Why not have children younger?

The Treasurer’s latest cringe-worthy ‘populate and cherish’ line is another clanger in the ongoing fertility debate. While he’s right that Australian men should take a greater responsibility for their domestic contributions, if Peter Costello is serious about wanting to increase the birth rate, he should be delivering policy to support Australian men and women to have children earlier in life.

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Australia ‘s average first-time mother and father are already in their 30s, and they’re not getting any younger. The number of parents under 25 is continuing to shrink. So if Costello is serious about declining birth rates and their impact upon Australia’s economic performance, he’d better get strategic about us having children earlier, rather than trotting out the annual, uninspiring ‘have one for your country’ mantra.

First, he’ll need to deal with stereotypical, negative images of young parents: they are as diverse and capable as any other group of parents. Across Australia, many young people who chose to have children earlier than average are studying or working or staying home to raise their kids. Some need a range of supports, and others don’t. Certainly, having a child while you’re still at high school isn’t a great idea. But having a child in your early 20s is something still worth considering. Only a generation or two ago it was the norm: and it’s the best solution to the Treasurer’s dilemma.

Having children earlier allows time to have more children later. And while women can still give birth into their 40s, many health professionals — and older parents — will tell you that pregnancy and birth can be more difficult, as is becoming a parent later in life.

Through my research, I have spoken to many young parents and many of their comments strike a common theme: current public perceptions are that being a young parent is not a good idea. Whether or not you planned to become a parent before 25, you are considered to be ‘throwing your career away’ or ‘being irresponsible’. Or worse, you’re ‘ruining your life’. These same young parents are studying, or employed. Some have committed long-term relationships, and others remain single. Some have mortgages, but all of them have plans. They have plans for a second, a third or even a fourth child.

Yes, young Australians want children. In 2004, an Australian Institute of Family Studies report identified that the expectations of young Australians matched the hopes of Peter Costello: a majority of them wanted two or more children. But with our current birth rate of 1.8, the reality is that many Australians will find their child-rearing expectations go unfulfilled. If we want a higher birth rate, the average age for first-time parents must fall.

We have become familiar with the many reasons people are waiting to have children until later in life. But we’re not so familiar with the reasons other young people decide not to wait to become parents. Understanding the benefits – and problems — of being a younger parent would help policy-makers see young parents in a context outside the current welfare framework. It would help us to see that even when people under 25 have children, they can still develop a career and build a financial base to support their growing families.

In late August the NSW Young Parents Forums , supported by the New South Wales government, will give young parents the opportunity to articulate their unique experiences. Their contributions will help to identify what services best support young parents to be involved and engaged workers, students and community members.

Thanks to Sean Leahy.

Rather than a greater focus on the high-risk end of service provision for young parents, perhaps state governments could support serious investment in parenting services. Maybe greater funding could be delivered to the establishment of universal family support services, to be delivered through maternal and child health or community health services.

Whatever the solution, hearing the voices of young parents must contribute to a changing of our attitudes. We need to support young parents by making child-rearing a positive and worthwhile activity. In doing this, having a few children may not seem like such a lifestyle threat. But we are not going to do that simply by asking nicely.

Policy initiatives to support young parents and encourage people to have children earlier

  • Establishment of a national clearinghouse on research and innovative service delivery into young parents that includes funding to support research into young parents outside the welfare framework.
  • Establishment of a national advocacy organisation for young parents. The “Young Australian Parents Alliance” could manage the clearinghouse and promote the achievements and positive outcomes in the lives of young parents.
  • Realign the ‘Baby Bonus’ into a sliding scale. The younger you have children the more money you get and second and third children are worth more than the first. This is not a big change from trying to entice procreation through financial incentives.
  • State governments could invest significantly into universal parenting services, attached to maternal and child health centres or more likely the multi-service children’s hubs currently being funded across Australia. This would reframe parenting services away from a high-risk support service for parents whose children are under protective orders into a pro-active service that encourages and works alongside parents. Creating organisations that advocate the value and benefits of parenting can help change our poor attitudes to the importance of raising children.
  • Develop a suite of supports for young parents who wish to continue studying. This could include 75-100% childcare subsidies, financial support for textbooks and materials and
  • Expand on the NSW Young Parents Forum and run a national Forum series to highlight the issues and needs of young Australian parents and use this as a platform to pursue other policies suggested above.
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