Children represent the future and most parents would do almost anything to ensure their sons' and daughters' well-being. But does that mean they have a level of caring and responsibility that those who are childless can't match? And does it mean that people without children shouldn't be trusted with powerful leadership positions? Last week, a hapless British politician tried to argue that it did.

That criticism was aimed at Theresa May, who became Britain's second female prime minister yesterday. It's just the latest in the stranger-than-fiction tale that began with "Brexit," Britain's unexpected vote to leave the European Union last month. Prime Minister David Cameron, who had campaigned to stay in the EU, announced his resignation the moment the votes were counted. Under British law, the reigning party, in this case the Conservatives, votes to replace a resigning prime minister without holding a new election, and their selection came down to two rivals, May, who was then home secretary, and Andrea Leadsom who is energy minister.

But then Leadsom said this in a newspaper interview: "I have children who are going to have children who will directly be a part of what happens next." This, she suggested, made her a better choice than the childless May, because, "I feel that being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake."

The comments amounted to political suicide. After the story ran and criticism came raining down, Leadsom at first tried to deny that she'd said what she had, but the paper had recordings as proof. Next, she apologized to May but it was too late. With few options left, Leadsom salvaged what dignity she could by withdrawing from the race, leaving May the last woman standing.

Would a parent care more?

But what about the idea that as a parent, you have more "skin in the game" when it comes to the future, and thus can be trusted to do a better job? It's a question I tend to take personally, since although I have stepchildren and step-grandchildren, I've never had a child of my own. 

It's easy enough to point to choices made by parents that squarely put the future in doubt. John F. Kennedy had a small son and daughter when he brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis, to name just one example. And one could argue that caring too much about your children (as opposed to everyone else's) could lead you to make decisions purely in their interest, such as eliminating inheritance tax.

And yet, many people seem to instinctively distrust non-parents as leaders. Only one U.S. president, James Polk, took office with no children in tow, although five others (including George Washington) had adopted children rather than biological ones.

In modern times, the idea of a childless, let alone unmarried, president seems out of the question. And that's a shame. As a society, we've (more or less) come to accept that the old standard model of a husband and wife who marry young, raise 2.5 children and stay together their whole lives no longer reflects how people really live, if it ever did. 

Although the commonly held belief that half of all marriages end in divorce is false, there certainly are plenty of divorces and remarriages, creating step-parents and stepchildren and odd and new ways of living with one another. Some of these combinations lead to parenthood. Others might not.

In my case, it was bad timing. My first husband was eager to have a child but he was a troubled and irresponsible person who I knew would make a bad father. My second husband already had grown kids so his parenting skills were proven. But by the time I married him I was 40 and although we tried to have a child together it was too late.

It's ludicrous to think that, had I been foolish enough to have children in my first marriage, that would make me a better leader in some people's eyes. The truth is, it's not having or not having children that makes you a good leader, it's who you are. The only way to tell if someone can be trusted to influence the future is to look at him or her as a whole person. Fortunately for Britain, the leadership of Britain's Conservative Party seem to have done just that.

Published on: Jul 14, 2016
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