Customized Quarantine

Child-free zones and other innovations in exclusionary living

It may not be the most banal sentence I ever wrote, but the banality was of a very high order. The sentence was "Children represent what society is going to become." I won't hide behind extenuating circumstances. The fact is that two decades ago these words flowed from my pen and were published under my name. Sadly, they failed to achieve oblivion. They were soon chanced upon by the governor of Maryland, Harry Hughes, who recognized a sentiment that he could stand foursquare behind. And, by golly, he didn't care who knew it! The governor incorporated the sentence into his annual State of the State address, taking pains to mention the author by name and adding the sober gloss "He is right."

This moment of searing embarrassment explains in part why I cringe whenever politicians vie with one another in their concern for the nation's children. The last presidential campaign was notable in this regard, with both candidates arguing that grown-ups bear a sacred responsibility to lift burdens from the young. George W. Bush criticized Al Gore for advocating policies that amounted to "a staggering tax increase on the next generation." Al Gore spoke of the need to "free our children from the burdens of the past being put on their shoulders in the future." It would be refreshing to hear someday a frank avowal by a national leader that the real plan is to let future generations deal with vast amounts of the present mess, the way we always have. Americans might even welcome the suggestion that some explicit portion of the unfnished national agenda—tort reform? metric conversion? mag-lev trains?—be deposited in a vault every year, to be opened a generation later.

Pious rhetoric about children won't disappear anytime soon. And yet, oddly, the comment cited by the governor is not quite as banal today as it was when it was written. Indeed, in certain quarters—notably among some people without children, who resent the attention to child-friendly social policies—that sort of nod to the up-and-coming generation has actually become a source of grievance. The ranks of the childless have not yet coalesced into a full-fedged movement, but there are indications that one may soon emerge.

I bumped up against an indication in the street one day. Encountering an acquaintance unseen for years, I sought to fill her in on various doings, and mentioned that someone known to both of us had recently borne twins. The woman looked at me, her face composed into a mask of withering pity. She said, "Why must people breed?"

The basic story line of the evolution of bourgeois family life in the West, as laid out by Philippe Ariès and other historians, is by now familiar. Children were once an economic necessity, and childhood was accordingly invested with little sentiment. In the Middle Ages, Ariès observed in his book Centuries of Childhood (1960),

[Children] immediately went straight into the great community of men, sharing in the work and play of their companions, old and young alike. The movement of collective life carried along in a single torrent all ages and classes, leaving nobody any time for solitude and privacy.

That all began to change with the rise of the middle class, the spread of learning, the decline of infant mortality, and so on—the usual suspects. "Henceforth," Ariès observed, "it was recognized that the child was not ready for life, and that he had to be subjected to a special treatment, a sort of quarantine, before he was allowed to join the adults."

For centuries this quarantine mainly took the form of school. But now, if activists for the rights of the childless have their way, it may acquire far greater scope—the exclusion of children from designated areas of public life. The ranks of the childless used to be an insignifcant force in America. Not any longer. Childless people are today one of the fastest-growing segments of the work force. One woman in five over the age of forty has never given birth to a child, and most of those women never will. By 2005, according to the Census Bureau, the number of households with children will have been overtaken by the number of households consisting of single people or of married couples without children.

Not all these people have a gripe. Many of them do. Their Magna Carta is Elinor Burkett's The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless (2000). Burkett argues that people without children, like her, suffer from the consequences of a kind of affirmative action directed at parents—the time off for "family leave," the on-site day-care centers, the flextime, the tax deduction for dependent children, the tax breaks for child care and college tuition. In the workplace, Burkett says, it is the childless who pick up the slack when a parent, or "breeder," must run off to coach a Little League game or "to watch Susi dance Swan Lake." At shopping malls, she reports, the childless seethe when confronted with the sign PARKING RESERVED FOR EXPECTANT MOTHERS AND PARENTS WITH INFANTS. Don't even bring up the recent suggestion, by Cornel West and Sylvia Ann Hewlett, that parents be allowed to cast an additional vote for each of their dependent children.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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