What popular activity leads to a statistically significant drop in personal happiness, drastically reduces leisure time, and decreases romantic satisfaction? Parenting, of course. We engage in other activities that are, in general, displeasing, but they are often a means to a greater end: We endure traffic or crowded public transportation to live in a neighborhood that better suits our lifestyle, or we work to earn money to sustain that lifestyle. That’s not to say that driving home or working universally reduce people’s happiness—but, when it does, it’s generally for a clearly more desirable end. Not so with raising children. Child-rearing or creation is supposed to, in itself, generate the sort of transcendental happiness that makes it all worth it. New York Magazine’s Jennifer Senior questions the dogma of parenting as a universal good.
Why is there such a dogma? Surely the reverence most religions accord to raising and bearing—well, sometimes just bearing—children plays some role. Maybe parents are aware of the negative effect of children on their happiness level, but merely follow the broader trend of embracing altruistic acts as the ultimate good—the epitome of which is committing most of your life to another human or two. But, perhaps something else not unique to parenting is at work.
Another sidebar in this week’s New York Magazine is instructive. Teachers are becoming the new lawyers; they are becoming vilified, explains Robert Kolker. This may be somewhat true in New York City of the class of unionized teachers when discussed in the context of their unions, but it seems to me that the assumption of teachers as doers-of-good is perhaps stronger than the dogma in any other profession excluding the military.* Many teachers are lazy, do not adequately prepare lessons for class, depend entirely on teacher’s guides to textbooks for their coursework, and barely do any thinking of their own.** This is not to knock all teachers. There are, of course, teachers who are just the opposite and deserve immense praise. And, much of the problem with teachers is due to systemic developments that channel potentially great teachers away from teaching and poor incentives that discourage high-quality instruction. Nonetheless, it is often taken as axiom that teachers are purveyors of goodness.
*From my rigorous Google and Google Scholar search, there does not appear to be good recent survey data of public perception of teachers in terms of their instructive capacity. Much of the data is focused on the desirability of the teaching profession, a different topic altogether.
**This is based on my experience as a student in a highly-rated public school system. It’s possible that public perception of teachers in less “successful” public school systems is lower, but much of the critique is of the systemic variety and not of particular teachers.
Caring for and/or creating children opens teachers and parents up to unjustified collective praise. Bad teachers greatly benefit from being part of a class of individuals that is perceived as being underpaid and performing work intended to help a class that is generally perceived as innocent and in need of help, children. The result is that there is this teacher-as-good presumption, which limits critical evaluation of teachers. Something similar, although by no means identical, is at work with regards to child-bearing and rearing. The creation of a child, of life, is collectively perceived as such a strong good that critical evaluation of whether the decision to create life is actually good for one’s happiness gets sacrificed. The immense public praise given to both teaching and child-bearing increases the payoff of being a teacher or parent, leading to less-than-optimal individual choices (that is, bad teachers continue teaching when they shouldn’t and parents continue having children when they shouldn’t from an individual perspective).
One of the most interesting parts of Senior’s article on parenting deals with moment-to-moment versus purposive happiness. Considering such a distinction may be able to improve the process of choosing whether to have children. Senior explains:
“When I mention [children promoting a broader purpose-driven happiness in parents] to Daniel Gilbert, he hardly disputes that meaning is important. But he does wonder how prominently it should figure into people’s decisions to have kids. ‘When you pause to think what children mean to you, of course they make you feel good,’ he says. ‘The problem is, 95 percent of the time, you’re not thinking about what they mean to you. You’re thinking that you have to take them to piano lessons. So you have to think about which kind of happiness you’ll be consuming most often. Do you want to maximize the one you experience almost all the time’—moment-to-moment happiness—‘or the one you experience rarely?’
“Which is fair enough. But for many of us, purpose is happiness—particularly those of us who find moment-to-moment happiness a bit elusive to begin with. Martin Seligman, the positive-psychology pioneer who is, famously, not a natural optimist, has always taken the view that happiness is best defined in the ancient Greek sense: leading a productive, purposeful life. And the way we take stock of that life, in the end, isn’t by how much fun we had, but what we did with it.”
Perhaps potential parents should be seriously considering the relative value of moment-to-moment happiness and purposive happiness when deciding whether to have children. And parents and psychologists should consider what purposive happiness really is and how much weight it should be given. Is it transcendental? If so, should that really be something entering into our decision-making calculus? How much weight should it be given? This is not an easy question to answer and ignoring it and taking children-as-bad as truism would be as, if not more, deleterious as the current dogma. Likewise, vilifying teachers as lawyers are vilified would create a tax on the teaching profession, undesirable given the importance of educating children. The lesson may be to avoid making judgments based on collective perceptions and to be particularly aware of the cessation of critical thinking on matters that involve children. Don’t assume teachers are good just because they’re teachers. And don’t assume raising a child is good because, well, being a parent is good.