Won’t Someone Think of the Children?

Andrea Leadsom’s suggestion that being a mother made her a better candidate for being a leader than Theresa May, because it gave her a stake in the future that May lacked, seems to have sunk her leadership bid. The horrified responses to her remarks were motivated in important part by the observation that Leadsom was trading on the common sexist belief that it is somehow unnatural or perverse for women (but not men) to be childless. But might Leadsom have had a point? What do we actually know about how having children affects parents’ political engagement and orientation?

Parents are today bombarded with the message that the world in which their children grow up is likely to be a more dangerous place; one in which lifespans may fall for the first time in more than a hundred years. This message could affect their political views, as parents, in a number of ways. Consider two recent reports that have implications for parents that might differ from the implications for non-parents.

The first was the report that levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide have now passed 400 parts per million; a clear sign that we are failing to address what is perhaps the biggest threat to humanity today. Coupled with evidence that the world is warming faster than expected, and the record run of warm temperatures (due, admittedly, in part to natural variability), the evidence is mounting that the threat is not just to future generations, but to children already born.

The second report was the news that a strain of E Coli had been identified in a human patient that was resistant to Colistin, an antibiotic of last resort. This may be a sign that the age of antibiotics is coming to an end. We may find ourselves in a world in which minor operations are extremely risky, pneumonia kills the elderly and every small infection might turn deadly.

Perhaps these fears are overblown. Nevertheless, there is plenty to worry about. How do parents cope with the news that the world their children will inherit may be more inhospitable than today? How does this news affect their attitudes toward climate change, for example?

There are pressures in different directions. Anxiety about the issues might increase engagement and activism. As Leadsom suggested, parents may be motivated to work for a better world, because they now feel they have a personal stake in the world beyond their own limited lifespans. On the other hand, they might become more selfish, on the grounds that their actions are not going to make any perceptible difference by themselves on the large problem, but they can have an effect on ensuring that their children are buffered from its worst effects.

The limited evidence there is seems to support the second interpretation better than the first. New mothers report a greater concern about environmental issues, but they frame this as concern specifically about their child’s welfare, and when there is a conflict between that welfare (as they perceive it) and the environment, they choose the child’s welfare. Their energy usage goes up substantially.

Both the responses just outlined are broadly rational ways of reacting. But there is a third way, one that is less rational. A conflict between their obligations and cares as parents and the bad news can be expected to induce cognitive dissonance, and cognitive dissonance can have powerful effects on beliefs. One way to resolve the dissonance would be to reject the news. Being broadly rational animals, people would find that hard to do by themselves. But when they are provided by a structure to support them – contrarian blogs, Fox News, and so on – their dissonance might lead them to attend selectively and thereby bring about belief revision.

Parents have always faced this kind of cognitive dissonance to some extent. Bringing a child into the world is exposing it to risk and threats, and parenting may require some degree of selective attention or even self-deception. For the first time in a century or more, though, parents in the developed world face the prospect of raising a generation who will face greater threats then they had to reckon with. Mechanisms of cognitive dissonance may be at work preventing us from addressing these challenges. To that extent, having the special stake in the future that comes from having children may make politicians less well suited for high office.

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