The XX Factor

Are “Bad” Parents Happier?

Amanda , here’s another idea for ensuring that kids don’t make our lives miserable when we have them-those of us who are parenting madly away could relax a little. More than a little, actually. Bryan Caplan took another swing at the much-maligned happiness studies this weekend in the WSJ , and combined it with a look at the research on how much the way we parent affects the way those kids turn out. The answer-not much at all-suggests that if the amount of work involved in having kids is causing you misery, then reducing the amount of work you do will improve matters just as much as reducing the number of children you have, with little fall-out from the change. (Good thing, too.)

Of course, most parents really don’t want to hear that. In particular, I’ve always hated the results of Dartmouth economist (and my oldest son’s favorite ski coach) Bruce Sacerdote’s study of adopted Korean children, often cited in any nature vs. nurture debate. To sum up, and to take it personally, he found that although the fact of my youngest daughter’s having been adopted will surely have a dramatic effect on her life, the fact that I, an individual with multiple degrees to whom education is important, am the person who adopted her has very little affect on her future educational success. Other research shows that parents have only the faintest apparent influence on things like drug use and juvenile delinquency. I find this discouraging (in fact, it reduces my happiness level substantially), but Caplan points out the upside: “If you think your kids’ future rests in your hands, you’ll probably make many painful “investments”-and feel guilty that you didn’t do more. Once you realize that your kids’ future largely rests in their own hands, you can give yourself a guilt-free break.”

But parenting-even the freest of free-range parenting-is plenty of work. And for many of us, it’s work we do on top of “real” work. We may not have to do all of what we do, but in this, if nothing else, parenting is like advertising-half of it may be worth it, and half pointless, but no one really knows which half is which. As Helaine Olen at Strollerderby (where I also write) says, “Women are told to put their professional life first, but then are often still primarily judged on their ability to get married and raise a family.” Men are beginning to feel the same pressure . We’d really all strongly prefer to look like we can have and do it all.

Caplan may be right that “parents’ sacrifice … is much larger than it has to be,” but he’s missed a big chunk of the reason why we sacrifice. We’re judging ourselves on how we parent, and we suspect-no, we know-that others are judging us as well. We’re even willing to submit to surveys and grade ourselves on the whole process . I know all those happiness surveys claim to have somehow separated out how happy you are in general with your happiness level with kids, but is that really possible? This whole debate over happiness and childlessness and parenting isn’t really about any of those things. It’s about all of us, parents and nonparents, looking in the mirror and wondering how others see us, and how we see ourselves.