Beware of unwanted side effects
In its 2011 report on measures to counteract the trend of people shunning marriage and raising children, the Korea Development Institute concluded that public policy dedicated to encouraging married couples to have children alone cannot help fight the country’s low fertility rate.
Liberal approaches to marriage and family can hardly be stopped. Single parenting and cohabitation have long become commonplace in Western societies. That’s a different situation from the single mothers in Korea, who were mostly abandoned by the fathers of their children.
But public policies aimed at encouraging births out of wedlock through various supports and benefits could create bigger social problems. Parenting, which demands sacrifice and understanding, is difficult even in normal families. It is not easy for a woman to take up the parenting role on her own. Moreover, these women would have to raise a child while working as the family breadwinner. The responsibilities and difficulties of child care should not be underestimated. And the family environment is crucial in shaping a child’s personality and character.
In the 1970s, a magazine in Japan featured female actresses raising child alone to champion them as a role model for the new modern woman. Less than 10 years later, they told a different story. They regretted not having led the life of traditional housewives. Japan called the hyped Westernization and liberalization during its boom years - and the disappointment and nostalgia toward traditional family life and marriage that followed - the Croissant Syndrome after the economy went bust. The syndrome was named after the same magazine published for career women.
In Europe, there are fewer children who have married parents. But this has led to serious social problems because of various complications. Marriage is a legal and stable protection for children. A child should not be discriminated against because he or she lives with one parent. But we do not have to imitate Western societies that offer benefits and support to single-parent households.
The government and society must do more to raise birth rates. But the policies should be committed to improving civilian rights and well-being - instead of encouraging pregnancies without marriage. Families run on love and devotion, not mere efficiency.
Women should be free to manage both work and family care so that children can grow up in stable environments. Society should evolve toward generating greater happiness through equity in education and job opportunities. Various social security systems to prevent a breakup of families should be the path to increasing birthrates. The rate will not suddenly rise through one or two dramatic policies. It can be raised only when the state makes national efforts to build and promote a more stable environment for all families.
*The author is a professor of Myongji University and former head of the Seoul Metropolitan Government education planning department.
By Nam Seung-hee