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.

Burkett anticipates the day when the childless, whom activists prefer to call "the childfree," will begin to demonstrate their clout.

The newly empowered childfrees will sow havoc at school board meetings, over both bloated budgets and curricula that don't teach non-reproduction as an "alternative lifestyle." They'll tie "family-friendly" corporations into legal knots with lawsuits alleging that the equal protection clause of the Constitution must be applied to nonreproducers.

Burkett looks forward to child-free sections in restaurants and airplanes and recreational areas, child-free hours in supermarkets and department stores, child-free options in housing. "Few issues send the childless into longer or more ear-splitting tirades," she writes, "than the lack of such 'adult-only' spaces in which they might shop, dine, or swim without being drowned out by wailing infants or rammed into by rambunctious toddlers."

I don't intend to join the growing debate over child-free zones. Understandably, many people deem the idea abhorrent; as the father of three, I confess to finding it all too compelling. But child-free zones are merely the latest instance of a far broader phenomenon—the proliferation of areas designed to be free of some undesirable social characteristic.

There are "smoke-free zones" in public accommodations, "truck-free zones" on residential streets, "campaign-free zones" around polling places, "skateboard-free zones" in parks, "cell-phone-free zones" in restaurants, "alcohol-free zones" in sports arenas. There are "car-free zones," "trailer-free zones," and "pesticide-free zones." Cities and towns have proclaimed themselves "nuclear-free zones," and activists in Aspen, Colorado, once sought to declare their city a "fur-free zone." Moves are afoot to declare schools "commercial-free zones" (to keep advertising away) and to make the human genome an "IP-free zone" (to prevent sequencing data from being claimed as intellectual property).

A portion of Cape Cod has been set aside as a "gull-free zone," and in Maryland officials concerned about an infestation of Cygnus olor have called for the enforcement of "swan-free zones" in the Chesapeake Bay. Mount Everest, littered with garbage left by decades of trekkers, is now a "bottle-free zone." Officials worried about disruptions on campuses and city streets have sought to create "picket-free zones" and "protest-free zones" (confining demonstrators to an Orwellian precinct called a "free-speech zone"). The city council of Cincinnati, still angry with the commissioner of baseball for refusing to lift a lifetime ban imposed on Pete Rose, has proposed turning Cincinnati into a "Bud Selig-free zone." West Hollywood, worried about inhumane traps and nonmedical experiments on animals, is officially a "cruelty-free zone." Attempts have been made to enact "violence-free zones" and "hate-free zones." Peter Yarrow, of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, has mounted a campaign to turn classrooms into "ridicule-free zones."

Some of these exclusionary zones make sense; others are absurd; many are unenforceable. Considered together, though, they suggest the degree to which the idea of customized quarantine has taken hold—the idea that we have at our disposal a diverse array of membranes against contaminating encroachments, and need only deploy them according to taste.

What we may soon be needing, if only for purposes of biodiversity, is "zone-free zones," the social equivalent of wilderness preserves. Here, in pristine tracts set aside for the ages, refugees from civilization could savor a remnant of society in a wild and unzoned state. The zone-free-zone experience might, of course, be somewhat unsettling. Ominous tendrils of cigarette smoke from the trailer park might greet one's entrance. Wailing infants and rambunctious toddlers would be continually underfoot. Skateboarders in fur coats, talking on cell phones, could swoop by at any moment, scattering the gulls and swans. Some visitors, inevitably, would ignore the warnings about venturing too close to speeding trucks or angry picketers. Your guide, Bud Selig, might from time to time motion for the group to hush, cupping his ear: "Listen," he would whisper, as the sound of lacerating sarcasm wafted from a distant window. "Sixth-graders."

Summertime expeditions into a zone-free zone could become an essential part of growing up, as enlightened parents from Cambridge to Berkeley sought a broadening experience for their young—an immersion (camp brochures will say) in that "single torrent" of collective life evoked by Ariès. It is vitally important to instill a sense of historical perspective in the young. Children, after all, represent what society is going to become.