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See Inside July / August 2011

The Myth of Joyful Parenthood

The more kids cost, the more we idealize raising them

Sure, the soccer uniforms, piano lessons and college tuition add up—but there is nothing like being a parent. Or so we tell ourselves, according to a study in the February issue of Psychological Science. When parents are faced with the financial costs of a child, they justify their investment by playing up parenthood’s emotional payoffs.

Psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Ontario gave parents in the study a government report estimating that bringing up a child to age 18 costs more than $190,000. Then half the parents read an additional report about the financial help grown children pro­-vide their parents. Those who read only about the high price tag were more likely to agree with statements idealizing the emotional benefits of parenthood, such as “There is nothing more rewarding in this life than raising a child.”

Such rationalization is a common response to cognitive dissonance, the state of having two conflicting ideas in mind, according to psychological theory. In this scenario, the choice the parents made to have children conflicts with the fact that kids are such a financial burden, so the parents con­clude that the emotional benefits
must be so great they outweigh the material cost.

The authors of the study point out that this mind-set makes sense in light of history. Until recently, children were not so expensive—and often they were of great economic value, helping out on the farm or bringing home a paycheck. In those eras, childhood was less senti­mentalized and the emotional bond between kids and parents was not as strong. As raising kids became more costly, we began to idealize parenting.

This rosy outlook may have real benefits, however, according to another result of the study. Moms and dads presented with only the costs of child-rearing said they enjoyed the time they spent with their offspring more than parents who also read about the benefits—and these idealizers planned to spend more hours with them in the future. “Parents rationalize the cost of children by convincing themselves it’s such an enjoyable thing to do, which then convinces them to spend more time with their kids,” says University of Waterloo psychologist Richard Eibach, co-author of the study. Having your own kids may be expensive, but every minute is worth it.

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