This year, the United Nations recognizes its International Day of Families on May 15. The purpose of this special day is to focus on “the role of families and family-oriented policies in promoting education and overall well-being of their members” and to support families as the “primary educators for young children.” Though children are not a required component of family, childfree families do play a significant but generally overlooked role in supporting children’s development.
Of the dozens of childfree women and men I’ve interviewed, who form households and families of their own, many note that they are in a unique position to have special and important relationships with children because they are childfree.
This finding is consistent across studies. In a survey of 1,000 non-mothers, marketing firm DeVries Global found that children – including nieces, nephews, and the children of friends – play an active role in the lives of 80 percent of women who don’t have children of their own. And a study of aunts found that they serve important roles as teachers, role models, confidantes, “savvy peers,” and second mothers in their nieces’ and nephews’ lives.
A number of the childfree couples I interviewed described their friendships and other connections with the children in their lives. They shared how their childfree status enables them to connect with children in ways that differ from parents’ connections.
Most of our friends have kids and as the couple without kids, sometimes we have more of an ability to play with their kids than other couples. When we come to their houses, since we don’t have any of our own kids to watch, we can actually really do that role with their kids, like almost an aunt and uncle thing and just get in there and hang out. It’s really funny sometimes because the kids can see us as a bigger, older friend. We have a lot of really good relationships with a bunch of kids because we have the time to do that. I have two nephews who I see a lot and I mean we can really focus on them. There’s a lot of attention we can give them.
Jan, an engineer who has been married to her husband Fred for over ten years, also talked about her friendships with children. Jan and Fred count their neighbors among their closest friends and Jan has a special connection with the neighbors’ 11-year-old daughter.
Emma, who’s our next door neighbor and is eleven now, is my little buddy. I think she was two when they moved here. While she was growing up, I spent a lot of time with her in the yard and in our gardens. So I would say that we’ve been friends now for the past nine years.
Children benefit from these connections with adults who aren’t their parents. Allison and her husband believe they are in a unique position to offer their nine year old niece a broader view of the world than she may receive without their involvement.
We really, really, really enjoy spending time with our niece. Last Christmas we suggested to have her come stay with us for a few days, and for long weekends especially in the summers. She’s always so sad when we leave her house to go home and we thought it would be nice for the parents but mostly really a nice change of environment for our niece. I just feel like I get some of her issues on a different level than her mom and grandma do. I think it would be good for her to maybe have a connection with someone else who sees her in a different way than the people who interact with her on a regular basis.
Allison’s point about “getting” her niece’s issues in a way that others may not is reflected in the reports of children who have close relationships with their aunts who say they value their aunts’ nonjudgmental advice, open-mindedness, and willingness to discuss topics they preferred not to broach with their parents.
Aside from their unique friendships with children, my research participants also described how not having kids themselves made them more available to take on special care taking responsibilities for the kids in their lives, such as through legal guardianship or as godparents. Annette, a professor, said she is able to be the godmother “to several children” because she doesn’t have kids of her own, though she added, “That’s plenty!” when asked if she had plans to say yes to any future godmother requests.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. Childfree people are a part of that village. Perhaps it is in the best interests of children – indeed of all villagers – that not everyone wants to have children of their own, even those who might make excellent parents. These non-parent figures are essential for children, they provide needed support for parents, and the childfree value these relationships as well.
On this year’s International Day of Families, let’s recognize all families, whether they include children or not, and the important roles they play in providing for the well-being of each other and those in their communities.