I’ve just returned from a weekend the major point of which was to be away from three children for two nights.  For the first time in perhaps 7 years I slept for more than 10 hours twice in a row.

Chris Dillow, usefully, quotes some new research on the subject:

Having children is negatively related to subjective well-being. Conditioning on individual characteristics shows that the effect of parenthood on well-being is positive and significant only for widowers, older and highly educated individuals…On the basis of a purely economic approach, the optimal number of children for a rational agent is zero.

Chris goes on to point out that other research finds that married couples are made happier by children.  The reason for the pattern is that children are expensive.  If you can afford them, then they make you happy.  But I am surprised that the ‘time factor’ is not mentioned.  This is the major shock for new parent – more than the crap, the toys, the dreadful TV –  and the reason, perhaps, that they cannot possibly anticipate the drop in superficial life enjoyment.  Not since first attending school at the age of 4 do you experience such a remorseless assault on  your free time.

Having money doesn’t entirely fix the time thing, and though the nanny etc may help, the ability to have a nanny tends to go with other characteristics, like a mad desire for violin and ballet lessons, that suck time away in other ways.

The other issue that Chris misses, IMHO, is that the rationality one needs to explain the persistent need to have kids, despite the unhappiness it causes people, is evolutionary rationality.  In other words, it may not suit the mother or father’s lifestyle choice to have a screaming brat, but it sure suits their genes in their remoresless quest for immortaility.   Every parent knows that the parent-child relationship is the most asymmetric: we will spend a lifetime thinking of ours, and they will barely spare us a thought in 20 years.  We are somehow programmed not to care.

Finally, this last point morphs into something more sentimental.  Subjective wellbeing is no longer the measure of all things when you become a parent.  Your ‘self’ is enlarged.  Your children’s happiness doesn’t matter just because it makes you happy: it matters, full stop.  You identify with them, so that your own self is no longer the repository of the answer.    The question is not logically the same as asking whether having an iPod or 50 extra TV channels makes you happier: one of the options changes the subject of the question itself. The question to ask is: does becoming a parent increase the wellbeing of you and your kids as they come to exist?  And the answer is always yes.

I’ve just returned from a weekend the major point of which was to be away from three children for two nights.  For the first time in perhaps 7 years I slept for more than 10 hours twice in a row.
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8 thoughts on “Children, happiness and other stuff

  1. “The continuance and propagation of the species depend altogether upon the former, and not upon the latter. In ordinary cases, the existence and preservation of the child depend altogether upon the care of the parents. Those of the parents seldom depend upon that of the child. Nature, therefore, has rendered the former affection so strong, that it generally requires not to be excited, but to be moderated; and moralists seldom endeavour to teach us how to indulge, but generally how to restrain our fondness, our excessive attachment, the unjust preference which we are disposed to give to our own children above those of other people. They exhort us, on the contrary, to an affectionate attention to our parents, and to make a proper return to them, in their old age, for the kindness which they had shown to us in our infancy and youth.”

    – Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments

  2. Sorry, missed off the first sentence:

    “Nature, for the wisest purposes, has rendered, in most men, perhaps in all men, parental tenderness a much stronger affection than filial piety.”

  3. Smith was there first on so much.

    For me, Tim, the symptom is being able to recite entire scripts of Peppa Pig off by heart.

  4. It was my daughter’s eighteenth birthday yesterday. This is part of what my son (16) wrote in her card, “I can still remember our own shop in our garage at R, where did childhood go!!” The gamut of feelings this releases is as wide as an ocean. It includes sadness and joy. His, hers, ours. In this statement we are together and apart.

  5. I’m already getting a bit choked about the idea of them leaving. The notion that some day some other person will have a stronger claim on M, F or D’s affections is almost impossible to contemplate – and so unfair, given the investment and heartache sunk there. I warn M (now 7) that she is halfway to the age at which she stops wanting to be seen with me: I hope that if I keep saying this, it will never happen . ..

  6. I’m lucky – M is a real daddy’s girl. She even enjoys the Beano, and last night read my copy of Danny the Champion of the World through.

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