According to the British Psychological Society, there is a widespread belief in every human culture that children bring happiness. When they think about parenting, parents tend to conjure up idealized images of perfect children. As noted by this psychological group, “…even when the prospective parents understand that raising a child will be painstakingly difficult, they tend to think quite happily about parenthood, which is why most of them eventually leap into it.”
From the perspective of the species, it’s perfectly understandable why people have children. From the perspective of the individual, however, it may seem more of a mystery. Most people assume having children will make them happier. However, research often seems to suggest otherwise:
- Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winning behavioral economist, found child care ranked 16th in list of pleasurable activities (even housework was ranked higher)
- British economist Andrew Oswald found among tens of thousands of Brits with children compared to those without that it isn’t that children make you less happy; they just don’t make you more happy
- Sociologist Robin Simon from Wake Forest University found that parents are more depressed than non-parents.
- Daniel Gilbert, Harvard professor of psychology and best-selling author of “Stumbling on Happiness”, notes that while we refer to children as “bundles of joy”, they are not a source of happiness. “Once people have kids, there’s a downturn in happiness,” Gilbert says, which isn’t reversed until the kids move out. “Of course we love our kids,” said Gilbert. “I never said don’t have kids,” but the scientific data is tough to refute.
Choosing to have children
It used to be that you just had children; you didn’t stop to think about it. It’s different now. We have choices, and most of us choose to have children. Christine Overall, in her book “Why Have Children: The Ethical Debate” proposes that the choice to have children calls for more careful reasoning than the choice not to. Overall explores how we might think systematically and deeply about this fundamental aspect of human life. She talks about several perspectives on the this choice including issues of reproductive rights, religious values, family values, and political values. She also talks about the anticipated consequences of the decision for both individuals and society.
Overall also points out the gendered nature of the decision. While both you and your spouse have to think about the choice, the choice has different meanings, implications, and risks for women than it has for men.
In the end, she offers a novel argument. She proposes that the best reason to have children is to establish the biological parent-child relationship–which is not only genetic but also psychological, physical, intellectual, and moral. For Overall, the formation of that relationship is the best possible reason for choosing to have a child.
We used to view children differently
While historically children were viewed as economic assets to their parents, in modern times childhood has increasingly become a protected privileged time. Once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became subjects to be stimulated, instructed, and groomed for success. As one writer notes, “Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses.”
Middle- and upper-income families tend to see their children as projects to be perfected. These families spend much time talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution. All of this is very tiring work; yet parents feel they are putting their child at risk if they do not give them every advantage.
Parents of all incomes are spending more time with their children now, including working mothers. While today’s married mothers have less leisure time and want more, they still think they don’t spend enough time with their children.
The bad news
A 2003 meta study (a study of studies) found the usual result the couple’s overall marital satisfaction went down when they had kids. People start out marriage with high marital satisfaction as you can guess. It goes down when the couple has children, and rises when the children leave home. This result shows up regularly in relationship research.
In addition, the research also shows that mothers are less happy than fathers, that single parents are less happy than married parents, that babies and toddlers are the hardest to parent, and that each successive child produces increasing unhappiness.
Surprisingly, research has also found happiness with life decreases even if parents are well enough off to buy more child care. Couples that become parents later in life may experience a greater loss of freedom and a loss of autonomy as they have children. It may also be that the longer they wait to have children, the greater their expectations about what kids will bring to them.
The good news
The good news is that there is newer research that expands on the impact children have on us. Matthew White and Paul Dolan, two British academics, demonstrate why having kids may be a good idea after all. They figured out that measuring happiness and satisfaction can be improved upon if you measure thoughts and not just feelings.
What they found, reported in the Research Digest (digest.bps.org.uk) is based on a study of 625 participants who completed an on-line questionnaire about their previous day, which generated an average of ten episodes per person. These episodes included; eating, reading, time with children, watching TV, and commuting.
Their findings confirmed other research measuring pleasure from these kinds of activities, i.e., that we spend a lot of time doing things we don’t find pleasurable, including “work” and “shopping”. “Time with children” and “sex” ranked about mid-way on the pleasure scale, far below “outdoor activities” and “watching TV”.
However, when they had the participants rate the reward from engaging in these same activities, “work” was the top scorer with “time with children” not far behind.
White and Dolan conclude that if you look only at the pleasure of an activity, like spending time with your children, you will conclude that this is having a “bad time”. But, when you consider how rewarding spending time with your children is, you will conclude that you are having a good time. So, spending time with children may not always be pleasurable, but it may by quite rewarding.
Here is a schematic which shows the more complex understanding about how we experience our time with our children and other life activities.
Daniel Gilbert thinks that children actually offer “moments of transcendence” like when your child says “I lub you” after spending 5 difficult hours with your 5 year-old.
Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institute has coined a clever acronym for a current trend in millennial marriages, the HIP marriage, which stands for a High Investment Parenting marriage. The HIP marriage is built on a strong, traditional commitment to raising children together that is grounded in an egalitarian approach to marriage.
High Investment Parenting is about a huge commitment of time, energy, money and attention to all aspects of the care and development of children. Because of the significant change in women’s economic and social status, HIP marriages are recasting family responsibilities with couples sharing the roles of both child-raiser and bread-winner, a must in order to create and maintain and equal marriage
“Maybe having kids is a good idea after all.” Research Digest, Blogging on brain and behavior. The British Psychological Society. 2007 (http://digest.bps.org.uk/2009/07/maybe-having-kids-is-good-idea-after.html)
Overall, Christine. (2012). Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate. MA: MIT Press.
Reeves, Richard. “How to Save Marriage in America.” The Atlantic. February 13, 2014. (http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/02/how-to-save-marriage-in-america/283732/)
Jennifer Senior. “All Joy and No Fun: Why parents hate parenting.” New York Magazine, July 4, 2010. (http://nymag.com/news/features/67024/)
“Think having children will make you happy? The Psychologist. (www.thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-22/edition-4think-haveing-children-will-make-you-happy)