You know how I was having a blast raising Nate? Like how after he was born I was suddenly full of hope and sunshine and had a reason to get up in the morning? Well it turns out there’s an explanation. I’m delusional:
Kid Crazy: Why We Exaggerate the Joys of Parenthood
A new paper shows that parents fool themselves into believing that having kids is more rewarding than it actually is. It turns out parents are in the grip of a giant illusion.
The paper, which appears in the journal Psychological Science, presents the results of two studies conducted by Richard Eibach and Steven Mock, psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. The studies tested the hypothesis that “idealizing the emotional rewards of parenting helps parents to rationalize the financial costs of raising children.”
Their hypothesis comes out of cognitive-dissonance theory, which suggests that people are highly motivated to justify, deny or rationalize to reduce the cognitive discomfort of holding conflicting ideas. Here’s how cognitive-dissonance theory works when applied to parenting: having kids is an economic and emotional drain. It should make those who have kids feel worse. Instead, parents glorify their lives. They believe that the financial and emotional benefits of having children are significantly higher than they really are.
To “test” this theory researchers took two groups of parents. To the first they showed statistics about how much it costs to raise a child (about $200,000 to age 18 – gulp!). To the second, they showed these same statistics, plus several more about the financial benefits that parents enjoy over non-parents (like having kids who take care of you when you’re Kirk-Douglas-old). They then had both groups answer questions about how emotionally rewarding parenting is. The results? Parents who saw only the financial cost statistics rated parenting as more emotionally rewarding than parents who saw both the financial cost and the financial benefit figures.
So what does that mean? That parents are delusional? That 2 + 2 = 7? That pro wrestling is real? Maybe all of the above. Look, I’m not going to argue that people don’t search for ways to rationalize what they’re doing or that they don’t sometimes switch to a second rationale when their first doesn’t work out (see: George Bush, Iraq). But what’s with the anti-parenting bent of this piece? Take a look at the closing paragraph:
Does this mean you shouldn’t have kids? Yes — but you won’t. Our national fantasy about the joys of parenting permeates the culture. Never mind that it wasn’t always like this. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we thought nothing of requiring kids to get jobs even before they hit puberty. Few thought of it as abuse. Reformers helped change the system — and rightly so — so that children could be educated. But this created a conundrum. As Eibach and Mock write, “As children’s economic value plummeted, their perceived emotional value rose, creating a new cultural model of childhood that [one researcher] aptly dubbed ‘the economically worthless but emotionally priceless child.’” Or, as the writer Jennifer Senior put it in a New York magazine article last summer, “Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses.”
Considering the URL of this article – “Why Having Kids Is Foolish” – I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. What bothers me, however, is that this piece never really addresses its thesis. Even if parents inflate the emotional rewards of parenting, does it necessarily follow that the decision to have a child is “foolish” and that parents are “delusional”? If so, the syllogistic legwork has not been shown in the margin.
I’ll tell you why I think it wasn’t. Because having a child isn’t economically foolish. It costs you money, yes, but economics is about more than just money; it’s about value. To prove that parents are foolish and delusional for having children, you’d have to show that the transaction – “I’ll have a kid for $200,000, please!” – is a net loss. Maybe you could do that, but I’m curious: what dollar figure are you using for the value of an 18-year-old child? $100,000? $150,000? Also, not to get too evo-psych on everyone, but this whole divide between non-parents who have money and parents who don’t seems pretty ironic considering that money is nothing really but a proxy for reproductive success. Why the heck do you think anyone tries to get rich? Because men who do end up with more wives and more biological children. If you think that’s merely an opinion, have a peek at this study. Or consider the lives of Rush Limbaugh, Larry King, and Newt Gingrich who between them have several billion dollars and, ahem, 16 wives (could be more by the time I press publish).
I don’t mean to drive a wedge between the “happy” non-parents who have cushy bank accounts and the “unhappy” parents who don’t. But I can’t help but remember this one time I went to Chuck E Cheese’s when I was eight years old. I spent the entire afternoon playing skeeball, skeeball, and more skeeball, and when I was through I had upwards of 500 skeeball coupons. I was the happiest kid in the joint. But I couldn’t decide what I wanted from the prize booth. Flavored candy canes? Tootsie rolls? A plastic dinosaur? And before I ever made that call my Mom showed up to take me home. So I stuffed the 500 skeeball coupons under my mattress and vowed to use them the next time I went to Chuck E Cheese’s. And then eight-year-old Scott forgot about them. I found them a year later and, with some urgency, rushed back to Chuck E Cheese’s but by that time they had changed coupon vendors and were no longer accepting the old kind. So instead of a plastic spider ring, a candy necklace, and thirty pieces of Bazooka Joe bubble gum, I had 500 skeeball coupons.
You know what I ended up doing with them?
Nothing. I threw them away.