Does Having Kids Make You Happy?

1Research has found that having children is terrible for quality of life—but the truth about what parenthood means for happiness is a lot more complicated.

Few choices are more important than whether to have children, and psychologists and other social scientists have worked to figure out what having kids means for happiness. Some of the most prominent scholars in the field have argued that if you want to be happy, it’s best to be childless. Others have pushed back, pointing out that a lot depends on who you are and where you live. But a bigger question is also at play: What if the rewards of having children are different from, and deeper than, happiness?

The early research is decisive: Having kids is bad for quality of life. In one study, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues asked about 900 employed women to report, at the end of each day, every one of their activities and how happy they were when they did them. They recalled being with their children as less enjoyable than many other activities, such as watching TV, shopping, or preparing food.

Other studies find that when a child is born, parents experience a decrease in happiness that doesn’t go away for a long time, in addition to a drop in marital satisfaction that doesn’t usually recover until the children leave the house. As the Harvard professor Dan Gilbert puts it, “The only symptom of empty nest syndrome is nonstop smiling.”

After all, having children, particularly when they are young, involves financial struggle, sleep deprivation, and stress. For mothers, there is also in many cases the physical strain of pregnancy and breastfeeding. And children can turn a cheerful and loving romantic partnership into a zero-sum battle over who gets to sleep and work and who doesn’t.

As the Atlantic staff writer Jennifer Senior notes in her book, All Joy and No Fun, children provoke a couple’s most frequent arguments—“more than money, more than work, more than in-laws, more than annoying personal habits, communication styles, leisure activities, commitment issues, bothersome friends, sex.” Someone who doesn’t understand this is welcome to spend a full day with an angry 2-year-old (or a sullen 15-year-old); they’ll find out what she means soon enough.

Read: It isn’t the kids. It’s the cost of raising them.

Children make some happy and others miserable; the rest fall somewhere in between—it depends, among other factors, on how old you are, whether you are a mother or a father, and where you live. But a deep puzzle remains: Many people would have had happier lives and marriages had they chosen not to have kids—yet they still describe parenthood as the “best thing they’ve ever done.” Why don’t we regret having children more?

One possibility is a phenomenon called memory distortion. When we think about our past experiences, we tend to remember the peaks and forget the mundane awfulness in between. Senior frames it like this: “Our experiencing selves tell researchers that we prefer doing the dishes—or napping, or shopping, or answering emails—to spending time with our kids … But our remembering selves tell researchers that no one—and nothing—provides us with so much joy as our children.

It may not be the happiness we live day to day, but it’s the happiness we think about, the happiness we summon and remember, the stuff that makes up our life-tales.” These are plausible-enough ideas, and I don’t reject them. But other theories about why people don’t regret parenthood actually have nothing to do with happiness—at least not in a simple sense.

One involves attachment. Most parents love their children, and it would seem terrible to admit that you would be better off if someone you loved didn’t exist. More than that, you genuinely prefer a world with your kids in it. This can put parents in the interesting predicament of desiring a state that doesn’t make them as happy as the alternative. In his book Midlife, the MIT professor Kieran Setiya expands on this point.

Modifying an example from the philosopher Derek Parfit, he asks readers to imagine a situation in which, if you and your partner were to conceive a child before a certain time, the child would have a serious, though not fatal, medical problem, such as chronic joint pain. If you wait, the child will be healthy. For whatever reason, you choose not to wait. You love your child and, though he suffers, he is happy to be alive. Do you regret your decision?

Read: How adult children affect their mother’s happiness

That’s a complicated question. Of course it would have been easier to have a kid without this condition. But if you’d waited, you’d have a different child, and this baby (then boy, then man) whom you love wouldn’t exist. It was a mistake, yes, but perhaps a mistake that you don’t regret. The attachment we have to an individual can supersede an overall decrease in our quality of life, and so the love we usually have toward our children means that our choice to bring them into existence has value above and beyond whatever effect they have on our happiness.

This relates to a second point, which is that there’s more to life than happiness. When I say that raising my sons is the best thing I’ve ever done, I’m not saying that they gave me pleasure in any simple day-to-day sense, and I’m not saying that they were good for my marriage. I’m talking about something deeper, having to do with satisfaction, purpose, and meaning. It’s not just me.

When you ask people about their life’s meaning and purpose, parents say that their lives have more meaning than those of nonparents. A study by the social psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues found that the more time people spent taking care of children, the more meaningful they said their life was—even though they reported that their life was no happier.

Raising children, then, has an uncertain connection to pleasure but may connect to other aspects of a life well lived, satisfying our hunger for attachment, and for meaning and purpose. The writer Zadie Smith puts it better than I ever could, describing having a child as a “strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight.” Smith, echoing the thoughts of everyone else who has seriously considered these issues, points out the risk of close attachments:

“Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation?” But this annihilation reflects the extraordinary value of such attachments; as the author Julian Barnes writes of grief, quoting a friend, “It hurts just as much as it is worth.”

By Paul Bloom

Source: Does Having Kids Make You Happy? – The Atlantic

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More Contents:

. “A review of the relationship among parenting practices, parenting styles, and adolescent school achievement” (PDF). Educational Psychology Review. 17

 “Parenting Style as a Moderator of Associations Between Maternal Disciplinary Strategies and Child Well-Being”

“The Influence of Parenting Style on Academic Achievement and Career Path”Day, Nicholas (10 April 2013). “Parental ethnotheories and how parents in America differ from parents everywhere else”. Slate. Retrieved 19 April 2013.[verification needed]

“The Terrible Twos Explained – Safe Kids (UK)”Kenneth R. Ginsburg. “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds” (PDF). American Academy of Pediatrics. Archived from the origina

How Cultural Forces Shape Parenting Around the World

So much parenting advice focuses on the slog of the early years: How to manage sleep, feeding, tantrums, and the like. And while much of these efforts are in service of a long-term goal—raising an adult human you can be proud of—there’s much less out there that addresses life with that human as they come into their own.

Novelist Yang Huang explores that space in her latest book, My Good Son, allowing the reader to observe how parenting has shaped father and son, especially as some of the more complex, even morally questionable questions arise in the son’s burgeoning adulthood. Add in the setting—post-Tiananmen China—and a cleverly-positioned American father-son relationship to serve as the foil, and it’s a loving and intricate study of what it means to be a good Chinese parent.

Here, Huang turns her gaze to how different cultures approach the measure of being a “good parent,” sharing her research on how geography and traditions inform the many ways families grow and thrive. She explains:

“Although all of my fiction talks about parenting from both the parents’ and children’s perspectives, I have not read a book on parenting before! Finding parenting stories around the world opens my eyes and also affirms my values in many ways.”

A Lost Secret: How to Get Kids to Pay Attention

Yang Huang: “Don’t just blame a child’s short attention span on video games. Perhaps we can learn from Maya parenting—they motivate children to pay attention by giving them autonomy. When a child is setting the goal, they also learn to manage their own attention, rather than relying on adults to tell them what to do.”

I Spent 7 Years Studying Dutch Parenting—Here Are 6 Secrets to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World

YH: “Dutch parents raise the happiest children, in no small part helped by the government policies. Still, there are many things Americans can learn from, such as the family eating breakfast together, and children biking in all weathers. The Dutch have high ambitions for their children and see happiness as a means to success, the gateway to self-awareness, intrinsic motivation, independence, and positive ties with their communities.”

The Peril of Surplus Safety: Giving Kids Room to Become Adults [WATCH]

YH: “Children are drawn to things that we adults fear. We want to protect them and childproof their lives away. But does it work? People in Norway, Japan, and many other cultures, believe that the greatest safety precaution you can give a child is to let them take risks, so they can hone their judgement about what is safe and what is not, physically, emotionally, and socially.”

L’éducation “à la Française” [WATCH]

YH: “Here, an American journalist and mother speaks about what she learned from French parenting. (She’s speaking French, but the subtitles are in English.) She appeals to a French audience without pandering to them, and admits that American parenting aims to speed up the stages of our children’s development, calling it ‘a giant race from the cradle.’ Fortunately, she learns to parent with conventional French wisdom, which she summarizes into eight phrases: Hello, wait, be wise, you have to try it, balance, autonomy, it’s my decision, and poop sausage. Simple, right? Hear how she interprets them with glee and humility.”

Toilet Training at 2 Is Normal in U.S. But Very Late in China and Other Countries

YH: “Toilet training is a milestone in child-rearing. Compare the practices in first vs. third world countries, and gain a sobering perspective on nature vs. nurture, economics, and politics.”

A Chinese-Canadian to His Parents: ‘Privately, I Yearned for Your Love’

YH: “Before becoming Marvel’s first Asian superhero, Canadian actor Simu Liu had a childhood strikingly similar to mine, although we are not the same generation and grew up in different continents. His teenage angst mirrors my character Feng in my novel My Good Son. In broad strokes, Liu tells a timeless Chinese parenting story where a child learns to transform their anger and resentment into understanding and admiration for their parents. And that is a superhero feat.”

Letter From Africa: Parenting Culture Clash

YH: “In Ghana, children are taught to call an elder person with a title of respect like uncle or auntie. A teenager can enjoy being coddled, while their parents make the big decisions for them. What an indulgence! But with a price. It is similar in China, which led me to explore a clash of generations in My Good Son.”

What American Parents Can Learn From Chinese Philosophy

YH: “More Christine Gross-Loh here, this time about how kids relate to each other and the world. The Chinese philosophers saw the world as one of endless, shifting relationships—we have influence over the trajectory of our lives when we focus on learning how to relate well to others. Caring for one another is hard, albeit rewarding work. This is not just how our children will become better people and live better lives—it is how they can create a better world.”

Motherhood Around the World

YH: “This series on Cup of Jo features firsthand accounts of Americans parenting abroad as well as locals sharing how their home country approaches different aspects of raising children. I especially liked reading how one South African mother raises her mixed-raced child to be trilingual and specifically not colorblind in a culturally diverse environment with a wide socioeconomic gap. Also, this Colorado mom, now in Jordan, who shares her experience getting to know local Muslim women and their approach to food, soothing babies, and friendship.”

By: Yang Huang

Source: How Cultural Forces Shape Parenting Around the World

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