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What good are children?

From VoxEU by Angus Deaton, Arthur Stone:

It is a commonplace that new parents are overwhelmed by a “tsunami of love” when they first meet their dependent offspring. Older children, though often a source of irritation and worry, are also a source of joy, and there are few parents who can even bear to think of a world without their children. Yet, study after study has shown that those who live with children are less satisfied with their lives than those who do not; Hansen (2012) and Stanca (2012) are recent surveys. How can this be? Should governments publicise such findings, to help disabuse people of the widespread notion that children are good for them? Perhaps along with Larkin’s lines?

Man hands on misery to man/It deepens like a coastal shelf/Get out as early as you can/And don’t have any kids yourself 

— Philip Larkin

Is there something wrong with these empirical analyses? Or is it that, as many economists suspect, happiness measures are unreliable? We argue here that the results are correct, as far as they go. The deeper problem is that comparisons of the wellbeing of parents and non-parents are of no help at all for people trying to decide whether or not to become parents.

One story is that people don’t have much idea of what they are doing. Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist whose Stumbling on happiness is well-characterised by its title, argues that the belief that children are good for you is transmitted from generation to generation, in spite of its being false. Parents are perpetually surprised by the unhappiness that children bring.

Before we economists reject such an explanation out of hand, we should remember that Adam Smith believed that the “pleasures of wealth and greatness” are a deception, but are necessary to keep “in continual motion the industry of mankind.” Perhaps the attractions of children are also a deception, but are necessary to keep in motion the continuation of mankind.

New researchOur two new studies, Stone and Deaton (2013, 2014), use a large American data set from the Gallup Organization to try to get to the bottom of all this. The first paper focuses on the elderly, the second on parents and children.

If we look at everyone in the population (aged 18 and above), and consider child-at-home status and life evaluation, we get a version of the standard finding.

  • People with at least one child at home evaluate their lives slightly less favourably than those with no child; the difference is equivalent to a 5% decline in income.
  • Those who live with children also report more anger, stress, and worry, but also more happiness.

(It is important in this work to separate life evaluation or life satisfaction on the one hand – wherein people judge their lives as a whole – from the hedonic or emotional experience of happiness on the other, and we shall use term “happiness” to refer only to the emotion, not, as is often done, to life evaluation.)

Using the whole population of adults to make these comparisons is not very useful, especially in the Gallup data, which do not tell us how (or whether) the child is related to the respondent. Among the youngest respondents, the child might be a sibling, and among old respondents, the child might be a grandchild. If we look only at adults aged from 34 to 46, for whom a child at home has a 90% or better chance of being the child of the respondent, life as a parent looks better. These adults with children have better lives than those without – equivalent to a 75% increase in income – and although they still are more likely to experience more sadness, anger, and worry, their lives also contain more happiness, smiling, and enjoyment.


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