by Marcus Otte
One elementary truth forgotten today: there is no analogy between raising children and caring for pets. It makes no sense to substitute one with the other. Here are some extremely important differences, nearly all of which should be obvious. I will use dogs in my examples because they are the most popular child substitutes:
1. Dogs are trained. Humans are raised. The differences between these methods of teaching are basic and irreducible. The point of training a dog is to ensure the dog is prompt and fairly exact in its obedience—not just during its puppyhood, but during the span of its whole life. There is no plan for the dog to "grow up." There is no hope it will get an education to support itself, move out, and perhaps start its own family.
Bringing up a child has a goal that is far nobler and more daunting: to raise an adult. The point is to ensure the child will no longer need its parents one day.
2. The stakes of raising a child are far higher because the moral qualities an adult can have are radically unlike any traits a well-trained dog can possess. This bestows an importance on raising children that dog training can never have.
Granted, dogs have traits we admire. But they cannot have them in a rational way. A dog can be spirited, but cannot be rationally, humanly courageous, like someone who bears a cancer diagnosis with equanimity. A dog can be affectionate and highly attached, but it cannot make a solemn vow of loyalty after having soberly reflected on the sacrifices that may lie ahead for many years to come. Only humans do things like that.
3. The stakes of raising a child are also higher because of the evil that may come from doing a poor job. C.S. Lewis once remarked that a bad dog is not very bad. The destruction it causes is not its fault. A bad human being is a whole other story: such a creature is morally corrupt. When training a dog, there is no risk the dog will acquire a moral vice. The same is not true of raising a person.
4. If you spoil a dog, that dog is not confused in a way that causes it to subsequently raise spoiled puppies. Any bad qualities you allow to fester in your dog will not be passed down to another generation. Spoiling or otherwise corrupting your child, however, can have ramifications for how your grandchildren are raised, etc. On the other hand, raising a good child can also have an influence across generations.
5. Most importantly, in raising a child you are raising a human being with an immortal soul. Your child can know and love God in this life and be happy with Him forever in the next. He or she can have a beautiful soul, enlivened by sanctifying grace; animated by faith, hope, and charity; and fortified by the cohort of spiritual gifts. Your dog, on the other hand, is obviously ignorant of God and has no desire for anything divine. That is alright, of course. A dog is meant for a life of doing what dogs do (in the case of pets, mostly napping, playing, and eating). But a human being is meant for a lot more.
I'll conclude by pointing out a common thread running through all of these points. Raising a child means passing down a way of life. This partly explains why it's such an unpopular activity, and why pet ownership has replaced it to some degree. Many of us don't think of ourselves as having a way of life that deserves to be passed down. Many people simply live. But just as there is no comparison between merely living and living a way of life, there is no comparison between pet ownership and parenthood. To say, "I will have dogs instead of children," is no more rational than saying you will tend a garden, or practice fly fishing, or collect stamps, instead of having children. One has nothing to do with the other. A vocation (raising children) cannot be compared with a mere practice.
I am not claiming that every single person must have their own biological children to live a fulfilled life. But I do mean to say that pet ownership is not as noble or important as parenthood and is not a genuine replacement for it. It's not even close.