Back to the Debate on Who’s Happiest – Parents or Non-Parents

Laura Carroll, Childfree Choice

Here we go again. An article on USAToday.com, “Parents are happier than non-parents, studies suggest” talks about two new studies that involve data from thousands of adults around the globe.  Here is what researcher Chris Herbst of Arizona State University says is undeniable about the findings…

First a couple of quotes from the article that pop out at me that deserve question.

1. “The overall net effect of having children is positive.”

Ok, for parents who want children and have them, for many the net effect is positive. But does this mean the overall effect is negative if we don’t have kids? It can be negative if you don’t have them and want them, but what if you don’t have them because you don’t want them?  From tracking those who have no children by choice for about 10 years now, I would say that the overall net effect of not having children if you don’t want them is positive!

2. “..happiness among non-parents has declined, thus making parents happier in comparison.”

Head scratch. Why has non-parent happiness declined? Because they don’t have kids? If it relates to not having kids, I would argue that this only accounts for those who have wanted them but don’t have them.  What are other reasons for the decline? And why does the decline in one group automatically make the other happier?

What does Herbst say is undeniable? That “parents have become relatively happier than non-parents over the past few decades.”

Although “conventional wisdom that’s developed over the past few decades…has said parents are less happy, more depressed and have less-satisfying marriages” than their “childless counterparts” (Childless? Childfree? It is unclear), supposedly there have been problems with earlier studies (such as using “cross-sectional research methods that don’t take into account individual personality differences”), and the new studies are better.

I say there still are problems with the newer studies because they don’t take into account the reasons behind the non-parent status–which respondents were childLess? Temporarily childLess? Or childfree?

Studies and articles that report on them that don’t include or speak to these variables continue to reinforce the pronatalist notion that having kids is what makes us happy in life, when the reality is this is just not true for everyone. So many other factors go into what it means when we say we are happy–so can we put the debate to rest on whether the happiness buck stops with kids?

16 thoughts on “Back to the Debate on Who’s Happiest – Parents or Non-Parents

  1. There is one huge thing to consider when trying to figure out which group of people, the childFREE or the childed, are happier: Regret.

    Take a search on the internet and look for websites or forums containing posts from parents who are miserable with their being parents and how their lives (and often, marriages) have worsened and how they wish they had not had their kid(s). Many of those websites have the word “confession” in them.

    Then take a search on the internet and look for wesites and forums containing posts about childFREE people who are miserable with their lives without having kids. Guess what – you won’t find any!

    This overwhelmingly lopsided difference tells me that we childfree are far happier with our choices to be childfree than parents are with their choices.

  2. Studies show everything today. No matter which side of any argument you want to be on, there’s going to be a study for or against it. I personally like how you pointed out these studies are deficient in identifying what types of childless couples were being studied. I know many couple with kids who are not happy, some who are, and the same for childless. However, the childless ones I know that are most unhappy are the ones struggling to try and conceive. It’s all relative.

  3. I remember an Oprah show many years back where a couple of women admitted that if they had known then what they know now, they would never have had children. It wasn’t that they didn’t love their children, its just they didn’t know they had a choice at the time and really did not have a desire for those children.
    Of course, some woman called into the show and basically said that was blasphemy to say such a thing.
    Anyway, I think much of the “I’m so happy because I love my kids and can’t imagine life without them” kind of raving is part truth and part defensive rhetoric.

  4. Let’s say the study is totally true and parents report that they’re happier at higher numbers than nonparents do. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s true.

    ONE possible conclusion is that parenting makes you happier.

    There are lots of other possible explanations for the data:

    1. People who become parents have lower requirements for being happy. They are more easily satisfied.

    2. Parents are people who are happy following social expectations of them. They get a sense of well-being from being in the majority.

    3. Parents have a knee-jerk reaction to the question of happiness, while non-parents may be more honest and thoughtful about their lives. There is a greater taboo against parents expressing regret about their lives than for nonparents.

    4. Non-parents may be more driven than parents are by motives besides a search for individual happiness.

    5. Society makes life easier for parents than it does for non-parents. Society caters to the desires of parents more than non-parents, so of course parents will report higher satisfaction.

    I’d be curious to see the data on the more extreme expressions of unhappiness — are nonparents more likely to commit suicide than parents, adjusting for age?

  5. In this age where attachment parenting, in a strange syncopation with the expanding tentacles of the nanny state, reaches ever more radical extremes (how ABOUT that Time cover?), I am happy as heck to not be a parent. Oh sure, one can march to their own beat, to a point. But it is an increasingly difficult row to hoe.

  6. I find that, very often,”breeder’s” are automatically contradictory to us/childFREEbychoice out of spite. They are oozing with jealousy! The “audacity” of a human being to make the decision not to reproduce is unfathomable! How archaic is that???!!?

  7. Great answer, Scott! I think you might be onto something there.

    Like Steveo1965, I’m happier and happier not to be a parent these days. I had my core reasons, but if I had any doubt whatsoever, the attachment parenting trend, as well as “Mama Bear” moms and child-centric marriages, capped it all off. I don’t want to be like those people. Ever. There’s something creepily Stepford about how parents embrace these things without question, how selflessness to the point of martyrdom is expected of women. It’s insane to live one’s life so fully, so devotedly, so downright obsessively, for another person. Yes, even one’s child.

  8. To deegee – that’s not true, I’ve seen regret stories from both sides. Most people are happy with their decisions, either way, and some people are not. That’s inevitable. If you are searching the internet for confessions you will find what you are searching for, one will always find stories to support their own point of view. Similarily for ‘regret of abortion’ you will find tons of stories of regretful women, many childless – this is just an example to show that your conclusion is incorrect. There are pros and cons to both lifestyles and to each their own. I wish people would just accept others’ choices. I don’t think one set of people are happier than the other merely due to having children or not.

  9. Methodologically speaking I guess my biggest concerns without reading the actual study yet would be

    1) Instrument design (was it tested for multiple types of validity? How are items scored? are questions for the different conditions counter-balanced? Was there control for the effects of language translation [where applicable]?)

    2) Anonymity for participants (or lack thereof)and the potential effect on responses

    3)Hypothesis ‘blindness’ for the participants and the experimenters they interacted with (i.e. did everyone involved know who was sponsoring this study and why?)

    4) Operational definitions, specifically the distinction that Laura pointed out – who was “childless” in this study? Also, the article talks about “parental wellbeing” but the title explicitly talks about happiness. Those concepts aren’t interchangeable and using them synonymously could have led to results that don’t really answer the primary questions that the researchers wanted to investigate.

    This is why I hate when mainstream media reports on any sort of study, whether it’s hard science or soft. In an effort to summarize the conclusions and explain them in language that laypeople would understand there’s no guarantee that the news writer’s interpretation is correct (how many of these people took and passed Stats courses in college?). Then there’s the fact that media outlets take often liberties with information in order to appeal to certain demographics or get higher ratings/website hits. Until I’m able to read this study for myself this article is just more pop psych drivel.

  10. Scott brought up some great points. I also think it depends on how we define happy. I wonder what the questions were on the survey. It seems like there was not a distinction between childfree and childless. Being someone who does not want children I am happy with my life. However, living in a location that is saturated with parents it can feel very isolating.

  11. It seems to me that these so-called “studies” are actually dishonest if they’re purposely avoiding the separation of childLESS people (those who may want to have a child but can’t due to various reasons) and childFREE people who don’t have kids because they don’t want them. That’s a huge difference, which I think is deliberately ignored.

    I have read material at online sites from a lot of parents who deeply regret having children at all, and did so primarily because they bought false pronatalist arguments. I’ve never run across a childFREE person who regretted her or his decision NOT to have children, either online or in person. Therefore, I don’t buy the hype that “parents are happier than non-parents.” Since the group of non-parents includes the childFREE, those who don’t have kids because they don’t WANT them, I think the claim is quite dishonest.

  12. Sparky, sorry but you are still wrong. I did another search for the words “childfree” and “regret” and all I find are articles by Laura Carroll, a few scattered articles which ask the question, and some childfree forums I am familiar with and includes those two words only by saying “I am childfree and do not regret it!”. No forums containing entries from childfree people actually regretting their choice, unlike the many forums with entries from miserable parents who wished they never had kids.

    Also remember that is is much easier to undo the decision to be childfree than it is to undo the decision to be a parent. You can’t just “give them back” if you are miserable as a parent but many child-“free” people, if they happen to realize at some point they made the wrong choice, can undo their decision to be childfree and have a kid. (I contend they were never really childFREE but either childLESS or “fence-sitters” and remedied their situation.) Add to that the fact that childfree people put a lot more thought into their decision than have many parents and you can see why there is no regret on the childfree side compared to the regret on the childed side.

  13. RE: You can’t just “give them back” if you are miserable as a parent

    But if rich you can give them over to a nanny, and if poor, give them over to the TV / gangs / drugs / etc. And it happens. A lot.

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