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From time immemorial, the human race has obeyed the biological imperative. Societies traditionally channeled much of their energy into reproducing themselves. Until now. Parenthood is falling into obsolescence, to be replaced by such simulacra as dog parenthood, cat parenthood, and plant parenthood (not to be confused, of course, with Planned Parenthood). About one out of every two dating profiles features the words “dog mom,” “dog mama,” or some variant thereof. Millennials spend lavishly on dogs. They live for dogs, talk about dogs, think about dogs — everything short of worshipping them.
Why is this happening? The usual explanation takes the form of economic determinism. Raising children is costly. “Raising” a dog is less costly. Lacking money, the argument goes, Millennials “raise” dogs instead of children. This may be part of the explanation, but not the complete one. Something else is happening — something more insidious, and something likely to stand in the way of parenting even if all financial burdens were lifted by a benevolent state. No, Millennials fear a different kind of burden, I think. Here’s my theory:
Millennials prefer dogs to children because dogs, unlike children, require no moral formation. A dog never asks the question, “Why?” A dog obeys no code of ethics, and thus a dog cannot rebel. Yes, a dog’s owner might say, “You’re such a good boy!” out of a sense of anthropomorphizing affection, but what she means is, “My Pavlovian conditioning has worked wonders!” She is not praising the dog’s goodness, since a dog can have no goodness — only dogness, which may be pleasant or beneficial to humans in one way or another, but which occupies its own spot in the moral universe. Dogs do not experience angst or ennui. A dog will not wake up one morning, dye its fur blue, announce its intention to identify as “they,” and join the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Instead, a dog concerns itself with more pressing matters, such as the chewiness of this or that rubber bone or the tastiness of this or that mailman.
A dog, in other words, offers a would-be parent the opportunity to dote without the existential burdens of parenting. It offers the ice cream without the salad. A dog is what it is, and an owner’s duties to it are clear and universally acknowledged. Take it on walks, feed it regularly, scoop up its droppings, toss some fake femurs into the near distance, and you shall be rewarded with the unconditional affection which is a dog’s nature.
Eons ago, far back in the mists of time, children were more like dogs. They had a nature, and society recognized certain duties concomitant with that nature. Much has changed. Man is now whatever man decides to be. Ours is the age of the existential hero. It is up to us, and to our children, to define our “own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” as Anthony Kennedy once said. And for an increasing number, that concept of meaning no longer includes parenthood. Society has fractured into ten-thousand subcultures, each with its own code of conduct and its own substantive conception of the human person, and all are knit together by the ethic of nonjudgmentalism. Rules, structures, guidance — these things are to be avoided, or even shamed, in the public square. As families grow ever smaller, fewer and fewer of us spend any real time around children, and fewer and fewer of us, therefore, have the innate knowledge of how to relate to children that our ancestors took for granted. It is easy to do something when everyone else is doing it, too. When everybody is marrying and everybody is having kids, marrying and having kids is easy enough. When nobody is marrying or having kids, marrying and having kids becomes a Herculean task.
If she does decide to raise children, the new parent is immediately confronted with the awesome responsibility involved. What kind of man do I want my son to be? What kind of woman do I want my daughter to be? What things are good and bad? What should I forbid and permit? What kind of culture should I expose my child to? How do I answer his pesky questions? All difficult. Too difficult. My head hurts! I think I’ll play fetch instead.Published in