Via Getty

Welcome to Ban Week, in which Splinter writers will build a case for burning it all down.

There is something deeply and fundamentally wrong with the way our society raises children. In the current state of things, children are reared, fed, taught, and disciplined by adults who may or may not be good parents, and who, in nearly all cases, have a great deal of external obligations and emotional needs that take them away from the work of parenting. These adults have unequal access to key resources—such as wealth, income, time, housing, and education—which tend to be reproduced in the children under their supervision. Opportunity and success is largely decided by who your parents are, by whether or not you even have them. Growing up in this country is governed by a lottery system we call the nuclear family.

The nuclear family is an ideology that has largely evaded public debate because it is so thoroughly embedded in our lives. Few scholars or policy experts bother to defend it, at least as an ideal way of life, because its appeal is largely taken for granted. At the same time, the nuclear family is so intrinsically particular—you can belong to only one—that every family is treated as immune to critique: “How dare you criticize my family! I love my family!”

All of this leaves the deep and unmistakable impression that nothing will ever change. “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world,” the philosopher Nina Power wrote eight years ago, “than it is to imagine the death of the nuclear family.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. We could raise children collectively, by people whose full-time occupation is parenting. We could raise children in groups of ten, so that no child would be an only child or ever lack for friendship. We could give every child—regardless of disability, race, ethnicity, or gender—a safe and happy upbringing.

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To do this, we could also establish facilities far away from cities, in the wilderness, where children could be raised in peace, with enough space to do anything they want. Cities are not designed for kids, at least not under the modern parenting system: Anyone who’s ever watched a hapless parent maneuver a stroller through a subway station, or witnessed the residents of a wealthy neighborhood resist school integration, or listened to a family brag about uprooting their lives to get their children into a better city school has understood something about the fate of children in hyper-competitive metropolises. Besides, much of what makes a city great—including the sense of tolerance that develops among those raised within a diverse population—could be replicated in these groups of kids. 

By collectivizing the process of raising children, we could make real headway in dismantling society’s inequality, too. By abandoning the idea of familial generations, we could eradicate the intergenerational transmission of wealth, through which the historical legacy of slavery persists to this day. We could ensure that every single child is multiracial—and, eventually, eradicate the idea of race itself. By building a society around the needs of women, by guaranteeing that no woman would ever have to choose between her career and her family, we could witness gender equality in our children’s lifetimes.

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All of this would require radical changes to society. The regulation of human reproduction would entail requiring contraception for the vast majority of the population. The government would need to employ people whose full-time job is raising children. Finally, this system would need an application process for women who do want to bear children—to ensure, at the very least, the basic ability to carry to term—and the funds to pay them enough money so that they don’t have to work elsewhere.

What exactly would this look like? For starters, we would pay women who bear children a salary commensurate with the physical and emotional toll of pregnancy and birth. So at least a hundred thousand dollars per year. Bearing children would be less of an occupation and more of a tour of duty lasting a few years, like the Peace Corps or City Year. While these women would be free to do what they want while pregnant, their salary would be designed to ensure that they felt no pressure to work for income. And, because of this income, they would be much better equipped for working or studying, during or after their tenure.

To ensure diversity, the government would have to limit the number of children any particular woman would bear. The same principle would apply to the collection of sperm samples from the male population, whose members would also have to apply to donate their sperm and be paid (albeit significantly less than women) for the trouble of doing so. The fertilization process would employ in vitro fertilization with a woman’s own eggs, a technique with a greater chance of success than intra-uterine insemination. (And there would be no point in using a different woman’s eggs.)

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This system would require compulsory—but reversible—surgical sterilization of the rest of the populace. Right now, that would mean vasectomy for men and tubal ligation for women. But it may be possible, in the future, to ensure a similar degree of sterilization by adulterating the water supply with contraceptive drugs. Same for the entire process of pregnancy. Bioethicists are already exploring the implications of artificial wombs, known as biobags, that would eliminate the need for women to bear children with their own bodies.

Some or all of this might sound terrifying. Which is fair. At the same time, nearly all of these things exist in some way already. The government already pays people to raise children, via a voucher that parents with low incomes can use to pay for child care (not to mention through the foster care system). There are women, known as surrogates, who are paid to bear children. Wealthy households already employ full-time caretakers for their children. And there are other forms of medicine mandated by the government, including water fluoridation and infant vaccines, that are aimed at increasing the health not just of individuals, but of larger society.

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There is some discomfort in the idea that a woman paid to bear a child would not have a special relationship with that child. But even the most conservative family-values advocates in our society tolerate this scenario when it comes to adoption. The difference is that, under the new system, no woman would be separated from her biological child without her explicit consent, because that child would not be conceived in the first place.

The trickiest aspect of banning parents would be in the present: What do you do with parents who have children, right now? The best solution seems to be a gradual transition, during which a greater and greater percentage of the population is required to be sterilized, and a greater and greater percentage of children are raised collectively. But, again, we already witness a form of this right now: Some children have two parents (or three or four, in the case of step-parents) while some children have none at all. In this sense, banning parents is a way to distribute a particular resource—good parenting—in as equitable a way as possible.

Our current system has failed, catastrophically, to ensure that every child is raised in safety and comfort. So the burden of proof here is not on those who resist the current parenting regime, which has hurt millions of children and fueled an arsenal of destructive social policies. The burden of proof is on the society that chooses to enforce it. The burden of proof is on you and me and everyone we know.

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Like any institution, the nuclear family is inherently resistant to change. But it is not impervious. We have vocabularies for the death of capitalism, the eradication of racism, and the end of war. It is past time to forge the tools with which we might come to understand the nuclear unit, and realize a world without it. This is only the beginning.

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