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Do Children Really Make Us Unhappy?

Do children really cause us to become less happy than our childless counterparts? Or are we allowing our offspring to make us unhappy?

Economist Bryan Caplan, writing in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, says its not our progeny themselves that are making us miserable, but instead it’s the cult of parent perfection that’s turning us into a generation of maternal and paternal killjoys.

If you believe that every single action you take has the potential to impact your children for good or ill, Caplan argues you will never be satisfied with your accomplishments as a parent. Luckily, Caplan sees a solve. Back off, he says. There is precious little evidence that our actions vis-Ý -vis our kids make as big an impact as we believe they do. As he writes:

If you enjoy reading with your children, wonderful. But if you skip the nightly book, you’re not stunting their intelligence, ruining their chances for college or dooming them to a dead-end job. The same goes for the other dilemmas that weigh on parents’ consciences. Watching television, playing sports, eating vegetables, living in the right neighborhood: Your choices have little effect on your kids’ development, so it’s OK to relax. In fact, relaxing is better for the whole family. Riding your kids “for their own good” rarely pays off, and it may hurt how your children feel about you …

If you can’t bring yourself to let go, however, Caplan still has good news for you. Those happiness surveys that say parents are miserable  … well, they might not even be accurate. When it comes to parenthood and contentment, many researchers are making the mistake of comparing people who are not alike. When happiness surveyors break out the data on similar types of people such as churchgoers who do and don’t have children, the satisfaction quotient between parents and the non-parents are often within one or two percentage points of one another.

But I suspect there is something else going on in the happiness data, something Caplan does not address. Real estate agents often say “buyers are liars.” What they mean by that phrase is, well, what it sounds like. People often don’t tell the truth about the things that mean the most to them.

We live, as journalist Peggy Orenstein wrote about the successes and failures of the feminist movement, in “a half-changed world.” Women are told to put their professional life first, but are often still primarily judged on their ability to get married and raise a family (If you doubt that, please feel free to leave alternate explanations for phenomena’s ranging from bridezillas to the cult of motherhood in the comments section of this post). How’s a girl supposed to resolve a contradiction like this?

Enter the culture of complaint and kvetch. Whining about the burdens of parenthood allows us to boast about our accomplishment in having kids while denigrating it at the same time. It is the ultimate passive aggressive stance, a self-congratulatory way of giving the childless their due while simultaneously reminding them of their lack of maternal achievement.

I suspect I am onto to something here. As Caplan points out, the supposedly less dissatisfied childless tend to express more doubts and regrets about their chosen life path. On the other hand the vast majority of parents, despite all their bellyaching, say they would do it again in a heartbeat.  Perhaps, as KJ Dell’Antonia wrote in Slate’s DoubleX blog, “There’s a flip side to the happiness studies, too. I think many of us read them and say, wait, that’s not right—my kids make me happy!”

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Photo: Andre Engels

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