“You’re selfish!” Childfree Myth, Busted

“The choice to not have children is selfish.” -Pope Francis

“Way to rationalize your own narcissistic, ‘it’s all about me’ attitude.” -Anonymous comment, which was later deleted, in response to Amy’s OpEd, Setting the Record Straight on Six Myths about Childless Adults

In some ways, as one anonymous commenter suggested in response to an OpEd I wrote tackling the most common myths about childfree adults, the reasons we childfree provide for our choice are a rationalization of our attitudes. But our “rationalizations” – like that we don’t want to contribute further to overpopulation or that we value our intimate relationships too much to add additional parties to the mix or that we feel we can make a more significant impact on the world in other ways – are usually provided with the aim of deflecting criticism, not drawing it.

And the biggest criticism lodged against us? We’re selfish.

This myth has always struck me as odd for two reasons.

On the one hand, who isn’t selfish? Ask any parent why they decided to have children and chances are that at least some portion of their rationale will have to do with the life they envisioned for themselves. Perhaps they like the idea of having a busy and bustling home. Maybe they can’t image Christmas mornings without the pitter patter of tiny (human) feet. Or they might be counting on children to take care of them in their old age. All of these reasons place parents’ interests ahead of children’s (and the rest of the world’s) needs.

Also, semantics aside, we know from social science research that the childfree are engaged in their communities, that we’re gainfully – and often well – employed, and that our reasons for not having kids include a combination of personal and altruistic motivations. Sounds selfish, right? 😉

Why {not} Have Kids?


There are a host of reasons people choose not to have kids, just as there are a host of reasons people have them. In our cultural imagination, people have children to fulfill their destinies as humans (especially if they’re women), to carry on the species, for the good of our world, because their child might be the one cure cancer, or because  their god decreed it.

But research shows that, in reality, people have kids for a much different set of reasons. One study asking a sample of young, unmarried college graduates about why they wanted to become parents found that “the majority of respondents seem most concerned about themselves.” These respondents reported that they were interested in having children because they thought it would be personally fulfilling, they wanted to have a little person like themselves, they thought they’d benefit from it, they wanted someone to love, and that it would give them something to do.

In another study, women expressed that they have children to relieve themselves of a difficult personal situation or household setting and for the emotional connection and relational intimacy that parenthood might provide. In another, men said they had kids after becoming disillusioned with their careers, seeking the intrinsic rewards they believe parenthood will provide.

Thus in some cases, people are drawn to parenthood by internal or individual motives – personal fulfillment, emotional connection, interest in changing household arrangements. In other cases, parenthood’s appeal rests in external or cultural factors – a change in the economy or fewer opportunities in the workforce.

Just as the reasons for parenthood are a mix of individual and cultural/societal motivations, so too are the reasons for non-parenthood. Culturally, researchers point to concern about the environment, concern about the current state of world affairs, and concern for the children that are already here as factors driving non-parenthood. But we know that people also have their own personal motives for remaining childfree. Some of the more common personal reasons people cite for not having kids include a desire for autonomy, spontaneity, and interest in nurturing relationships with partners and other adults in one’s life.

In the case of both parents and the childfree, personal fulfillment and an interest in nurturing meaningful relationships are at the top of the list of reasons for their chosen path. If we accept that the childfree are selfish for their choice, we must accept the same of parents. Or we can reject it in both cases. In either case, it doesn’t make sense to ascribe selfishness to one group but not the other when both groups are making their choice for the same set of reasons.

Parent or Not, Selfish is as Selfish Does

Reasons for our choices aside, some argue that the childfree are more selfish than parents in their everyday lives and behaviors. Though claims about childfree people’s seflishness are common, sociologist Robert Reed points out that “no existing empirical studies have compared parents and nonparents on selfishness.” While this is true, there are studies that tell us what the everyday lives of childfree people look like and these findings can help us assess the extent to which our behavior is selfish.

One measure that might be used to assess selfishness is the extent to which a person contributes to the well-being of others, through volunteerism or other forms of civic engagement. In a survey that a student of mine conducted of over 700 childfree women and men, one third of respondents reported being actively involved in civic life. These respondents were involved in a variety of organizations and efforts including animal welfare groups, human rights and environmental organizations, volunteer and charity groups, hobby and sports clubs, and political and religious groups.

Research examining non-parents in older age finds that while the support networks that non-parents rely on may be somewhat weaker than those of parents, the support they offer their communities may be stronger. Older adults without children have been found to be as likely to perform volunteer work as parents but more intensely involved in this workmore socially active, and as likely as parents to sustain close friendships. If we assume that selfish people are those who are inactive in their communities and maintain few friendships, we cannot assume that the childfree fall into this category.

Even if selfishness is measured extremely narrowly as lacking interest in children’s well-being, the childfree cannot be cast in this light. My own research shows that childfree adults serve as mentors and friends to children and work with them as teachers, social workers, doctors, and counselors. The essays in Megham Daum’s edited volume Selfish, Shallow, and Self Absorbed further attest that childfree people invest significant emotional and other resources advocating for children’s well-being.

Busting the Myth of Selfishness

Are we, the childfree, selfish sometimes? Sure, who isn’t? Is it a characteristic that is particular to us? Not at all. Yet the myth that childfree people are selfish continues to live on; and it takes its toll on those who face it.

Amanda, a media strategist in her mid 30’s, recounted the impact this stereotype:

It’s not terrible, the single comments people make, but it adds up to like a thousand paper cuts. A lot of people in my life make comments to me about being selfish and I don’t feel it’s appropriate to lash out to each of them and set them straight because in their head they are making a pretty harmless comment, which considered individually is pretty harmless. But it’s the fact that everyone is making them. It’s a thousand paper cuts.

Angela, a professor in her early 40’s, said she is sometimes treated like “a pariah” for not having kids. She went on to say,

Some people think I’m broken or selfish or weird or counter- I don’t know -traditional. Not having kids has definitely well established me as “the other.” I am well aware that many people stereotype me as a childfree person.

As a childfree couple, Lance and I are also sensitive to the myth that we’re selfish. At the same time, we make no claim to be saints. In some ways, challenging the myth of selfishness forces us into the position of having to pretend that we’re perfect. And no person – childfree or parent – can safely make that claim.

Rather than suggesting that one group is selfish and that another is selfless, I think it would be wiser for us to consider the broader contexts and patterns of people’s lives. If we examine how the childfree live and why they’ve made the choice to not have children, we quickly discover that our lives and motivations are not so different from those who choose the path toward parenthood. We’re all human and none of us can claim exclusive rights to the selfish label.

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2 Responses to “You’re selfish!” Childfree Myth, Busted

  1. Joan Philips April 27, 2017 at 12:05 pm #

    Not having kids can be done for selfish or non-selfish reasons. Having kids is ALWAYS done for a selfish reason. There simply is no non-selfish reason for producing a brand-new human being that happens to carry your genes.
    Procreation at this point in history is NOT helping to carry on the human race. Since there’s so many of us, creating another person is actually more likely to cause our extinction than not creating another person. You may think that your own child will cure cancer (because YOUR genes are so awesome), but if you gave the money that you would have spent raising your child and gave it to a good college fund, you could help many children who have the potential to cure cancer but not the means, and the chances of finding a cure for cancer would be far greater.
    This article was far too kind to the self-centered breeders out there. Couples who are willing to forego having kids are saints!

  2. Tricia April 25, 2017 at 8:23 am #

    I guess I’ve been lucky, because no one has ever referred to me as selfish for being childfree. However, reading about other people’s experience with this infuriates me. Are these people so oblivious not to realize that their decision to HAVE children is inherently selfish?? As you pointed out, if you ask them why they had kids they would most likely say it’s because they “wanted” something – love, family, joy, fun, etc. We are all selfish in different ways, it’s part of the human condition. I hope I continue to be treated respectfully regarding my decision to remain childfree, but if I do encounter the accusation of selfishness, I feel prepared to counter that in a number of ways.

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