New York Magazine recently published a piece called All Joy and No Fun trying to tease apart a puzzle. How do you reconcile these two findings?

  • Few people regret becoming parents and many people regret not having children.  Most people will say that they love their children beyond reckoning and that they bring immeasurable joy into their lives.

  • But people don’t like parenting.

People with children are no happier than people without them.  Marital quality declines after the birth of a child and falls precipitously during adolescence.  When 909 Texas women ranked how pleasurable daily tasks are, parenting was ranked sixteenth, after cooking, watching TV, exercising, shopping, and housework. 

If children bring us so much joy, why don’t we like caring for them?

The article goes into a number of explanations, mostly from a behavioral economic perspective.  The arguments make sense:

  • In many cultures, children are seen as something to enjoy and nurture.  In our culture, they are seen as a ‘project’ to perfect.  As adults make the transition to parenthood later, well into their work lives, they tend to look at parenting as a task that can be perfected.  There’s always something you can do better, and this adds stress to parenting.  Interestingly, the higher income parents have (and, presumably, the more they define themselves through their careers) the less they enjoy parenting.

  • Parenting involves many frustrating moments (do your homework RIGHT NOW!) but fewer moments of joy.  Thus the ratio of unenjoyable to enjoyable moments is high 

  • The more you take on parenting tasks, the less happy with parenting you are.  Mothers are less happy than fathers.  Single mothers are less happy than married ones.

According to the piece, many parents don’t believe this research.  They acknowledge that parenting has its bad moments, but can’t imagine being happy without their children.  Being a parent is part of who they are.

As a methodologist, I can think of at least five possible explanation for these anomolous findings.   

Population variability.  First, it’s part of the inherent problem of psychology: “I’M not like that”.  The science of psychology describes what populations are like, not what individuals are like.  Parents, on average, may be less happy than non-parents.  But individual parents are certainly happier than individual non-parents. So one explanation of people’s resistance to the findings may be that it is not true FOR THEM, although it may be true of the population as a whole.  This is a failure of generalizability in a variable population.

A failure of imagination.  Second, we can’t know what our lives would be like if we’d made different choices.  This is especially true when a life decision changes, not one thing, but everything.  Having a child changes your time use, your self-definition, your peer group, your relationship with peers, your social role within society . . . In a word, EVERYTHING.  What would my life be like without my kids?  I have no idea.  So if you ask me to imagine whether I would have been happier without them, I can’t imagine it.  And even trying to imagine it makes me feel disloyal to them.  I love them so much – how could I wish they’d never been born?  Thus two populations could differ in happiness – parents and non-parents – without either group feeling that they would be happier in the other group.

Comparing stereotypesIn addition, when parents think about what it would be like to never had had children and non-parents think about their lives as parents, we can’t think about the reality. We compare our current reality to stereotypes.  The robust stereotype most adults have of childless couples is that their lives are empty, lonely, and that they are selfish.  Research that this stereotype is untrue has not changed it.  Thus when thinking of how happy they would be without children, parents compare their lives with a negative stereotype.  Childless adults have two stereotypes to compare their lives to: the glowing idealization of parents and the stereotype of overwhelmed parents burdened with mis-behaving children.  Perhaps not surprisingly, childless adults seem to have less trouble believing that parenting isn’t fun than parents do.

Self selection.  An additional problem in studies of this nature is, of course, self-selection.  Although becoming a parent or remaining childless are statuses that can certainly be entered into involuntarily or by chance, for many people, it is a conscious choice.  To the extent that it is a choice, the two groups are fundamentally different and each may be happy with their choice.  Or, as much research suggests is true for decisions, once we commit, we create reasons for believing it is the best one we could have made.

Construct validity.  Finally, I can’t help but think that part of the problem may be construct validity.  Construct validity is the extent to which a measure accurately assesses the construct or idea that it purports to assess.  When people loudly protest that findings by psychologists aren’t accurately capturing their feelings, I tend to believe them.  Behavior, no.  People have lousy insight into their behavior.  But feelings? How  can you tell someone they don’t feel what they say they do?

Take the word ‘parenting’.  To me – as a naïve observer, but also as someone who studies parenting for a iiving – the word evokes active and more or less intentional behaviors.  When I measure parenting style, for example, I measure three components: demandingness, supportiveness, and autonomy-granting.  Demandingness is the extent to which parents hold children to high standards of behavior and, in some measures, how strictly they enforce rules.  Supportiveness is the extent to which parents express unconditional support for their children in times of need.  Autonomy-granting is the extent to which parents allow or encourage children to think for themselves and to argue with parents as well as the extent to which parents explain and justify rules to their children. 

'Demanding', 'being supportive', or 'granting autonomy' are all active verbs - they require a lot of work.  Especially the demanding part.  When I think of the word ‘parenting’ (another active verb), I think of asking my kids to set the table, getting them to do their homework, or getting my youngest to practice his violin and my eldest to get feedback on his resume as he works assiduously at finding a job. Without, of course, being too pushy, getting into an argument, or squashing their autonomy.   This is hard work.  It is also probably the least pleasurable part of my interactions with them.   

That isn’t the fun part of being a parent.  The fun part of being a parent for me is hanging out watching videos, having tea, having them spontaneously come over and hug me, being amazed at how good they are at doing things and how little push they need to do what they’re supposed to, and the quiet wonder of just being with them watching them GROW . . .

Parenting is full of unexpected pleasures.  It used to amaze me when they were babies that their bodies were so perfect or how good they smelled.  Listening to my youngest practice a violin etude last night – one he had bored himself silly with all summer – I was just awestruck that this kid who has terrible handwriting, who likes fencing with sticks in the back yard and who will do anything to start a water fight – could make such truly beautiful music.  I love just watching the look of concentration on his face as he focuses on it. 

Note that, unlike the behaviors evoked by the word 'parenting', these these are passive behaviors.  They involve just sitting back and enjoying my kids being themselves.

None of those pleasures are captured in a standard measure of ‘parenting’ or - I think - evoked by the word 'parenting' as it is used in studies of time use.  That isn’t parenting.  It’s being a parent.  If you asked me about how I felt about parenting, none of those pleasures would be assessed, because that’s not what I think of when I think of the word.  That is an issue of construct validity.

More nuanced studies of the experience of parenting that capture how we feel when we are with our kids (both the frustration and guilt as well as the happiness and pride) may do a better job of capturing the construct.  Such studies are underway.  I doubt they will change the findings that show overall differences in the happiness or (a different construct) life satisfaction of parents and non-parents.  But they may do a better job of capturing the experience of parents, rather than the experience of parenting.

© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

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