If you’ve ever gone walking on any of the millions of trails in any of the myriad state and national natural parks and preserves all over the country, you probably have some indication of what the modern American modular family looks like—husband, wife, and pet(s). ((On the West Coast perhaps more than the East, you might also see a few homosexual couples with pet(s) posing as “families” as well. The common factor: no kids.))
It is increasingly common for Americans to treat their pets like children. In fact, many “parents” will directly tell you that their pets are their only “kids.” Pets apparently fulfill all the longings many people feel to nurture and train a living thing without all the trouble of being responsible for another human being. They’re somewhat less expensive too. An added perk is that if your attachment parenting model spoils your pet beyond all remedy, or it rebels too much against your rules, or if you just plain get tired of taking care of it, you can always “put it to sleep” (that sounds harmless) without any major legal repercussions.
I remember sitting on a bench with some good friends in the Berkeley Hills looking out to Mount Diablo silhouetted in the sun rise, and a huge brood of dogs ran up to us, with a fit-looking couple trailing a little behind. When the couple saw how enthusiastic we were toward their dogs (and how pleased the dogs were with us), they beamed proudly like gratified parents. Apparently, this trend is becoming increasingly common:
Perhaps the most striking thing to come out of [a 2011 Kelton Research survey] is that the pet owners of today seem to blur the lines between children and pet dogs in many ways. For example, 81% of those surveyed consider their dogs to be true family members, equal in status to children. It appears that dogs have become such an important part of the family that 54% of Americans now consider themselves to be “pet parents” rather than “pet owners.”
When I walk around with my four kids, I get mixed reactions. Some people look at me like I am crazy (and here I was thinking that four kids wasn’t really that many). Some have this question in their eyes: “Don’t you know there’s an over-population problem?” If a passing stranger says anything out loud, it is almost the exact same phrase every single time: “You’ve got your hands full, huh?” It’s so predictable that I have almost begun pre-empting it. When I see a person beginning to break through the thin cultural membrane that protects us from social interaction with strangers, I just want to interject, “I’ve got my hands full, huh?” before they’re able to deliver that same line with that same look of jocular pity. It’s rude, I know. So I don’t do it.
But it angers me that so many people view children as some kind of a curse. But let’s be honest. Looking at the kids most people have, I can understand why most people believe that. Most children are demons. But it doesn’t have to be that way. And we won’t survive as a nation if we don’t start raising decent human beings—and a good many of them. In fact, this is generally what I tell people when I hear anything about the “over-population problem”: “You’re right. There is an over-population of idiots, cadgers, cowards, and perverts. That’s why it is doubly important that you and I have kids and try to raise them well.” There have been many recent studies indicating that birth rates may be the most effective means of determining the long-term strength of a nation. If you haven’t seen it, you should watch Demographic Winter for more about how the world is actually suffering from an under-population problem, despite all the claims to the contrary.
And meanwhile, it’s raining cats and dogs. In 2010, in spite of the recession, Americans spent about 55 billion dollars on their pets. The premium pet products industry has seen growth even during the hardest economic times. And the falling birth rate bodes very well for its future. Fewer kids means more pets. It also means more pets that we decide to treat like humans. In other words, the future of the premium pet products industry looks bright. The future of America? Not so much.