Samantha Joel Ph.D.

Dating Decisions

Mo' Money, Mo' Problems

How having more money can make you a worse parent

Posted Jun 26, 2013

Common sense suggests that people should get their financial ducks in a row before having children. Indeed, couples frequently put off having children because they first want to be more financially secure. There are definitely some important upsides to this strategy; for example, kids tend to be healthier and happier when their parents are more well-off.1 But might there also be downsides to pursuing wealth before parenting?

Past research shows that having money, or even just being reminded of money, motivates people to pursue personal goals and to maintain their independence from others—what researchers call agentic goals.2,3 Kushlev and colleagues4 hypothesized that the agentic goals associated with money might be incongruent with the more interdependent, other-focused goal—what researchers call a communal goal—of caring for children. Therefore, parents who focus on achieving financial security—and thus derive a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives through more individualistic goals—might have more difficulty achieving a sense of meaning and purpose from parenting.

The researchers tested this idea with two studies. In the first study, parents recalled events from the previous day and how much meaning and purpose they felt during each event. The researchers found that parents with greater income and education derived less meaning and purpose from taking care of their kids, although they did not derive less meaning and purpose from other activities (Study 1). But, given the correlational nature of that study, it could just be that those who get less meaning from parenting are more likely to pursue higher paying jobs. To help determine whether the thought of money was really responsible for the pattern observed in Study 1, the researchers conducted an experiment in which they surveyed parents who were at a festival with their children. The clipboard that the parents were given to complete the survey either had pictures of cash on it (the wealth condition) or pictures of flowers (the control condition). Participants who were reminded of money with pictures of bills reported experiencing significantly less meaning and purpose from attending the festival with their children (mean of 3.33 on a scale of 0 to 6), compared to the participants who were not reminded of money (mean of 4.14). Note that parents who were reminded of money still gave responses that were above the midpoint of the scale, suggesting that they still derived some sense of meaning and purpose from their parenting experience. But, they reported less meaning relative to parents who were not reminded of money, suggesting that money and parenting do not mix as well as one might expect.

Overall, this work suggests that the individualistic goal associated with financial wealth may undermine the more relational goal of taking care of children; money is associated with goals such as being independent and pursuing personal success, which are somewhat incongruent with the goals of caring for others and fostering interdependent relationships. Importantly, the researchers note that they are not recommending that couples avoid pursuing wealth before having children, especially given previous research on the benefits of financial security for raising children. But, the research does suggest that the act of becoming parents may require couples to shift their goals in a major way, especially for those who have worked hard to achieve high levels of financial success prior to parenthood.

This post was originally written for the website Science of Relationships.

1. Chen, E., Matthews, K. A., & Boyce, W. T. (2002). Socioeconomic differences in children’s health: How and why do these relationships change with age? Psychological Bulletin, 128, 295-329.

2. Liu, J., Smeesters, D., & Vohs, K. D. (2012). Reminders of money elicit feelings of threat and reactance in response to social influence. Journal of Consumer Research, 38, 1030-1046.

3. Piff, P. K., Kraus, M. W., Côté, S., Cheng, B. H., & Keltner, D. (2010). Having less, giving more: The influence of social class on prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 771-784.

4. Kushlev, K., Dunn, E. W., & Ashton, C. E. (2012). Does affluence impoverish the experience of parenting? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 1381-1384.