Kids and Happiness

By Kerry Healey

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by Kerry Healey, 89.7 WGBH
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
 
Like most people in Massachusetts, I spent the last couple weekends happily sweltering at cookouts, swatting mosquitoes and greenheads, surrounded by family, friends and lots of voluble kids. As my own children have gotten older I find myself becoming increasingly nostalgic for the happy chaos of younger kids at summer parties-- the group hide and seek games, water fights, and impromptu baseball competitions, all framed by the deafening shrieks and prodigious mess of children’s happiness. Don’t get me wrong, even teens can be great fun, but the untrammeled joy of younger kids reminds me of all the happiness my own children gave me when they were younger.

But wait, now I read that this pastoral memory is probably just personal revisionist history: Scrooge-like economist, Bryan Caplan of George Mason University, recently published a screed in the Wall Street Journal pointing out that, at least empirically, having kids actually makes you less happy! Caplan points to research that shows that while marriage boosts your likelihood of happiness a remarkable 18%, a couple’s first child will decrease that benefit by 5.6% and each subsequent child leaves couples a marginal .6% less happy.

To add to this glum portrait, Caplan marshals data from studies of twins that show that if your parenting is generally OK, all the sacrifices that “good” parents make on their children’s behalf to shape their health, morals and values—limiting TV, attending every ball game, even moving to a better neighborhood—may have only marginal impact on the adult behaviors of your kids. In the end, he argues, that making your kids eat their peas or reading bedtime stories through bleary eyes is not as important as simply creating a loving and supportive home life. (As an aside, the same research found that parents do have a strong impact on their kid’s political and religious values, so rest assured you are not wasting your time in those arenas!)

Caplan’s take away message is that we, as a society, need to love and enjoy our kids more and not stress so much about whether we are perfect parents. He actually ends by advocating having a lot of kids. To me, the only statistic that really tells the story is this one: a 1976 survey by Research Analysis Corporation dared to ask 1,400 parents if they would have kids again if they could live their life over. A whopping 91% said “yes”. Put me in that column.



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