339. "Childless complainers don't know what they're missing" USA Today (October 23, 2000), page 29A.

Much attention in this campaign has been focused on "working families." Politicians had better take note that one out of three voters are single -- and a fair number plan to stay that way. Many of them are responding to the siren calls of critics who argue that the society is favoring parents over those who are child "free."

These children-are-a-pain critics complain that the government discriminates against those who have no children -- or don't wish to have any. And, the critics complain, corporations indulge parents. For instance, many corporations allow parents to take time off to attend their children's school functions, a privilege not extended to those who have an urgent need to see their shrink, accountant or mistress.

Society at large is said to pester those who are childless by choice, wondering when they will settle down and do the right thing, raising questions even a mother-in-law should not. Adding insult to injury, others' children intrude on the childless' moments of peace by playing noisily and practicing their musical instruments. And, horror, children interrupt singles' quiet time with a glass of Chablis after a long day's labor.

The Betty Friedan of the free-us-from-kids movement is Elinor Burkett, a history professor turned writer. Her book's subtitle says it all: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless. Burkett is roiling about such indignities as workers who must stay late in the office because soccer moms "had" to take off to chauffeur their kids.

Above all, she rails against the monumental transfer of wealth -- "the most massive redistribution of wealth since the War on Poverty" -- that our government arranges by taxing one and all, but then providing numerous services and extra support only to America's mothers and fathers.

Other child-free advocates include Carolyn M. Morell, author of Unwomanly Conduct: The Challenges of Intentional Childlessness, and Jerry Steinberg, "founding non-father" of No Kidding! This is a rapidly growing organization that had merely two chapters five years ago and now counts 53.

And there are the inevitable Web sites, such as Brats!, ChildFree Families and Childless by Choice. Much larger is the American Association for Single People, which might well lend its support to the ideas promulgated by the anti-children crusaders.

One may be tempted to treat this attempt to imitate social movements that address serious social grievances as a poor joke. However, growing work pressures and the high costs of raising children already discourage many people from having children. Middle-class people are getting married later and are having fewer children, as it is.

Any significant decline in the number of children born will send us into the same murky waters that other societies -- especially Japan and Germany -- are beginning to slug through: ever more dependents (as the proportion of old people grows) and ever fewer workers to provide for them.

Indeed, this is one subject on which the anti-child advocates somehow remain silent: Who do they expect to take care of them when they grow old and infirm? Other people's children?

A strong case could be made that we should be doing more to help those with children. We need not wait until we have a child-deficit to go the way of other societies.

France, for example, provided bonuses to encourage couples to have children; it also guaranteed new mothers 16 to 26 weeks of paid maternity leave. The last thing we ought to do is curtail the meager benefits our society does provide parents. Tax deductions and flextime largely constitute a signal that society does consider children essential for its future, for its vitality, for keeping it, well, young.

The main argument for having children in my book is not the societal benefits they yield. As the childless by choice have doubtless heard before, the reason children are recommended -- whether homemade or adopted -- is that most of them turn out to be an unmatchable source of profound joy and deep pride. I write "turn out" because as a father of five, I am fully aware of the sleep-deprived years, the nail-biting over their latest medical report, the trouble they can get into at school (not to mention on the way there and back) and so on and on.

But nothing I know comes close to the shining face of a kid running to the door screaming, "Daddy! Daddy!" and throwing his tiny arms around you. And rarely does one hear a mother take more pride in her achievements than in the finger painting her daughter created or the A's on her latest report card.

True, some children go astray despite the best efforts of their parents, becoming a source of much heartache. But eventually most do straighten out, which can be even more rewarding than having a child who sailed right through life without any detours.

Quite simply, I am sorry for those who swear off children. Babysitting for others and inviting over nephews and cousins do not begin to provide a substitute for what such people miss. They pass through life without a defining, irreplaceable human experience. They would miss much less of life if they never left their hometown and were barred from listening to music and reading books.

Granted, there are some people who are congenitally unsuited to having children, and we all are better off if they do not have any. But one cannot help from feeling sad for those who merely refrain from having children because they consider them "inconvenient." They do not begin to understand what they are giving up.

Amitai Etzioni teaches at George Washington University and is the author of The Spirit of Community. He's also a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

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