This week, I’ll address the other two functions.
To recap, social scientists generally recognize four major functions that families fulfill in our society:
1) Fulfilling the sexual and emotional companionship needs of members.
2) Providing economically for members.
3) Providing a home to members.
4) Engaging in reproduction, which can biological and/or social.
As I demonstrate in a review of research published in Sociology Compass, families that do not include children fulfill all four of these functions. Again, you can read a description of how childfree families fulfill the first two functions here. Below, I explore the latter two.
Providing a Home
Clearly, providing a home to members is a function that all families aim to meet. What’s interesting about this function is how it is met by different kinds of families. In some families, tasks related to the day to day management of life in the home are divided by gender.
Interestingly, research on childfree adults suggests that they hold less traditional gender beliefs than parents. Though we know little about how household arrangements in childfree families compare to those in families with kids, I would hypothesize that the division of labor within childfree households is less gendered than in households that include kids.
Perhaps it is most surprising to hear that childfree families also fulfill the function of reproduction. While the childfree may not reproduce biologically, they do engage in social reproduction; the non-biological roles, actions, and responsibilities that are required to turn new human beings into participating and contributing members of society. (I wrote about this in an op-ed in 2012.)
For example, children are taught from an early age how to interact with their peers and with adults. They learn rules on the playground from their teachers, they may learn to respect their elders in a church setting, they may learn from the police officer who visits their classroom that they should “stop, look, and listen” before crossing the street. All of these norms and rules are taught by a variety of people in a child’s life. In some cases, those people are parents. In others, they are not. Does the police officer visiting a child’s classroom to teach about pedestrian safety have to be a parent in order to be qualified to teach those lessons? Of course not. Yet that police officer has participated in social reproduction.
Some childfree are involved in kids’ lives because they work as teachers, counselors, social workers, or in other professions that play a role in helping to rear the next generation. In fact, a full quarter of the childfree women and men I’ve interviewed in the course of my research on the subject chose careers that involve their working regularly with children.
Other childfree serve as mentors, babysitters, guardians, friends, and confidants to children in their lives. Indeed, it is precisely because they are childfree that they can serve in these capacities. As one man I interviewed put it when describing his family’s relationships with kids, “As the couple without kids, we have more of an ability to play with kids than other couples. … We have a lot of really good relationships with a bunch of kids because we have the time to do that.”
As the adage goes, it takes a village to raise a child. And the childfree are an important part of that village.
Perhaps not all childfree participate in social reproduction but I’d venture to say that most do. Even childfree people who can’t stand kids participate in social reproduction. If you’re childfree and prefer not to interact with kids, imagine what you might do if you found one kicking the back of your seat on an airplane. Perhaps you’d turn around and tell the child stop. That child has just been informed about a norm in her culture and you’ve just been a participant in the process of social reproduction.
So why does any of this matter? As I say in a recent University of Maine news piece,
“When we talk about families, be it in politics, in the workplace, or in our popular culture, the childfree often get left out of the conversation. Yet the reality is that the childfree do form families just as those with children do. Recognizing that the childfree form families — and how they do so — is an important step toward destigmatizing the choice not to have kids.”
It’s high time we recognize that having a family or “starting a family” is not a privilege limited to parents.