The midterm election was almost two months ago, but some of us have yet to recover. Not from the results—simply from the experience of voting. Before we become embroiled in analysis of the ills of the current voting practices, let me clarify that I refer only to standing in an hour-long line with young children.
The line looked daunting, but it was moving. Thirty minutes in, we finally entered the snaking body of the queue and realized we’d woefully underestimated. But at that point, abandoning seemed foolish. The next polling place might be just as bad!
Amid all the drama of the voting line, a man ahead of us described for his neighbor the culture of his wife’s native Brazil, in which, according to him, there was a high degree of honor conferred on mothers with young children and the elderly. In a line, mothers with young children and the elderly would be given first place, and in waiting rooms they were ushered ahead of everyone else. That sounded fabulous right around the time the toddler started bellowing for more snacks and the infant in the next segment of the line began protesting the confines of his stroller.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
In many ways, such a system makes practical sense for everyone involved. Children stuck in long lines and waiting rooms cannot expend energy in an age-appropriate manner and are prone to agitation. The mothers would be relieved of the misery of trying to corral kids where they are not wanted, and everyone else in line or in the waiting room, by letting them go first, would not have to endure the rambunctious displays.
Preferential treatment like cutting in line sounds very attractive, until you consider our culture. We now live in a social context that accepts the hatred and ridicule of children. Imagine the outrage if mothers with young children received special treatment. The callous outlook of many is that childbearing is a choice simpliciter. Therefore, whatever consequences and unpleasant line-waiting occur after bringing a child into the world are the fault of the parents who were foolish enough to produce the parasitic offspring.
That may sound hyperbolic, but, unfortunately, it’s only a minor exaggeration to say that our culture hates children. There is a growing childfree movement comprised of people who intentionally choose never to welcome children. The impetus for avoiding children is not usually outright hatred of youth, though that is sometimes the stated reason. Rather, people mistakenly see their own laziness and selfishness as very important aspects of their person that are worthy of protection and cultivation.
You see, having children is difficult work. Living with children requires the continual exercise of patience and growth in many other virtues in the effort to maintain order and invite the child into civilized life. People in the childfree movement will tell you with a straight face that they really like living in a clean house and having a lot of time to themselves to pursue their hobbies. These are the trivial and short-sighted reasons that many people have for thinking it’s just not worth having children.
So far, we’ve only discussed the possibility of allowing parents with young children to skip the voting line; we haven’t even gotten to anything radical like Demeny voting, a system in which parents are given a proxy vote for every child underage in their care. No, the hostility of most people toward children would make something as simple as waiting a shorter amount of time seem intolerably unjust. Granting parents more significant privileges for their willingness to sacrifice and contribute to future generations would be unthinkable.
In other words, sweeping societal change is not going to happen. In the meantime, there are still many young families overwhelmed by the weighty moral responsibility of caring for children and the financial burden of doing so in an economy increasingly catering to self-satisfied adults who see their primary object in life as their own gratification. It can be rather bleak.
However, just because society isn’t going to roll out the red carpet for those who have children, that does not mean that individuals cannot make gestures of support that make a difference. Acknowledging the cute and interesting things that small children do is a huge help. There is so much societal emphasis on how “bad” kids are that stating something positive is a breath of fresh air. Small acts of assistance, like putting a grocery cart away or entertaining a child on a long flight, can alleviate tremendous parental stress.
Building a relationship with families with young children is even more meaningful: sharing a meal, even if the kids might make a mess; offering to watch young children for a few hours (a great help in a time and place in which constant supervision is the only socially acceptable mode of parenting); bringing meals to a family who had a baby, even months after the baby was born.
Whether or not these small acts of service dramatically change the day-to-day reality of having children in a society that does not support families is beside the point. By demonstrating preferential treatment for families, we can momentarily remove the isolating stress of nurturing the next generation in a time when many people do not see any reason to try.
The fact that there are people who hate children and think you are a fool for having them is a lot easier to bear if your next-door neighbors talk to your kids and occasionally drop off a loaf of banana bread. A society headed into a demographic winter will not suddenly be remade to welcome families with young children, but we can each individually commit to acts of service that show families they are appreciated.
And there is hope! However much the intentionally-childless, purple-haired people may scowl at you in line to vote, the joke is on them: Demeny voting or not, 18 years from now, all these babies will be voting.