Parenting: A joy or a trial?

Spring 1973

In an article in the latest issue of The Psychologist, Dr Nattavudh Powdthavee, of the University’s Department of Economics and Related Studies, offers an explanation to one of the most surprising conclusions of recent research into wellbeing—that having children does not increase our level of happiness.

“Social scientists have found almost zero association between having children and happiness,” he said. “In a recent study of British adults for example we found that parents and non-parents reported the same levels of life satisfaction. Other studies from Europe and the USA found that parents report significantly lower levels of satisfaction than people who haven’t had children.”

Dr. Powdthavee says we suffer from a “focusing illusion,” in that we tend to think only about the good things of being a parent, and less about the bad things. This is mainly because we believe that the rare but meaningful experiences like a child’s first smile or seeing them get married will give us a big boost of long-lasting happiness.

However, we rarely think about these big experiences on a daily basis, simply because they do not occur to us every day. Instead, we spend much of our time attending to the nitty-grittys of child care—problems at school, cooking, diaper changing, laundry—which are much more frequent but a lot less important events. And it is these small but frequent negative experiences that are more likely to impact on our day-to-day levels of happiness and life satisfaction.

It seems to me Powdthavee is clearly identifying the world-view that “it’s all about me.” Apparently, anything that doesn’t focus on me is a negative, thus the core processes of child care, like cooking and laundry, are negative events that impact our day-to-day level of happiness and life satisfaction.

Taken to a logical conclusion, this self-centered world view leads to mistreatment and abandonment of children when the “nuisance” value becomes too high. One can argue that abortion is simply a pre-emptive abandonment of a child before birth.

A Christ-centered world view is quite different. Psalms 127:3-5 says:

“Sons are a heritage from the LORD, 
       children a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior 
       are sons born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man 
       whose quiver is full of them. 
       They will not be put to shame 
       when they contend with their enemies in the gate.”

Kids are our heritage from God. They are valued by God, and therefore we are blessed to have them.

In response to our inclination to be completely self-centered, Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).

How did Jesus love? His love wasn’t just a feeling, it was marked with sacrificial action for others. And his command is that we love one another (through sacrificial action). This must be practiced first with our spouse and children.

Still, we do encounter far more mundane activities than high-points in life. To counter the tendency toward negativity, Paul gave the Thessalonians some final instructions: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). These three things help keep us focused, not on the illusory, but on the “Truth.”

By holding to this world view and practicing these principles, I believe that the most significant accomplishment of my life has been the raising of my children. Of course it wasn’t easy; it was often a challenge, but I never equated happiness with an easy life and lack of challenge.

2 comments to Parenting: A joy or a trial?

  • Dan

    I cannot help but be amused that you never quite answered the question posed in the title. (chuckle) Significant, OK. But joy, or trial?

  • Phil

    The headline editor has been put on notice. Of course, children are a trial, but that’s not necessarily bad. Folks regularly seek out trials to give their life meaning. The sense of Powdthavee’s article is that children make parents unhappy, so perhaps a better title would be Parenting: a joy or an unhappy experience.

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