Keeping Mum

Dita De Boni looks at the trials and tribulations of being a parent.

Empathy and breeders and politicians

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Does having children make people more empathetic? Photo / Supplied
Does having children make people more empathetic? Photo / Supplied

Do parents, as a tribe, have more empathy in general than the childless (or child-free, if that's less emotive a term?)

It's a thought that's whirled around my head since I read the column of my esteemed colleague, Deborah Hill Cone, recently, in which she says the following (the last part of her column about Julia Gillard, Australia's current PM who does not have kids):

"I believe you need to have children to understand what life is like for most people and what their concerns are ... It is only since having children that I understand the concept of community and feel like being part of it. I feel an obligation to care for everyone's kids, not just my own. Frankly, I find it hard to take parenting advice - and isn't that a big part of what the Prime Minister in a welfare state does? - from someone who doesn't know what it is like to sit up all night with a sick child.

"When you have children you become capable of thinking about someone other than yourself. Sure, this might happen to people without children, too. I'm just not convinced."

A big call on Deb's part, especially in times when more and more people, whether through choice or fertility issues, are remaining childless.

In fact, a story in this week's Herald alludes to precisely that - the largest number of households will very soon consist of couples without children.

Granted, this is mainly down to the number of "empty nesters". But that can't account for the entire group of adult-only households, which is expected to almost double by the year 2031.

We tend to follow offshore trends, and to this end, US statistics have some bearing.

A study reported on Slate.com, from America's Pew Research Center, shows that the number of women who are opting to go child-free has doubled since 1976, growing from 10 per cent of the population to today's 18 per cent.

Before anyone chimes in in exasperation, yes, it's a given that people should choose the life they want to lead, and certainly there are very convincing arguments, in my opinion, suggesting that women should not be forced to become mothers when they don't want to. The entire pro-choice abortion stance is based on this premise.

However, what Deb was suggesting was that perhaps people who had not raised children did not have the requisite life experience to be decision-making politicians in a so-called "welfare state", which, she maintains, doles out parenting advice on a regular basis.

They do not, she says, tend to think about those other than themselves.

Inflammatory, much? I wracked my brains to see if child raising had made me more empathetic.

Possibly I like children much more than I ever did, but that's largely because I had no contact with them, really, before I had my own, something that can't be said for many single people.

Empathy should be something that people have wired into them, whether or not they have children. I concluded that empathy is something shown, demonstrated or taught in your home environment and hopefully enhanced as you mature. Empathy towards family life is certainly enhanced by the act of raising children (not just having them, mind you).

But the situation that taught me the most about really caring for others was trying to console and nurse someone who was dying. Because the act of showing love to a child is showing love to yourself - a child is a piece of yourself. The act of caring for someone that isn't your child, and doesn't have the pay-off of ensuring your genes survive another generation, is in many ways a more selfless act that thousands of Kiwis do, and one that requires even more forbearance.

So what does this all mean for our politicians?

While Helen Clark did not have children of her own, she certainly wanted to see children from lower socios succeed, although you may disagree with her methods. Julia Gillard has yet to prove herself.

Was Jenny Shipley, mum of two, particularly empathetic - or Jim Bolger, father of nine? John Key has had children, but did he necessarily stay up all night with his kids when they were sick, or was he too busy globe trotting and making people redundant?

In short, Deb is right about wanting to have politicians who understand the concerns of most people. Too right.

But I think she is wide of the mark in suggesting only parents have this vital bit of insight.

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