THR Web Features   /   November 19, 2013

Have Children Become the New Opium of the Masses?

Jay Tolson

Rory Stewart's book on his trek across Afghanistan

Rory Stewart may have been born with the advantages of Scottish aristocracy, but he has packed a lot of life into his mere 40 years.  A former soldier and diplomat, a fearless trekker, and a versatile author (The Places Between, The Prince of the Marshes, Can Intervention Work?),  he is now a Conservative MP representing a constituency in northern England.  Such accomplishments add sting to a scolding little piece he wrote for The Economist's Intelligent Life magazine.  Without going to any pains to prove it, Stewart charges that while previous ages valued honor, glory,  heroic achievements, or an active public life, ours is "the first civilization to find its deepest fulfillment in its descendants.  Our opium," he adds, "is our children."

Rory Stewart's book on his trek across Afghanistan

For Stewart, a relentless focus on our offspring bespeaks a numbers of failings, including a lack of ambition, a disregard for our communities and their other vulnerable members (namely the elderly), and a general failure of the imagination:

People who might once have been public figures, deeply invested in their work, are instead busy serving their children. Ours is a culture not of ancestor worship but of descendant worship. Children must sense that nothing an adult does is more important than their own desires. All political questions seem to come down to the interests of "the next generation".

Though lacking argument or compelling evidence, Stewart's assertive squib probably belongs in the "useful provocation" category.  It has elicited a wide response in the British press, including here  and here.  In this country, at least among those I know who have read it or even heard about it, it also seems to touch a raw nerve.

And well it should.  Judging by the evidence collected by the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (IASC) in its recent Culture of American Families Survey,  many American parents do appear to have a curious emotional dependency on their own children.  "Almost three-quarters of today’s parents of school-age children (72 percent) agree that they eventually want to be their children’s best friends; only 17 percent disagree," writes Carl Bowman, the IASC's Director of Survey Research, in his essay  in the current issue of  The Hedgehog Review.  Bowman goes on to explain the cultural fragility that seems to drive this need:

Indeed, the adult world has become so fragile that parents who seek to be eventual “best friends” with their children may be making an unspoken bid for a return on their years of relational and monetary investment. The return they seek is nothing more than an emotional anchor of connection, assurance they are not being set aside or rendered irrelevant by their children in the same way they might be at work or in other socially limited relationships. In an age when “Father” and “Mother” no longer carry the intrinsic authority and respect accorded in a bygone age, “best friends” may be parents’ best attempt at sustaining something meaningful and enduring.

Whether symptom or contributing cause of a broader cultural malaise, this focus on offspring certainly goes along with the growing privatization of society, as connections among colleagues, neighbors, and fellow citizens weaken and the nuclear family becomes the last haven in a heartless world.