Some friends and I are celebrating the good news that one of our company was expecting another child. None of us are the Duggars, and the offspring of the three families combined wouldn’t add up to their number, yet all of us have more than the statistical norm, and happily so.

Swapping stories, we all recounted how our own delight in each pregnancy was not necessarily matched by our boomer parents and in-laws, so much so that for some the phone call home with “the news” was an onerous task rather than a familial whoop, with husband and wife playing hot potato with the phone hoping to avoid holding it when the familiar voice answered.

How strange, we all agreed. That news of grandchildren would not be met with the clan’s pride–with mothers patting daughters and telling them to stop doing dishes given their “condition,” and fathers reaching to the top shelf for cigars and bourbon with slapped backs and pumped arms.

Perhaps in their experience they know better than we of stretched bank accounts, recessions, and lost jobs; of acne, surly teenagers, and crying over first loves; of college expenses, strange experimentations, and odd economic beliefs; of moving to other lands, eating unusual food, and converting to gods of another faith. Perhaps they know the wounds and sadness, fears and terrors, in a way that we do not–yet.

I wonder, though, if they have been captured more than we by the idols of mobility, security, and the lightness of being which passes for our cultural life. The first generation freed by the Pill, perhaps they thought their bodies and lives were there own, and believing that they could control everything perhaps they are rather terrified by the fact that existence is a gift, that life is a miracle, and that we depend for everything, always, in a pattern far beyond our grasp.

It’s so easy to be saccharine about children–all that hope and future stuff. In reality there is a lot of vomit and tears, spelling lessons and screeching violins, thin bank accounts and endless bills. And yet there is household, with all its small sacrifices and forgiveness, bursts of laughter and games, feats of strength and contests of will, and the learning that you do not exist for yourself, but for others.

One conclusion reached that night was that many parents, past and present, seem to think they are raising children who can succeed their own sake rather than who exist also for the common good of household, neighborhood, region . . . . Of course, on the individual model, each child (even one’s own) is a potential threat to the success of the individual, for each takes resources of time and money, diminishing what can be done by and for this one. But this one is not just for themselves, and their good is only attained when they value the good of others.

Somewhere John Paul II writes that children have the right to siblings. I’m not quite sure I agree with the language of rights here, but the point is a good one. Our tendency is to take more, to use more, to demand more, and we see the consequences of this everyday in our unsustainable systems of use. There are those who suggest that the way to prevent the calamity of overuse is to prevent children, to reduce them, but this is, I suggest, quite wrong, for households are places where the “right” of learning how to be human  occurs. And one learns that another person–even when their very existence takes away from what could be yours– is a gift without which you are less. Less is more here, even when more means less.

I’ve written previously on the long task ahead of retrieving a civilizational order which values reality rather than viewing all things as factical items for our whimsical consumption. I suggest there that this may begin with the gift of children and with the slow education of those so deformed by our culture and their own desires that they no longer see the basic generosity of existence.

This is no call to have as many children as biologically possible–children must be reared and not merely spawned, after all–but perhaps it’s worth considering that burdens born make us well.

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R. J. Snell
R. J. Snell lives and gardens (or at least watches his children garden) just outside of Philadelphia in Havertown, a place where Sinatra, baseball games, and cigar smoke waft from his neighbors' porches onto his own. If Philadelphia had colder and longer winters, as this Canadian thinks natural and fitting, it would be almost perfect. The fact that his four children and wife live there (almost) redeems the overly warm weather. He directs the philosophy program at Eastern University, in St. Davids, PA. He also co-directs the Agora Insitute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good, a research center devoted to understanding and sustaining the virtues and institutions of human flourishing. The author of Through a Glass Darkly: Bernard Lonergan and Richard Rorty on Knowing without a God's-Eye View, and the forthcoming (with Steve Cone) Authentic Cosmopolitanism, he writes and teaches on Thomas Aquinas and contemporary Thomism, Bernard Lonergan, natural law, decent life, and the liberal arts.


  1. Given the results in the Iowa Republican caucuses, perhaps Dr. Snell could be adviser to the Santorum campaign.

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