If you’re like most parents who read the title of this piece, you’re probably thinking that what would make you happy is if your kids would just do as they’re told! Or at least let you get a proper night’s sleep, or some peace and quiet from time to time.
Since at least the 1980s (and probably since Adam), children have been creating stress for parents. And psychological research has provided us with a pretty clear picture of how having children tends to affect parents’ happiness: negatively.
Studies by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman show that when employed women are asked to write down each of the things they’ve done in a day, and also describe their emotional state during each event of the day, they rate shopping, watching TV, talking with her friends, and even some household chores as more positive experiences than taking care of their kids!
Interacting with your friends is better than interacting with your spouse, which is better than interacting with other relatives, which is better than interacting with acquaintances, which is better than interacting with parents, which is better than interacting with children. Who are on par with strangers.
The news isn’t all bad. According to other research, parents may be happier than non-parents, and they find child care more meaningful than other activities. But questions still remain, and the prevailing narrative is that kids are a downer in terms of the positive emotions we seek in life. Ultimately, the question is far from settled, and is increasingly in dispute as research becomes more sophisticated and parenting becomes more emotive.
That kids may diminish our happiness, and can be exhausting to care for, is unsurprising. Have time pressures and stress meant you’ve washed the same load of laundry every day for three days because you haven’t had time to take it out of the machine and dry it? Have you ever hidden in the bathroom to get some time to yourself—and still been interrupted with kids banging on the door, or just walking right in anyway? Have you and your partner cut down on fun vacations and date nights since having kids? And let’s not even mention the variety of bodily fluids (not ours) that we have experience cleaning up.
But the statement that parents are less happy is only a general finding. It doesn’t apply to all of us. It’s an average. And this is where we should be careful about over-interpreting psychological studies. You see, there are parents at both ends of the spectrum. Some parents really are miserable with their kids. And some are exceptionally happy.
A few years ago one of my studies at the University of Wollongong showed that parents who view their child-rearing role as their “calling” defied the trend towards unhappiness that is so prevalent in parenting research. In fact, the more central being a parent was to their identity, the more positive emotion, satisfaction with life, and meaning in life parents experienced. Plus, this sense of calling increased the well-being and engagement in life that their children experienced.
Now a study recently published in the journal Social, Psychological, and Personality Science gives even more insight into how to be a happy parent. The answer? Focus on your kids.
The research showed that child-centric parents spent more time with their children than parents who were not child-centric. They also spent more time thinking and talking about their kids, and they dedicated more financial resources to their kids. In short, their involvement with their children and the time they spent thinking about them increased the more child-centric they were.
But here’s the really important finding: Parents who were more child-centric indicated that they derived more happiness from their children than parents who were less focused on their kids, and they reported a less negative mood when dealing with their kids. And they also experienced significantly more meaning in their lives because of their childrearing role.
You Get Out What You Put In
To what extent would you agree with the following statements?:
- My children are the center of my life.
- The happiness of my children is more important to me than my own happiness.
- My children are the most frequent topic of my conversations.
- I love to forget my tasks and spend time in play or conversation with my children.
- I place my children’s needs above my own.
These ideas are not about over-indulging our kids with material goods (little emperor parenting), or loading them up with extra-curricular activities (cultural enrichment parenting), removing obstacles from their paths (snow plow parenting), or being over-involved in their lives (helicopter parenting). And they’re not about pushing them to excel in every area no matter the cost (tiger mom parenting).
These ideas, instead, focus on a central theme in a parent’s mind: you are my child and you matter.
Have you ever noticed that your children are happiest when you’re really with them? You’re emotionally attuned. You’re right in the moment, not thinking about your to-do list or the mess they’re making. They behave beautifully. And our experiences with them are enriching and meaningful and joyful.
This research reminds us that if we want to experience the greatest happiness and meaning that come from being a parent, we can’t just do parenting. Instead, we have to really be a parent. When we’re with our kids, we need to turn away from distractions and become attuned to our kids’ emotional world, focus our energy on them, and live and breathe with them—together.
When we invest in the well-being of our children, we not only increase their well-being but also experience greater happiness and meaning ourselves.
Dr. Justin Coulson is the author of What Your Child Needs From You: Creating a Connected Family. He and his wife have six children. Find him on Facebook. A version of this article first appeared on his website at happyfamilies.com.au.
This article has been updated since publication: A reference to the research of Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues on parental happiness was deleted, as other scholars have brought their findings into question.