Do Children Make Their Parents Happy?

A new study sheds light on the association of having children and happiness.

Posted Oct 31, 2020

Are people with children happier than couples that remain childless? 

Intuitively, many people would answer this question with a "yes," but scientific studies suggest that reality is decidedly more complicated than this simple assumption. A new study, now published in the Journal of Population Economics, analyzed survey data from more than one million people collected over 11 years to identify factors that influence how the presence of children affects the well-being of parents (Blanchflower and Clark, 2020).

The first analysis, taking no additional factors into account, revealed a surprising finding: On average, having children was associated with lower well-being of the parents than not having children, based on data from the US General Social Survey. This finding was statistically significant for both men and women.

How could this counterintuitive finding be explained?

To find out, the scientists analyzed the dataset further. First, they included household income in the model, reasoning that children are expensive. In poorer families, this financial strain may reduce happiness. Even in this analysis, having children was associated with lower well-being of the parents than not having children. 

However, household income may not be a good indicator of financial stress. A family with low income that lives in an area with a low cost of living might experience less financial stress than a family with a higher income that lives in an area with a much higher cost of living. Therefore, the researchers conducted an additional analysis in which they included a direct measure of whether or not the family experienced difficulties in paying bills in the last year. This analysis showed that difficulties in paying bills represented a central influence factor for the relation of having children and parental well-being. When the researchers statistically controlled for financial difficulties, having children was actually related to greater well-being in parents. 

The researchers then continued to also include the age of the children in their analyses. Here, another interesting finding was observed. While having younger children was related to higher well-being in parents, this relation was much less strong for teenagers, possibly reflecting increasing conflicts between parents and children as children get older. Moreover, having step-children was related to less parental well-being than having their own children from the current relationship.

Taken together, the relationship between having children and parental well-being is not as simple as one might think, with financial difficulties playing a large role in whether or not having children leads to greater happiness.

References

Blanchflower, D.G., Clark, A.E. Children, unhappiness and family finances. J Popul Econ (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00148-020-00798-y