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Are Children Necessary?

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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 my 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 begs 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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About Piper Hoffman

  • Delvia

    As a hopeful anthropologist, I am starting to feel that modern man was one of the higher power’s and evolution’s worse mistakes and a form of lower end entertainment. Children are a joke and not worth the time to raise them.

  • Bee

    True. We don’t really need to perpetuate our species. Humans are responsible for destroying the planet. Now, do we need a planet? Just as long as we’re alive, then not anymore. So, end the planet, via too much human race, and you won’t even have to think about it, because we and the planet will all be dead.

  • Lorna

    Dan, regarding your last paragraph it’s very presumptious to think you couldn’t have felt (and by inference other people couldn’t have felt) those emotions without having children. Maybe it is the case that you couldn’t have, but others undoubtedly could.

    I’m an identical twin so I have (scientifically speaking) the strongest bond it is possible to have with another human being. My twin and I aren’t “extensions of” each other, we are each other. Indeed, if my twin has children they will be as much mine as hers.

    Biologically speaking your love for your children and your desire to protect them is to further your own DNA (I’m not saying you don’t genuinely feel it, we all feel love, but that feeling is created by chemicals whose intent is to further your own DNA). Since identical twins share DNA the strength of that feeling between them would be stronger than that between parent and child.

    As I say, maybe you couldn’t have felt those emotions without having children but that is just you, that says nothing of why, when or if other people feel those same emotions. Some people do not feel the same emotions for their children as you do for yours, despite the DNA jump-start, others still may feel even stronger emotions for their adopted children. You simply cannot know how great other people’s feelings are, you can only speak for what you feel yourself.

  • Lorna

    Jordan, you’re speaking out of turn to a complete stranger. Trying to make the world a better place and helping people doesn’t mean you are doing it to get noticed, but given the selfish nature of many people these days I can understand your cynicism, maybe you assume this because it is how you would feel. I do it because I hate seeing people suffer. If you have an issue with that then you have an issue. Nor is my attitude holier than thou, I haven’t judged anyone for having children just stating my preference to adopt, I would only judge someone having MANY children, that’s selfish in the extreme.

    Dan, I’ll admit to finding your question about the point of the planet rather childish. The planet existed before us (long before us) and will exist after us. In the meantime there are other species with the ability to feel pain and to suffer. Do you believe it’s our right to harm them just for the sake of it? Just because humans are able to make conscious decisions doesn’t automatically give us the right to trod all over every other living being.

    Humans do exist and we are conscious and so we should make the most of life, but when our species dies out (and it will, all do) then the Universe is hardly going to care, we’ll merely have been a blip in its long history.

    What I don’t want to see is our planet dying out due to overpopulation because that will involve a heck of a lot of pain and suffering for those humans still around then. So the only real option is to curb our birthrate to a far more suitable one and bring about a far better quality of life for those currently existing and those still to come. That’s the way to ensure our species lasts as long as possible (if that is what you want).

  • Dan

    Although Piper suggests that continuing the species may not be vital, she later expresses the opinion that the US is proportionately doing the most to destroy the planet.

    Not trying to be critical or rude here, but what is the purpose of the planet except as a habitat for the species? If maintaining the species is pointless, then surely maintaining ecological function is equally superfluous.

    My own experience with my children has been quite positive. I know for fact that there is a range of emotional feeling that I would never have known without them.

    You suffer and rejoice with them through their challenges as an extension of yourself. Done properly, they validate your sense of reality and world view by becoming the well adjusted and accomplished young adults you intended them to become.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Damn human desires, always getting in the way of our better natures.

    Of course we want to be remembered. What’s wrong with that? You, Lorna, clearly want to be noticed for helping to “make the world a better place” so you also have succumbed to that most basic of human desires in some fashion. We want to know that we’ve made a difference in some regard and “being remembered” is part of that notion. I see no fault in my grandmother’s desire that her children have fond memories of her existence, for example.

    None of us are above our humanity and the “holier-than-thou” attitude accompanying both sides of this silly debate (it really amounts to a personal choice in the end that shouldn’t have to be justified to anyone) is really unnecessary. You’re not a “better person” because you choose to have kids and you’re not a “better person” because you choose not to.

  • Lorna

    Ruvy, why should Piper want to be remembered? That’s an incredibly selfish, human desire, it does nothing to better humanity or to help anyone. And it is your assumption that she just enjoys her life and the world ends, this may well not be anything like her thinking on the matter.

    If Piper is anything like me then her desire, while alive, is to help make the world a better place for those already in it and for those to come (that includes your descendents). That’s about as selfless as it gets.

    I know that the more the issue of overpopulation is raised and listened to the more chance there is of your descendents having a good quality of life. The parents who you claim “care” seem all too happy to ignore the fundamentals of what it is that is destroying this world.

    Still, I see absolutely nothing wrong if Piper cares about the Earth very deeply and realises that humans are destroying it. For us to neglect and destroy the planet that sustains us, even moreso to do it knowingly is utterly deplorable, and if that is being “caring” then you please keep it to yourself.

    It’s funny that in almost every area of life we are told to value quality over quantity, but when it comes to the human population some people stupidly think “more = better”. The more people there are the less quality of life they have. I hope that society listens in time for your children and your children’s children to not have to suffer in the way that seems inevitable should the population level not start to decline. I choose to help everyone who will exist in the future by not adding any more to their number, I will take in a child who is already alive and in need of a good home.

  • STM

    Piper: “The U.S. may not be adding the biggest numbers of people to the planet, but proportionately, we (and our children) are doing the most to destroy it.”

    But in terms of the numbers you are talking about who might decide not to have kids, it won’t make any difference. It’d be a gesture, really.

  • Ruvy, repeating yourself, particularly when what you have to say is both wrong and rude, is just boorish.

    You brag all the time and your boasts and batty beliefs are all based on unsupported theories, not personal life choices, so it is pretty evident who is the most disgusting here and it isn’t Piper…

    As for nice, I can’t actually recall anything from you that could be considered even pleasant, let alone actually nice. Perhaps you could utilise your time more usefully trying to sort out your own many problems.

  • why is it vital to continue the human species?

    You don’t even want to be remembered, Piper? You enjoy your life, and the world ends? I cannot believe the ultimate selfishness and self-centeredness of your statement.

    That is why blowing your horn with bragging about your “child-free” society is so disgusting to those of us who care – us parents. Ultimately, not is it only about you, you don’t even give a damn for the continuity of your own species.

    It says more about you than you realize, Piper. And none of it is nice.

    To begin with, you appear to have given up on humanity, altogether.

  • Michael P

    Kids aren’t necessary. I am envious of my mates that don’t have kids, my life has become a series of commitments and routines I don’t really enjoy. I have ‘lost’ myself since having children and feel like all my decisions now revolve around providing for them, at the sake of ‘my’ happiness.

    But there is so much crap going in the world, we’ve really f— it up: over-population, climate change, food, water, oil and energy are going to start rising at unprecedented rates! Violence, oppression, famine. The proliferation of all this in the continuous bombardment of media doesn’t help. But…

    To have a little smiling face to come home to is sometimes the only thing that keeps me going.

  • Lorna

    It’s silly for anyone to suggest that happiness is anything to do with having children, because happiness is a state of mind with different causes for different people.

    All the things that people say they have found through having children the childfree have found some other way, and vice versa. For instance, as an identical twin I have known the greatest love of all since birth. I have also found that with my husband.

    As a human being raised to be independent, selfless and non-judgemental I grew up fast and grew into a sensible, logical, loving adult. These are life changes people often attribute to having children but in reality it isn’t the having children that has caused them, it’s something else that has occured alongside the having of children.

    One of the things I would like least about parenting is feeling forced into ‘friendships’ with the parents of your children’s friends, but I believe it is a good thing to do for your child. For some it will work out brilliantly, for others they will continually be biting their tongue and tolerating people they cannot stand. My childfree status has brought me many friends, and what I love is that it is just THEM, no-one else is ever going to factor into the equation and potentially ruin the friendship (as children can).

    We are all different, we all live different lives and hopefully we are all happy in our different lives.

    The only thing that matters when it comes to having children is that people stop mistreating them, and stop having too many. The planet cannot sustain them and to continue to grow the population when the planet is already struggling is selfish and I cannot equate it with loving your children and your children’s children.

  • STM – I agree that there can be drawbacks to not having kids. See my earlier post, “Secrets of a Childfree Woman,” where I specifically mention befriending other children’s parents.
    But I disagree about the impact of middle-class Americans having children. Americans cause more pollution per capita than the people of any other country. The U.S. may not be adding the biggest numbers of people to the planet, but proportionately, we (and our children) are doing the most to destroy it.

  • Jordan Richardson

    There’s so much by way of confusing discussion regarding overpopulation that it’s hard to track the facts effectively. I’d suggest that proper, efficient, just allocations of our resources would ensure that starvation and other horrific elements could forever be avoided.

    Malthusian views on the subject have led to various population control ideas, with many suggestion that only those “fit” to breed should be able to. The implementation of those controls is another matter, of course, and nobody really likes to discuss how we tell certain people not to breed or how we enforce it.

    I think a big part of the reason we have kids is because we, as humans, want to have hope. You could take the idea of cognitive dissonance – holding conflicting ideas at the same time – and generally apply it to anything. As I posed, is anything necessary? Probably not, especially if we’re going to go so far as to beg the question if we’re necessary.

    We always want to think our choices are the right ones, whether they’re to have kids or to not have kids. The potential for cognitive dissonance among those who choose to be child-free is just as possible among those who choose to have children, isn’t it?

    We do all sorts of things as a species to avoid the sting of life. For some, the hope of a new generation guides them through. For others, it’s the joy of not having that responsibility. For others, it’s the happiness brought about by living only for selfish purposes. For others, it’s a life of charity. I don’t doubt that we all “fool ourselves” in some regard just to make it through the day, as the only real “thing” any of us know for sure is that we don’t know a thing.

  • STM

    Piper asks: “Why is it vital to contine the human spefcies”.

    Good question. Of course, it’s not vital. But if we want to continue it, then having children is the only means to that end.

    Chris makes a good point regarding the overpopulation of the planet, but middle-class decisions not to have kids in places like Sydney, London and New York, are not going to alter that one iota. Getting the population down in New Delhi or Johannesburg might make a difference. China’s one-child policy has probably resulted in a cut in its population of something in the region of 500,000.

    But if we choose not have children in our first-world situation, we have to be honest and unafraid of our motives (and you obviously have been in your peice above). It’s only really a lifestyle choice in the developed world, and if it’s currently – note that word, Piper, it’s amazing how things can change suddenly 🙂 – your choice then that’s a perfectly OK decision to make and I’m not sure a) anyone should feel any guilt about it or b) having made that choice, pay much attention to anyone who doesn’t think it’s a legitimate choice.

    I do have friends who have made the decision not to have kids. No one thinks it’s unusual or even odd. My cousin is the same age as me and he and his wife have no children. On the other hand, I also have family and friends with very large families. It takes all kinds to make a world. It’d be boring as all get out wouldn’t it if everyone thought along the same lines?

    One thing I did get out of parenting was genuine, lasting friendships struck up with other parents through kids’ sport or school friendships … and in three separate groups brought about by the separate childhoods of three kids.

    Those friendships endure today and have been the source of much joy … even when my kids haven’t been on occasion.

    So you do get some other worthwhile payoffs.

  • Wrong again, Ruvy.

    This planet is currently supporting 1.4 times the population it can sustain so people who choose not to breed are doing it and all of humanity a very good deed indeed.

    If we carry on as we are indefinitely, there will either be wars on a scale we’ve never yet seen or one day we will have consumed the entire Earth and be left floating fairly precariously in empty space!

    This is just one of the many reasons that we need to focus our efforts on things like improving the global economy, because richer people don’t need so many offspring in order to survive, as well as developing better off planet transport systems and things like nuclear fusion, which would give us effectively unlimited non-polluting energy.

  • Jordan Richardson

    In that regard, Piper, is anything necessary?

  • Got to ditto STM. Of course, they’re not necessary. Of course, they’re a royal pain in the rear. Of course, they cost money and limit time. However, I wouldn’t give up my two for anything.

  • Great thoughtful comment, STM. I may be laying my head on the guillotine here, but I’ll throw this out anyway: why is it vital to continue the human species?

  • Jordan Richardson

    Well said, Stan.

  • STM

    No, children probably aren’t necessary. But they’re absolutely vital for the continuation of the human race.

    And yes, it’s a struggle. With my youngest child now 16, I tend to agree with my wife, who while pulling her hair out over my daughter’s errant behavour, said: “If you really knew what it was going to be like having teenagers, no one would ever have kids”.

    And oh, what a pleasure it was to wake up at five in the morning to get my 18-year-old son ready for college rugby practice, only to be snarled and grunted at while asking perfectly legit questions like: “Have you got your boots and your mouthguard”.

    The only thing he was good at, then he blew the chance to play professionally because he “just didn’t want to do it anymore.”

    Oh, silly me … I should have guessed: That requirement for committment is interfering with his social life, and has just cost me an absolute bloody fortune fortune in school fees.

    Only my eldest daughter behaved like a human being through her turns … well, sort of like a human being … but then went wild at 21 for a few years.

    All part of the fun, though, isn’t it? No? Yes?

    Well, kind of.

    It’s a all little trick the universe plays on you to make you understand that real love really has no conditions attached.

    I can’t speak for anyone else but my payoff was: They took a self-centred young man with a litany of irresponsibility into someone who had to grow up as well, and fast.

    For that, I’ll be forever grateful.

    Necessary? Depends on who you are and what you really value.

  • Ruvy, I have to disagree with you. I don’t think that everyone in this thread is a proponent of a child-free society, nor does everyone on this thread consider becoming a parent a selfish act. I myself am a devoted and fulfilled parent; I just don’t believe that everyone that becomes a parent necessarily arrives at that decision after a lot of conscious thought and free from peer pressure to ultimately become a parent. Please don’t be hasty in your assessment there of people who encourage people to carefully consider whether they want to become parents.

  • To all you self-satisfied and self-righteous proponents of a child-free society; there are only two things to say.

    1. Be grateful your parents didn’t have the attitudes you have. Your comments would not be appearing in this comment thread – and probably the article as well.

    2. Enjoy your lives – and be grateful that most of us do NOT have YOUR attitude. Humanity would be over in a century.

  • Ezza

    I think there was a time and a place for having a family, and it is long past. The number one problem in the world is over-population, and people having kids are the most egotistical examples of this problem.

    People get to a point in their lives where they are too lazy to continue working towards what really fulfills them and having a family is a cop-out that lets them create artificial busy-ness.

    All my friends that have kids are stressed-out busy-lifer’s, they can have it. I wish they’d keep their: “oh what did we do with ourselves before kids” comments to themselves… you had a freeking life! That’s what!

    Kids are cool, I really do like them and think they are magical little creatures, but I believe from the bottom of my heart that people have children for the wrong reasons: usually to try and fix a relationship or to satisfy some cave-man urge that isn’t relative in this day and age.

  • EZza

    I think there was a time and a

  • carse

    I can tell you that my kids and my family make me happier than anything else in the world. Sure it might be stressful sometimes, but in the end I dont think you can feel fulfilled in life without having kids. That’s just my opinion 🙂 Each person can decide for themselves what makes them happy

  • Good article! It’s good to see this perspective argued. Many parents seem stressed and just don’t seem fulfilled in the role, though it’s always been true. The younger generation needs to escape an assumption of parenthood in their future, and be released from the guilt and constant questioning of a decision to remain childless when it might be the most conscientious one, even made by someone who adores children. Hmmm…what could be the new buzz term for this growing demographic, as more find themselves tending an aging population in the near future and forgo having kids of their own? — CBCs (childless-by-choicers) or ATEs (already tending parents)?