The 5 Most Awkward Things People Say to Adults Who Don't Have Kids

Be honest, even if it’s uncomfortable.

Posted Jun 18, 2020

Although the number of U.S. adults who don’t have children is on the rise, the social stigma remains. Research has found that people who don’t have kids are often viewed as less warm and as having less fulfilling lives. One recent study even found that they are more likely to be subject to moral outrage, characterized by feelings of disapproval, anger, annoyance, and disgust.

While not everyone may feel such a strong aversion, those who are more accepting can still be influenced by negative stereotypes, and these perceptions can shape the kinds of comments they make, even when they don’t intend to be hurtful. 

Whether you’re childfree by choice or circumstance, or somewhere in between, chances are you’ve heard comments about your status that caught you off guard. Sometimes they’re just awkward; other times they might feel like a punch to the gut. The following are suggestions for responding to five common types of remarks. 

1. “You don’t have kids? It must be nice to have all that free time.” Although this stereotype may seem like a positive one, it can have negative connotations—as one writer put it in a piece for Parents magazine, “Offhand comments like this make us feel like you assume the reason we don't have children is that we're lazy, selfish, or shallow.” Of course, this is not always the speaker’s assumption, but the statement can feel condescending nonetheless. 

For many non-parents, it’s also just not accurate. While some may enjoy a more carefree lifestyle, many others feel as overwhelmed as parents do by the responsibilities in their lives. They may work long hours or multiple jobs; they may be managing chronic illnesses; and they may be involved in other family caregiving roles, such as caring for aging parents—all of which are common, and in some cases more common, among people without kids. 

It doesn’t have to be a competition, but letting someone know what your life actually looks like can help dispel this stereotype—for example, “I wish that were the case, but between X, Y, and Z things are actually pretty busy.”

Another way to respond to a comment like this is to consider that it might have more to do with the other person’s situation than your own. Maybe they’re struggling with parenting and are genuinely envious of what they perceive as your more laid-back lifestyle. If you suspect this might be the case, you could shift the focus by asking how things have been going for them—they may just need to vent. 

2. “You’re not a parent; you wouldn’t understand.” Becoming a parent is a major life change, and it can be helpful to have the support of people who are in the same boat, but just because someone isn’t in that particular boat doesn’t mean they can’t be understanding too. Empathy involves sharing in someone else’s feelings and imagining what it’s like to be in their shoes—from their perspective. It’s not just about knowing what something feels like based on having been there ourselves; in fact, if we assume that we already get it, that can limit our ability to really hear what the other person is saying. 

In addition to reassuring someone that you still care and want to understand, it may be helpful (if applicable) to mention times when they were there for you even when they couldn’t personally relate, and how you appreciate that your differences don’t have to create a rift between you. In a world of contentious online comments and disheartening opinion pieces, it can seem like parents and non-parents live on separate planets, unable to relate, let alone be friends, but in reality, this is only true if we make it so.

3. “When you’re not a parent, the focus is all on you. Becoming a parent allows you to care about something beyond yourself.” While this comment may be true for someone personally, it’s a big leap to generalize it to others. It carries the implication that non-parents must be more selfish or lack meaning in their lives, which is not the case. Most research finds little difference in measures of psychological well-being between parents and non-parents, and non-parents are just as giving as their parenting peers. One writer describes the many ways she contributes to the world and connects with others despite not being a mom.

A good way to respond to a comment like this is often just to be direct and set the record straight—for example, “I think people can find that higher sense of purpose and care for others in a lot of different ways, whether or not they have kids.” 

4. “I don’t want you to regret this later. Having kids would make you so happy.” A critical part of a healthy relationship—whether with friends, family, or others—is the ability to celebrate the good things in the other person’s life, even if they’re not the ones you personally have or would choose. Kids can bring lots of joy, but when they are the focus, other sources of joy and fulfillment may be overlooked. When friends or family members struggle to recognize the things you value, no matter how heartfelt their intentions, it can feel isolating and demoralizing. 

To nudge them in a different direction, you could say something like, “I know you’re looking out for my best interest and I appreciate your perspective, but right now I actually have a lot of exciting things going on that I would love to tell you about.” Whether you’re committed to a childfree life or you do ultimately want kids, it’s important to feel that your life is valued as it is now. 

5. “You won’t know what it’s like to experience true love until you have kids.” No matter how love-filled your life is, it can be hard to know how to challenge comments like this when you’re not a parent. They may even sow seeds of self-doubt, as you wonder if you really are missing out.

Rest assured though that plenty of parents can vouch for the fact that while parental love is unique and special, so is all love. As one writer puts it in a piece for Quartz, “Now that I’ve been on both sides of the fence, I’m very happy to report that things are just as I’d assumed they would be. That love is love, wherever you’re standing.”  

To respond to the comment above, you could remind the person that love is a subjective and personal experience—for example, “That might be true for you, but people can experience love in different ways.” And if you feel comfortable, you could mention that comments like this are not only inaccurate but also hurtful and offensive. 

Fielding comments like these can be depleting. Sometimes it’s easier just to let them slide, but other times it may be worth speaking up, especially when they come from someone close to you. They may not realize the impact of their words, and while hearing the truth may be unpleasant, it will hopefully inspire them to be more thoughtful in the future. 

One thing that may help others be more receptive to your feedback: You could acknowledge that you’ve likely made hurtful comments without realizing it too, and you hope they will let you know if that happens. We all have our blind spots, and we’re lucky if we have people in our life who are willing to point them out to us, and willing to listen when we do the same. 

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Ashburn-Nardo, L. (2017). Parenthood as a moral imperative? Moral outrage and the stigmatization of voluntarily childfree women and men. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 76(5-6), 393–401.

Batson, C. D., Early, S., & Salvarini, G. (1997). Perspective taking: Imagining how another feels versus imagining how you would feel. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 751–758.

Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), 228–245.

Koropeckyj‐Cox, T. (2002). Beyond parental status: Psychological well‐being in middle and old age. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64, 957-971.

Koropeckyj-Cox, T., Çopur, Z., Romano, V., & Cody-Rydzewski, S. (2018). University students' perceptions of parents and childless or childfree couples. Journal of Family Issues, 39(1), 155–179.