Are Children Necessary?

Article first published as Are Children Necessary? on Blogcritics.

Why do many parents insist that having children is indispensable to human fulfillment, when the number of fulfilled childfree adults proves that it clearly isn’t? I considered this question in my first post on this blog, “The Preachers of Parenthood.” I made some speculations about the explanation, but now there is an actual scientific study that offers a new and intriguing explanation: cognitive dissonance.

The study, conducted by two scientists at the University of Waterloo, published in Psychological Science, and reported by Wray Herbert at The Huffington Post, concluded that parents convince themselves that parenthood is a joyous, “don’t miss” experience to avoid their true feelings about it, which may be mixed or even negative. This should give pause to anyone who is on the fence about whether to have kids.

Herbert, a parent himself, makes a fascinating point about the emotional and intellectual gymnastics some parents do to be (or seem) as happy as they are “supposed” to be about parenthood. In the not-so-long-ago past, he notes, “emotional relationships between parents and children were less affectionate…and childhood was much less sentimentalized.” The notion that parenthood should be joyous arose only when children no longer added value to the family economy – implying that parents’ personal fulfillment emerged as a substitute reason for people to keep breeding once the financial incentive disappeared.

Of course this study doesn’t show that all parents are deluding themselves or that they would all be unhappy if they were honest with themselves, though it is worth noting (as the study’s authors do) that “raising children has largely negative effects on parents’ emotional well-being.” For instance, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert writes in his book Stumbling on Happiness that “careful studies of how women feel as they go about their daily activities show that they are less happy when taking care of their children than when eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching television.” Jennifer Senior reports in New York Magazine that “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.” This raises the question whether these studies found a way to cut through the cognitive dissonance that was documented in Psychological Science to reveal deeply-buried dissatisfaction, or whether the parents experiencing cognitive dissonance showed up as happy in the other studies, or whether cognitive dissonance is even the right explanation for the Waterloo findings.

One thing is certain: more studies on parental happiness are to come, and my bet is that they will offer even more affirmation to people who suspect they would prefer a life without kids. Making “non-parenting” more socially acceptable can only increase the choices young adults have in shaping their lives, and that makes me honestly, non-dissonantly happy.

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10 thoughts on “Are Children Necessary?

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by wrayherbert, Piper Hoffman. Piper Hoffman said: Are Children Necessary? Find out at — new blog post! #childfree #happiness #parenthood […]

  2. Jennifer says:

    Well said, Piper. People who question my childfree decision often think I’m depriving myself of a great set of experiences and joys without seeing that I wouldn’t enjoy parenting at all. It’s good to know that the myth that children = fulfillment is starting to be questioned.

  3. Marianna says:

    Of course people are happier shopping than wiping someone else’s butt or getting a hot dog for a screaming obnoxious 2-year-old. But: lots of people have more than one child, which means that somehow, consciously or not, they made the calculation that they are happier wiping their child’s butt than not. So, kids don’t need to make you happy; they just need to make you happier with them than without — that’s it. Clearly, people with children (those with more than one planned child) have made this calculation in favor of children, and the child-free crowd made the opposite calculation. See? I am a rational actor disciple; Posner would be so proud.

  4. Heather L says:

    Whereas the presence or absence of children in a marriage has become a great water cooler topic because of these popularized studies, it makes me then wonder…what is the purpose of sex and in quite a connected way, what is the point of marriage? What happens when we disconnect life and love? In a day and age when over 50% of marriages end in divorce, and other family-related societal issues abound, I must cling to something more solid. Call me a romantic, but I find I have to go with the following observation about what married love ought to be…

    “On Married Love…This love is above all fully human, a compound of sense and spirit. It is not, then, merely a question of natural instinct or emotional drive. It is also, and above all, an act of the free will, whose trust is such that it is meant not only to survive the joys and sorrows of daily life, but also to grow, so that husband and wife become in a way one heart and one soul, and together attain their human fulfillment.

    It is a love which is total—that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything, allowing no unreasonable exceptions and not thinking solely of their own convenience. Whoever really loves his partner loves not only for what he receives, but loves that partner for the partner’s own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of himself.

    Married love is also faithful and exclusive of all other, and this until death. This is how husband and wife understood it on the day on which, fully aware of what they were doing, they freely vowed themselves to one another in marriage. Though this fidelity of husband and wife sometimes presents difficulties, no one has the right to assert that it is impossible; it is, on the contrary, always honorable and meritorious. The example of countless married couples proves not only that fidelity is in accord with the nature of marriage, but also that it is the source of profound and enduring happiness.

    Finally, this love is fecund. It is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being. “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare.” ” (from Humanae Vitae, 1968)

  5. a_h_roth says:

    @Heather L : I’m confused by your post. You’ve basically described my marriage in every way…except that we have elected not to have children.

    I don’t think that children are the only way to achieve “a love which is total”. As a matter of fact, we suspect that our decision not to have children has strengthened our ability “to grow, so that husband and wife become in a way one heart and one soul, and together attain their human fulfillment.”

    For that matter, the 50% divorce rate that you quote is unfortunately not the exclusive domain of childless/childfree couples. Children do not solidify weaker relationships, even if they do enhance relationships that are already strong (which, of course, the study disputes). What does seem to be clear is that the relationship had better be rock solid *before* any children are brought into the picture.

    All this is not to say that the love *can’t* be fecund, nor that reproduction necessarily beats down this love. But at the very least this article is compelling evidence, along with my own marriage, that offspring are not an absolute requirement for the realization of the love that you describe.

    The other obvious issue I take with your post is that of gay relationships and marriage. Are they lesser merely because they can’t produce biological offspring?

  6. Heather L says:

    First off, I suggest you read Humanae Vitae in its entirety. It addresses the greater issue of disconnecting love and life…truly being fully open within marriage. This may or may not result in children, but it relates to a higher value and goal in how we live. The value piece then gets to my point about the high rate of divorce (and I am not singling our child or child-free couples). As a culture and society, we appear to be floundering for meaning and worth…do we order our lives around having nice things or is there something more? I think the rate of divorce speaks to our discontent, and begs the question, if it is so simple to dissolve our commitments, then what are they worth? What is the point of marriage? I am asking the question, not making points about who can and cannot produce biological offspring. Why do people get married? What is the point of the institution? I was just watching an interview with Sean Dorrance Kelly who recently wrote a book about how we have lost the notion of what is sacred in our culture. Rating our level of happiness does not get at that that idea of what has value and worth for us as a people. Just my two cents.

  7. Eli Etsion says:

    Hello to all. I just wanted to say I believe in freedom of choice. If you choose not to have children you shouldn’t be judged on that basis or be preached to by friends and family. That said, I’m a father to the sweetest 4 year old and even if it’s a challenge, I mostly enjoy it and that includes those moments of being puzzled and out-wit by someone who’s only 10 percent of my age…
    To Piper I would like to add that I just got back from seeing your parents – think of how lucky we all are that they did want children, otherwise none of us would have gotten to know you 🙂
    Take care and be well.

  8. Sheen says:

    How do you accurately/consistenly measure someone’s feelings as they are going about their daily routine. What odd studies.

  9. Gina_Gino says:

    @a_h_roth : Thank you. I feel entirely the same way. My marriage to my husband is full of love and is total and complete because we are content in each other’s company. Neither of us wants children and we are a perfect family without them.

    @Heather L : I have been confronted by a friend who asked me why I would bother getting married if I didn’t want children. Marriage does not have anything to do with children or people who weren’t married wouldn’t be having them. The two are not mutually exclusive; it is, in fact, entirely possible to have either one without having the other. And as for the 50% divorce rate, I am a part of that myself. My first marriage failed miserably because my ex-husband only valued me for my uterus. I had no worth to him as a person, only as a reproductive organ. I had told him from the beginning that I did not want children and that there were many other things I wished to attain (such as education). He “thought that getting married would change [my] mind.” When my mind didn’t change, I was expendable. He had no use for me if I were not going to bear his children. (Interestingly, he is now living with a woman who has three children from two previous relationships and, although they are not married, they have had a child together. That makes four kids and zero marriage.) How’s that for the value of marriage. In my opinion, if two people can be honest with each other about goals, values, aspirations, etc., they can make a marriage work; whether or not they want children is another wholly separate topic.

  10. blip says:

    @Heather L
    For ten years, I’ve read court cases as part of my job. Roughly nine out of ten divorces involve couples with children. Very, very rarely do I see the phrase “no children were born as issue of the marriage.”

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