Say the word “counterculture” and we conjure up past memories of hippies and tie-dyed shirts or present images of rappers and such. Last week brought a different kind of countercultural moment.
We spent the last evening of our Hilton Head, S.C., vacation right where we always do—under the spreading branches of the Liberty Oak in Harbor Town, next to the water. Singer Gregg Russell, whose happy songs and silly jokes have entertained parents, grandparents, and children for over 30 years in the Sea Pines Resort, delivers the right mix of fun for a family audience.
Our youngest, now 9, is too old to sit on stage or wave his hand frantically, hoping to be chosen to sing for the crowd, but still we go. It’s family tradition.
One of our best memories is the year we almost missed the show, arriving near the end after a late dinner. Jimmy, then 8, had raced ahead of us on a secret mission of his own. Bent low, he squeezed through the crowd, past dozens of khaki shorts and sundresses, and wormed his way onto a corner of the stage. We spotted him just as Gregg drawled, “Time for one last song. Who’s goin’ home tomorrow?” Jim’s hand shot up and Gregg pulled him to center stage.
“You look like you wanna sing. Now, what’s your name?”
“Jimmy, and I want to sing The Star Spangled Banner.”
“The Star Spangled Banner?” (Laugh) “A lot of us grownups have trouble with that one. But, ok, let’s do it.”
Facing the crowd, Jimmy grew serious. He closed his eyes and began, “Ohh-ho say can you see,” A pause, then he belted it, “bah the DAWNZ early light.”
Jim sang our national anthem with the drama of a celebrity soloist at a major league ballpark. Silent at first, some in the crowd wiped away tears. Others smiled, whispered, and chuckled at his patriotic intensity. And halfway through, Gregg and the crowd joined in and ended with rousing applause. I forgot the video camera that night but will never forget that performance.
Fast-forward thirteen years and Gregg Russell is still singing, voice a tad gravelly, white shorts and Hawaiian shirt still bright. He tells the audience how proud he is of all his kids, especially his older son serving overseas in the military. Our national-anthem-singer, Jimmy, is 21 and he too will be headed to the Army as a second lieutenant, come spring. It’s a great night to relish this vacation ritual as he and his siblings joke around in the back of the crowd.
So what could possibly be countercultural in a setting like this?
A song--and its message. Gregg Russell launched into one of his favorite sing-alongs, “Thank God for Kids!” by the Oak Ridge Boys. The song riveted my attention and stirred my emotions, quite unexpectedly.
Why? Because it unabashedly expressed a sentiment that fewer and fewer adults seem to hold anymore: that children are a wonderful blessing, and we love them! Undeserved gifts from God, our children are ours to cherish and love without counting the cost.
In an audience full of children, their parents, and grandparents, the song captured a shared experience and heartfelt emotion—gratitude for the gift of children and the privilege of being a parent. It was simply awesome to hear so many voices shouting out, “Thank God for kids!”
Gregg’s message felt new and fresh precisely because our culture has drifted so far from it. Pundits, entertainers, and social scientists “count the cost” of having children quite literally every day. Kids drain our money, time, and resources, and sap our happiness as well, they say. And the media amplifies that message.
Stories emphasize the burdens and magnify the lifetime costs of having children. Typical is the USDA estimate that parents will spend $286,050 to raise a child, not including college. Daunting numbers. Intimidating, really. But they’re pointless stats, irrelevant to actual decision-making. It’s like toting up the lifetime costs of a mortgage and deciding you can’t afford to live anywhere, because your bank account only has today’s payment in it. Nobody asks for all the money up front when we have a child. We raise children like we do everything else: day-by-day.
More to the point, the intangible value of loving a child, and receiving love in return, is lost in the weeds of cost-benefit analysis. Love isn’t meant to be hoarded or saved up for a later withdrawal. And our capacity for love certainly can’t be measured by our bank balance.
Applying a cost-benefit analysis to children descends into self-centered calculations in other ways too. We focus myopically on how much time and work children require of us. Time magazine reports a surge in only children; only children show the highest ambition and educational achievement because there’s no “dilution of resources” towards siblings. As my husband, an only child, likes to point out, there’s also no one to play with on lonely afternoons, no one to commiserate with as a teen, and no one to help care for your aging parents. And for that you get a ten-point bonus on the SAT? So what!
But it gets worse. Married couples are startlingly less likely than ever before to include any children in their vision of marital happiness. Only 41% of adults view children as an important part of marriage. (By comparison, 93% rank fidelity as important to their marital happiness and 62% rank shared chores as important.)
The child-negative messages have traction: children are increasingly absent from our common adult experience. Nearly one in five women (20%) now reach mid-life without having had a child. Less than half of all American households (46%) have children under 18 at home; even fewer (under 25%) are married couples with children. And now a new breed of environmental cheerleaders urges adults to choose a permanent “childfree” life to maximize adult freedom and minimize injury to the planet. They're GINKs (green inclinations, no kids), and proud of it.
My countercultural moment celebrating the gift of children was well-timed: this fall we’ll have more kids out of the house than in it. I’m acutely aware of the value of every moment we have with them—and the eternal worth of each one of those seven lives.
So, I thank God for my kids! (And I hope you’ll do the same for yours.) But I worry about a world where loving children---and celebrating them as a gift--is undeniably countercultural.
© 2010 Mary Rice Hasson