This light little essay on pets as child substitutes is included here as a way of bringing forth for examination certain taken-for-granted ideas about what, in adult terms, children are ‘for’. The sociological significance of this essay should not be exaggerated. Waksler is a fiction writer, not a scientist, and his work can be read as an entertainment. For our purposes here, however, his essay also enables us to raise a number of significant issues.
The very idea that children are ‘for’ something challenges taken-for-granted beliefs. To ask adults why they want children can be viewed as posing a foolish question, for it is commonly assumed that people indeed do want children and that those who do not want to have children are somehow either deprived or peculiar. The extensive medical energies devoted to making the infertile fertile testifies to the cultural support for the desire for children. If called upon to account for their desire for children, adults are able to draw on the culture of which they are a part, providing such commonsense answers as ‘because I love children’, ‘to be fulfilled’, ‘to carry on the family name’. Those who do not want children have no such readily available accounts. Waksler challenges the view that having children is normal and having pets is some kind of displacement or weak substitute. In presenting such an idea, he reformulates the notion of what a pet is and is for and makes it possible to rethink the notion of what a child is and is for.
The truthfulness of Waksler’s picture of pets is clearly not at issue here. What his portrayal can do is direct us to questions about the idealized view of children—a view that pervades not only the popular but also the social science literature. What family functions do children in fact serve? What do they do? What are they good for? What is the role of parental expectations? Do such expectations benefit children? adults? both? neither? If people can be said to have children in the same way that they are said to have pets, to whom do children belong? Do they indeed belong to their parents?
This essay originally appeared in The Cambridge Express, Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 7, 1983. Daniel D. Savage, Editor and Publisher.