In praise of kids

What do former British Prime Minister Ted Heath, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the recent New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and our Prime Minister Julia Gillard have in common? Yes, they’re all childless.

Now I suspect there’s a former US President to add into that mix, or a Canadian Prime Minister, though I couldn’t think of examples off the top of my head. But my question is this: Does this lack of having any children of your own make it harder for you to be an effective and successful leader?

The politically correct answer, to the surprise of no one, will be ‘no’. If you’re PC enough to be as non-judgmental as possible, refusing to say culture X is better than culture Y, then you’re certainly not going to allow yourself to say that some life experiences are worse or better than others – and by ‘better’ I mean more likely to suit you to make decisions about economic and social policy line-drawing for 22 million others that will have good long-term consequences.

But let’s put aside political correctness – the desire to refrain from accurate descriptions of reality because of some hyper-sympathy our elites happen to feel for the sensibilities of particular groups – and consider whether or not having had children of your own is a drawback, a handicap, to being an effective leader. My suspicion is that it is a handicap, though evidently not an insurmountable one.

How do I come to that view? Well, one might start on this question by looking at the above examples I gave. Two are on the right of the political spectrum, and two on the left. I happen to think that Ted Heath was one of the worst British Prime Ministers of the last century. Merkel, by contrast, has done better than that, but she’s certainly flailing about now.

As for Helen Clark, only a committed New Zealand Labour Party adherent could say her three term government did well on the economy. Productivity went down. Government spending as a percentage of GDP went up, and in fact it went up to Swedish levels. The gap with Australia increased throughout her entire tenure. What she was good at was winning three elections, before losing the fourth. Let’s give her a ‘better than Heath’ score, but do so in the spirit of John Cleese who was wont to say ‘that’s high praise indeed’.

Of course that’s far too small a selection sample for us to say anything conclusive. So let’s consider what having children tends to bring to the table. First off, on balance, and after accounting for some of the parents out there who seem to live through the success of their kids, parenthood brings humility; it cuts down on the scope for a bloated ego – though any half-decent marriage does the same.

On top of that most people who’ve had children change their minds on the relative weighting of nature versus nurture. They see that a lot more is hard-wired into individuals than they might otherwise have thought.  This has an effect. It can alter one’s confidence in the ability of institutions to reshape people as much as proponents of this policy or that might claim.

Then there’s altruism and sacrifice. I’m a strong believer in evolutionary theory, so I would say what I’m about to say, but I don’t think anyone can feel as much altruism for anyone as one feels for his or her kids. Now how might that manifest itself in terms of social policy? Well, take schools. Once you’ve had your own kids it’s a lot, lot harder to ignore the widespread desire out there people have to get their kids into the best schools going.

Take independent schools. Australia has a thriving independent schools sector, not least because it delivers the goods. Ideologues on the left tend to be instinctively opposed to this sector, or at least they do until they’ve had their own kids. Just look at all those former Labour politicians in the UK who when push came to shove ignored left-wing ideology and put their own kids into private schools.

Is that hypocritical? Yes. But if you ask me I would prefer the person who sacrifices his or her ideology before he or she sacrifices the kids. And the hypocrisy is much diminished if it leads you to rethink your position on these schools. I doubt anything other than having to decide where to send their own kids could make some of these people reconsider the issue of schooling.

Or take welfare. Having your own kids can open your eyes to the need, on occasion, for ‘tough love’. Anyone will tell you that Clinton-style welfare reform is expensive, not cheap. But the end goal is to improve the lives of most or many of those currently on welfare; you force them to get on the bottom rung of the work ladder (even if at that rung they’re not noticeably materially better off) because in the longer term so many other good consequences flow from having a job, and self-esteem, and the chance to move up.

Having your own kids, and trying to bring them up as best you can, is an advantage, I think, in tempering the inclination to see the world in moral abstractions.

Now none of that is in any way at all decisive. There are lots of other life experiences – running your own business, plenty of overseas travel, working with volunteers (which of course is more likely for a parent as it happens) – that also add to the chances of someone being an effective leader.

And the absence of any or all of those does not make it impossible for someone to be effective and successful. It just reduces the odds, at least in my view.

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