What do American parents want for their children? A new survey out from Pew surfaced some surprising answers. Many more mothers and fathers seem concerned with their children’s careers than with their family lives. Nearly 90% said that financial independence and having jobs and careers they enjoy is important, compared to only about a quarter of parents who said getting married and having children is important.

There are a variety of reasons for these answers — fewer of the parents themselves are married, for one. Americans are having fewer children than they used to. Cultural acceptance of being single and childless has grown. And in times of financial uncertainty, like now, people are no doubt more focused on whether their children can afford to leave the nest. 

Maybe the parents want something for their kids that they don’t have. Perhaps they have found a spouse and have some children, but have never been able to achieve the kind of satisfaction from work or make the kind of money that would make them truly financially independent. 

But parents are also being realistic. These days it feels as though parents have little ability to influence whether their children get married and have families of their own. For one thing, because the average age of marriage is so high compared to previous generations, these kinds of decisions often feel like they are disconnected from anything parents say or do. Why would you talk to your 10-year-old about a decision they won’t make until they’re 35?

Among many middle- and upper-class Americans, mentioning marriage too early is seen as backward, something only the highly religious would do. For those families, the children are supposed to be going to school, getting jobs, traveling, meeting new people and so on, not settling down so soon. Self-fulfillment has to come first.

And for working-class Americans, marriage is often not a part of the calculation at all. Why focus on marriage when it probably won’t happen? Long-term cohabitation is just as likely. And whether you’re single or living with someone else, you better learn to fend for yourself. Maybe it’s more important to think about your job, the thinking goes.

Is there a way for parents to talk to their kids even at a young age about the importance of marriage and family for a fulfilling life? Historically, one obvious way was through faith. When the purpose of marriage and family are part of a larger message of religion, supported by the whole community, then encouraging them doesn’t seem strange.

Outside of that context, it may seem harder to find a reason to introduce the subject — until you look at the research about how important family life is with regard to happiness and well-being.

Perspective: Prioritizing money over marriage, today’s parents are making a big mistake
Perspective: Prioritizing money over marriage, today’s parents are making a big mistake

Waiting too long to think about marriage can mean a smaller pool of potential partners. It can also mean less stable relationships. Among those who have had already had multiple long-term cohabiting situations, fidelity can be a bigger challenge. (Why isn’t marriage just one more relationship in a long line of ones that have broken up before?) These are important practical messages that parents can offer.

A friend with three sons in their 20s had been telling me about how much she loved the long-term girlfriend of one of the boys. She spent a lot of time with them during the pandemic and really fit in with the whole family. I asked my friend whether she told the son how enthusiastic she was, or whether she was nudging him about marriage. She told me she would never — it wasn’t her business. When he did propose last week after a three-year courtship, though, my friend was over the moon. She planned an entire weekend of celebrations. 

Of course, no mother wants to seem like a nag, demanding grandchildren before anyone is ready. But I do hope we can still acknowledge how wonderful such relationships can be and tell our children that marriage can be a bedrock for a lifetime of fulfillment, steeling us through tragedy as well.

Perhaps my friend needn’t have said anything. Maybe it is enough that she has a happy marriage and that her children will want to emulate that. But what harm can it do to talk about it occasionally? To mention the benefits that marriage has brought you and how you hope someday (in the not-too-distant future) your children will be able to experience the same kind of satisfaction?

And what of the kids who don’t get to see a happy marriage up close, who didn’t grow up with a close nuclear family? One hopes that they will also receive this message — if not from their own parents, then at least from someone else’s. 

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.