Core Philosophy

Why Have Children?

Written by Dr. Matt Bateman on May 3, 2022

Originally published on the Higher Ground Education Substack Feed

To be in the profession of educating children is also to be in the profession of working with parents.

This is not an incidental fact about education. Children come from parents, of course, and children have a near-continuous need for contact with caretakers, which is typically and by default the parents’ responsibility. Parents choose us (or do not choose us) for reasons, reasons that have to do with their aspirations for their children and even their reasons for having children in the first place. Our ability to educate children hinges entirely on our ability to engage continuously with those aspirations and reasons. Parents are partially delegating to us the upbringing of their child—an inherently serious, complicated, fragile decision that demands of us that we fully understand their reasons.

Here I want to explore that root question a bit: Why be a parent? Why have a child?

Despite being a hyper-cerebral, overly intellectual person, this question is not natural to me. The desire to be a parent has always been one of the most stable features of my psychology. I’ve wanted a child since I was a child. Even before my daughter was born, I had a tendency to shower the children of others with attention and adoration.

So I never really asked myself why I wanted a child; the question just seemed unnecessary. But as my soon-to-be daughter was approaching term a few years ago, it started to come up more in conversation. (As any new parent knows, people are not shy about offering you unsolicited advice and theories.)

Here are some of the things people told me about how to think about the question “why have children?”:

  • The desire to have children seems to stem from a deep, pre-rational place. So asking “why”, asking for a reason, doesn’t really work.
  • The question isn’t why have children, but why one wouldn’t have them. Having children is the default, as an inherent part of life.
  • Asking “why have children” implicitly assumes that you’re doing a sort of cost-benefit analysis. But that doesn’t make sense; having children isn’t about benefitting you; the intrinsic costs of children outweigh any personal benefit.

The general tenor was that one should be suspicious of the question “why have children”; it’s not the sort of thing that one can think about in this way.

I was suspicious of these suspicions. And the more I thought about it, the more reasons and benefits I found. The question is pregnant (pun intended): it’s a question that rewards analysis, that reveals a rich personal value with a complex structure:

  • People love children because human development is fascinating and important, because they are serious and playful and adorable, because they learn and grow rapidly, and because each child represents an instance of unspoiled human potential—which means a child can represent what one loves in humans as such.
  • Having children is decidedly not the default. Ideally, it’s a conscious choice. And that ideal is pretty commonly realized nowadays: many people, perhaps even most people, don’t have children until they decide to. Given that having a child is a massive responsibility, that’s not a bad thing.
  • Raising a child is a unique endeavor, one that can be uniquely personally rewarding. In addition to the reasons listed in the first bullet point above, which apply to any child with whom one gets to be acquainted, having one’s own child is an incredible journey.

Knowledge and responsibility are intimately linked, and the unique responsibility demanded by your own child comes with unique knowledge. This knowledge isn’t just of anyone, but of a complex, growing human—one that, due to the mechanisms of heredity, will be interestingly similar to his or her parents, and one that, due to the mechanisms of agency and self-construction, will also be interestingly different.

(All of the above applies to adopted children: parenting, for human beings, is more fundamentally a chosen value than it is a biological phenomenon. And the adopted child, even if not related genetically, is connected to her adoptive parent through powerful epigenetic factors, such as the plasticity and adaptability of the developing human brain.)

Sometimes being asked “why” of a powerfully felt, personal value can seem like an attack—like skepticism is being pointlessly applied to an important part of oneself. But I don’t think of it as an attack. It’s the philosopher’s “why”, the “why” of finding causes, of seeing connections, of understanding that amplifies love. If there’s a whiff of skepticism, it’s skepticism in pursuit of clarity. The counterfactual—what would I be missing out on if I personally did not have children—is more edifying than undermining. (And if it ends up being undermining for some particular person, then so much the better. That there are powerful reasons to have children does not mean these reasons need to be adopted by each person, that they apply equally well to each life.)

Having a child is the sort of thing that can serve as material with which to forge a whole swath of one’s life. It’s as long-term and time-consuming a commitment as any career. It’s complex enough an enterprise to merit an arbitrary amount of thought and study. And it is as spiritually rewarding and reciprocal as any human relationship.

I find this perspective helpful as a parent—and also helpful in interacting with other parents. By and large, our parents made a conscious choice to have children, one that stemmed from a love of general human potential and a specific desire to take responsibility for and get to intimately know their own independently growing humans.

Those are great reasons, and they are reasons with which we can easily interface. We also, of course, have a general love of human potential and a specific desire to take responsibility for and get to intimately know the students in our care.

And even better: we’re positioned to highlight and underscore each parent’s deepest “why”. We are powered by an approach to education that provides tremendous clarity on how to understand, love, and support each child’s potential. Montessori discovered and explicitly named the deep facts about human development that implicitly power the human species’ love of children. By letting parents into the sort of support we give to children, we give them invaluable visibility.