Every year around this time, I go away with my three brothers to play golf for an extended weekend. Next to Christmas, it is my favorite time of the year. We have taken on greater family and professional responsibilities. Still, in more than 20 years, not one of us has missed our golf trip. It is an important commitment.
The principal attraction is not the golf — although we do all love to play and compete. The reason I love it so much is that, outside of my marriage, my closest friends in the world are my brothers. (My sisters too, but they don’t play golf.)
For five days, we talk about work, family and faith. We can laugh and share our problems. We do an inventory of our children and their successes or issues. Each of us is godfather to a number of nieces and nephews.
I thought about these family connections recently when I read in the report of the National Center for Health Statistics that the U.S. birthrate had declined for the sixth year in a row. American women now have, on average, 1.86 babies over the course of their lives. For college graduates, the number is lower.
We’re not yet in a class with Japan (1.4 births per woman), Poland (1.33) or South Korea (1.25), but all of us are below the rate (about 2.1) necessary for population replacement. Most developed nations now worry about not having enough young people to support their aging populations.
But an overlooked aspect of the proliferation of one-child families is the effect that a solitary childhood has on children. Imagine a society, not very different from our own, where every child is an only child — no brothers or sisters. Their children, one generation later, would have no cousins, uncles or aunts. How might their perspective on life be different?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in No. 1657 that “the home is the first school of Christian life.” My siblings were my classmates in that school. Our parents taught us the Ten Commandments together — and as brothers and sisters we also broke some of them together and learned hard lessons.
I don’t mean to attach undue moral valence to family size. Let’s not forget that Jesus was an only child. And there are lots of only children in my circle of friends who learned the lessons of Christian life better than I did.
But on an extended scale, the proliferation of the one-child household is surely changing society. Children with no siblings will never share a bedroom or bathroom. Their educational, emotional and material needs and desires get priority at home. Will they find it hard to adjust when they move out and cease to be the center of the universe?
In South Korea last summer, Pope Francis warned young Catholics and their parents about selfish competition and the increasing “idolatry of wealth, power and pleasure.” In that country (and elsewhere), increasing prosperity has led to declining birth rates. This is in one sense odd — parents with more disposable income lavish it on fewer children.
Children in South Korea (and elsewhere) might be happier with fewer things, less pressure and more relatives.
Sometimes the competition becomes intense when my brothers and I compete for the Garvey Cup. But even then, good humor formed by a shared childhood governs our interactions. It never fails to remind me of how important we all were to one another growing up, and still are. It is hard to imagine a world without brotherly love.
Garvey is the president of The Catholic University of America in Washington.