People who don’t have children make up a sizable share of the population. Yet the stigma about not being a parent persists in our culture — particularly for women. Those without kids are often unfairly thought of as selfish, unfulfilled or unusual.
A 2022 survey of Michigan adults found that more than 20% were child-free, meaning they did not want kids, while 5% were childless, meaning they wanted kids but were unable to have them. About 10% said they were undecided, roughly the same number said they want kids in the future, and just over 3% said they were ambivalent. (Although many people self-identify as “child-free” or “childless,” others dislike using these terms because of the suggestion that having children is “the default, when it shouldn’t be,” as columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett wrote for The Guardian last year. “Why define by deficit?”)
The author of the Michigan study acknowledged that it does not use a nationally representative sample. However, the population of Michigan is demographically similar to the U.S. population overall.
We asked people who don’t have kids to share the insensitive, invasive and irritating comments and questions that come up in their lives. Below, they share some of the most common ones to avoid asking.
1. ‘Why don’t you have kids?’
Writer Tiffany Dyba said “you wouldn’t believe the amount of men and women who have point blank” asked her this question, which she called “invasive [and] personal,” and one that “makes it seem like I should feel bad about my decision.”
“You don’t know the reason why someone has decided to be child-free, and it may not even be their choice, so it is best to not ask and wait for someone to volunteer that info if they feel comfortable doing so,” Dyba, who is working on a novel about child-free women grappling with their place in a patriarchal society, told HuffPost.
Lance Blackstone, who co-created the website We’re (Not) Having a Baby! with his wife Amy Blackstone, said this question “almost never comes from a neutral position.” In his experience, he said, people who pose this question “never considered the possibility of not having children themselves.”
“If you’re inclined to ask this question, stop and spend that energy thinking about why you have children or why you plan to,” he told HuffPost. “If you’ve never even questioned this, or the only reason is ‘Because that’s what you do,’ maybe think about that before bringing a new human into the world.”
“If you’ve never even questioned this, or the only reason is ‘Because that’s what you do,’ maybe think about that before bringing a new human into the world.”
It’s an insensitive question when asked of someone who “actively chose not to have children,” Blackstone said. “It’s downright painful when asked of a person that wants children but is unable to have them for whatever reason. In either case, it’s none of your business.”
When Blackstone is asked why he doesn’t have kids, he likes to respond by saying something like: “For the same reason you don’t have a 20-foot python. Because I don’t want any.”
Comedian Dan Regan said he’ll reply by asking how many people the other person has had sex with.
“The awkward silence after lets me know I’ve won the ‘none of your business’ game,” he told HuffPost.
2. ‘You’ll never know true love or joy if you don’t have kids.’
People who don’t have children have likely heard some version of this remark. According to writer Callie Turner, it’s both hurtful and simply untrue.
“The ability and capacity to love is influenced by many factors and can take many forms,” she told HuffPost. “While parenting can certainly be a source of deep love, it is not the only source.”
You may experience this kind of love with a partner, friends, parents, siblings, other relatives, pets or even hobbies, she said.
“To assume that parents experience a deeper type of love than non-parents is myopic, and discounts that love is a complex emotion, highly individualized, and can be felt and expressed in many ways,” Turner said.
“While parenting can certainly be a source of deep love, it is not the only source.”
Similarly, Regan said he’s had people tell him he’ll “never know the joy of having kids” and that he’s “missing out” on that experience.
“If people want to have children for a happier life, I wish them well. But people who don’t have children also can have a happy life,” he said.
“It is the same as me, a dog lover, telling someone who doesn’t own a dog they don’t know what they are missing,” he continued. “So when someone says I don’t know the joy of having children, I say, ‘You don’t remember the joy of having to do absolutely nothing on the weekend.’ That usually does the trick, as I see their eyes glaze over as they are thinking about their past.”
When someone poses this question to you, you can also share your point of view on the matter and offer some examples of the deep love you’ve experienced with other people or in other facets of your life, Turner suggested.
3. ‘Who will take care of you when you’re old?’
Amy Blackstone told HuffPost that this is a question we should all be thinking about ― yet it is “most often directed at only child-free people.”
“While the implication is clear — that one reason people have kids is to have someone to care for them in their old age — the truth is that most adult children don’t care for their elderly parents in the ways that we might think that they do,” Blackstone, a University of Maine sociology professor, told HuffPost.
In her book “Childfree by Choice: The Movement Redefining Family & Creating a New Age of Independence,” Blackstone cites a 2015 Pew Research survey that found that while more than half of U.S. adults had helped their aging parents with errands and housework in the past year, a much smaller share, just 14%, had helped them with things like bathing and getting dressed — “the sort of intensive care that many of us will need in our older age,” she said.
Dane Reid, author of “Forget Having Kids. I’m Having Fun: 1000 Random Reasons I Chose to Be #ChildFree,” pointed to a recent estimate that it costs more than $300,000 to raise a kid through high school. That’s quite a bit of money that could be saved for one’s later years. Plus, there’s no guarantee anyway that your kid will support you as you age.
“Factor in college, and I’ll have a whole lot of dough to hire a live-in caretaker,” Reid told HuffPost. “See, if my kids follow the life pattern that people say they should, they will have their own spouse and children to take care of, along with the $300K-a-year bill to raise that kid. At best, my children will periodically check in on me, not actually take care of me. Ask nursing home workers how often residents get visitors, and they will tell you not often.”
Helen Hsu, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, argues that having kids so you have someone to take care of you when you’re old is “a horrible, self-serving, exploitative reason to have a child.”
“It’s a little bit cultural, but it’s a distortion of culture ― and also ableist, as it devalues a child who may be disabled or otherwise unable to support anyone,” Hsu told HuffPost. “And let’s be honest: With this economy, many people have boomerang kids, not kids who can support them.”
“The truth is that most adult children don’t care for their elderly parents in the ways that we might think that they do.”
When someone asks Amy Blackstone this question, she likes to share some of the ways she’s preparing for her later years, before asking the other person about their own plans.
“If they are parents and suggest that their kids are on the hook for caring for them — and if I’m feeling sassy — I might ask what they do to care for their own elderly parents, and/or provide some of the statistics about the likelihood of adult children caring for their parents,” she said.
“This conversation also pairs nicely with comments about how ‘selfish’ it is to make the child-free choice,” she said. “It’s hard to think of something more selfish than to bring a child into the world as insurance for care in one’s old age.”
4. ‘You can always adopt.’
First, it’s presumptuous to assume that a person who doesn’t have kids must want to have them.
“No one knows the true reason or circumstances on why a person is child-free – unless one specifically knows a person’s story,” Angela Harris, who created the #NoBibsBurpsBottles movement to empower child-free Black women, told HuffPost. “Suggesting adoption to someone who is child-free by choice dismisses their freedom of choice and their identity as an individual.”
And even for people who want kids but are unable to have them ― because of a fertility issue, for example ― adoption may not be a viable option or their desired path. Telling someone to “just adopt” can also discount the grief of not being able to have a biological child.
“What people need to understand is that adoption is complex — it isn’t a substitute or a quick fix for childlessness,” Aisha Balesaria, who has had numerous miscarriages and failed IVF cycles, previously told HuffPost.
Indeed, adoption is more complicated than many folks realize.
“Adoption is glorified in the media, but for many adoptees, it’s a deeply painful, sometimes traumatic situation,” Hsu said. “Also, adoption is a fraught process many people could never afford emotionally nor financially.”
5. ‘What do you do with all your free time?’
Lance Blackstone called this “such a loaded question” — and one that seems like it always comes from people with kids.
“Sometimes it’s loaded with disdain, as in, ‘Your life must have no meaning since you’re not spending every hour attending to mini-mes like I do,’” he said. “Sometimes it’s loaded with genuine confusion, where the parent asking has never imagined that there was a choice.”
Before asking this, parents should take a minute to think back to how they spent their own time before the kids were in the picture.
“We have family, friends, pets, volunteering, and hobbies, any of which may be as important to us as your kids are to you,” Lance said. “We also tend to be the ones at work filling in for our colleagues that have kids, but let’s not go down that rabbit hole. Ultimately, every person should have the unquestioned right to choose how they spend their time and resources.”
“Adoption is a fraught process many people could never afford emotionally nor financially.”
Lance likes to respond to this common question in a cheeky way ― “‘Whatever I want, whenever I want,’ and then I flash a toothy smile,” he said.
Sometimes this question comes in comment form, like: “I’m so jealous of all the free time you must have!”
“This implies that only parents have any idea what it is like to be busy and wrapped up in something,” Dyba said. “I think it, again, diminishes the lifestyle of someone who is child-free. It suggests that there is no purpose or meaning or worthwhile activities to fill your day if you don’t have a child to take care of.”
6. ‘You’ll change your mind.’
Again, consider that you do not know whether this person is child-free by choice or because of other circumstances. So it may not be a matter of simply changing their mind.
“There are so many layers to someone’s situation, and it is really delicate to just assume someone had a choice in the matter,” Dyba said.
And as financial planner Jay Zigmont, founder of Childfree Wealth, says: “Just because you — or others — have changed your mind doesn’t mean I will. You don’t know what is going on in our lives, or our medical issues, so don’t make assumptions.”
Even those are who child-free by choice take issue with this dismissive remark. Dyba said she resents it because “it implies that there is only one way to feel whole and fulfilled. And that is simply not true.”
“The comment suggests that I have made a poor choice by not becoming a mom, but there is still time to right my wrong,” she continued. “For those who are experiencing hardships getting pregnant and want to be, it is just an insensitive and ignorant comment and, again, is all based on assumption.”