The Understanding Society Study is an ongoing look at individual, social and family life in the UK, following 40,000 families over several years. In early findings—culled from a sample of men, women and children aged 10-15, the study’s authors report that a child’s happiness seems to directly correlate with how happy his or her mother is in her marriage.
In families where the mother described herself as “perfectly happy” with her marital relationship, almost 3/4 of children surveyed described themselves as “completely happy” with their family situation.In families where mothers said they were unhappy in their marriages, that number dropped to 55 percent.
Interestingly, while children’s family happiness seemed to directly align with their mothers’ marital happiness, the same was not true for fathers.
There was some correlation with a father’s happiness, but it was much less pronounced. Perhaps most notably, Dads who rated themselves “perfectly happy” did not have the highest number of happy children. More kids said they were completely happy when their Dads marked their happiness quotient right in the middle: between perfectly happy and unhappy.
Happiness studies are always a little iffy, in my view. Happiness is not a static state. Most people I know go through waves of feeling great and not so great about their relationships. I’m sure this is increasingly true about kids and their parents as time goes on and children begin to better understand the nuances of their needs and desires—and how they clash with their parents agendas. Since this study will be continuing over a number of years, I wonder whether time will have any effect on these findings.
I also wonder what causes the discrepancy between parents and their apparent influences. Are kids more connected to their mothers? Is a mothers’ unhappiness simply more visible? If so, is this because mothers are more present, or because they are more emotive? And why would children be more likely to be content with their families when fathers are just quite happy than when they’re “perfectly” so? Is there something about a man’s idea of perfection that might not gel with a child’s idea of complete happiness?
And, I wonder how this research will be perceived by the many mothers out there who don’t count themselves in the “perfectly happy” camp. Which, according to the study, is just under 90% of women surveyed. What the report doesn’t stress is that happiness is a continuum, in this study as in life, and the difference in children’s reported happiness is only radical when a “perfectly happy” mother is compared to one who calls herself “unhappy”. In reality, most people would probably put themselves somewhere in the middle: “extremely happy”, “very happy” or just “happy” enough.
But what if a mother is geniunely unhappy? In her new post at Bad Mom’s Club, Annie takes this question on.
“What is a mother who is unhappy in her current relationship supposed to do with this piece of information? Work on her relationship so that she can be happy again? Get out of that relationship immediately and go searching for a happier one ASAP? Fake a smile and pretend that everything is okay? Or just blame herself when her children are not happy?”
The best path might not be so clear. But Annie stresses the importance of not trying to fake it:
“Do you really want to teach your daughter to grin and bear it if she is in an unhappy marriage? Or teach your son that his wife owes it to the family to put her happy face on?”
I grew up in a house where honesty ruled, perhaps in the extreme. So my personal (if somewhat reflexive) position is similar to Annie’s. But I know honesty is not everyone’s family policy, especially when the going gets rough. I wonder about all those families where children see their parents as happy, then get blindsided by their parents divorces later. Are those faking-it situations? Are there subtle signs being picked up by kids, and if so, are they factoring into their perceptions of their own family happiness?
The study also found that children of two parent households were happiest, which jams moms in unhappy marriages between a rock and a hard place. But only, as Annie points out on Bad Mom, if they’re actually aiming for perfection. Though we don’t see the increments of children’s happiness clearly charted in these findings, we can assume that there is a range in their responses as well. Even in families where mothers were unhappy, 55% of children rated their family happiness as optimal. Which leaves, if we use the parental increments as a model, “extremely happy” “very happy” and “happy” or some likely equivalents. Remember, these are tweens and teens we’re talking about. How would you have rated your family happiness at 14?