All Joy and No Fun Why parents hate parenting. He spotted me as I was rounding the corner, and the scene that followed was one of inexpressible loveliness, right out of the movie I’d played to myself before actually having a child, with him popping out of his babysitter’s arms and barreling down the street to greet me. I was guided by nerves, trawling the cabinets for alcohol. My emotional life looks a lot like this these days. From the perspective of the individual, however, it’s more of a mystery than one might think. Most people assume that having children will make them happier. Yet a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so.
This finding is surprisingly consistent, showing up across a range of disciplines. The idea that parents are less happy than nonparents has become so commonplace in academia that it was big news last year when the Journal of Happiness Studies published a Scottish paper declaring the opposite was true. Yet one can see why people were rooting for that paper. The results of almost all the others violate a parent’s deepest intuition. Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist and host of This Emotional Life on PBS, wrote fewer than three pages about compromised parental well-being in Stumbling on Happiness.
But whenever he goes on the lecture circuit, skeptical questions about those pages come up more frequently than anything else. Next: So what, precisely, is going on here? Justin Davidson: How Can the Vienna Philharmonic Change Without Changing? Why Are There So Many Bisexuals on TV All of a Sudden? While there’s no doubt that school is important, a clutch of recent studies reminds us that parents are even more so.
MORE: Born to Be Bright: Is There a Gene for Learning? The content of parents’ conversations with kids matters, too. Children who hear talk about counting and numbers at home start school with much more extensive mathematical knowledge, report researchers from the University of Chicago — knowledge that predicts future achievement in the subject. While the conversations parents have with their children change as kids grow older, the effect of these exchanges on academic achievement remains strong.
And again, the way mothers and fathers talk to their middle-school students makes a difference. Paul’s latest book is Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. Was Sex With Children Ever O. Childless By Choice: It’s Not Always Family v. Quite a number of women know better than to take parental responsibilities they’re not up to.