The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Want a Stressful—but Joyful—Life? Have Children!

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

With national fertility rates languishing below replacement levels in recent years, Americans might well conclude that many adults now view children as a burden instead of a blessing. Such a negative view of children finds both confirmation and refutation in a study recently conducted by scholars at Princeton and Stony Brook Universities. Although this study shows that living with children exposes adults to stresses not felt by peers living childlessly, it also shows that adults living with children experience decidedly more joy than do peers living without them. In other words, adults who have children experience a life of greater emotional amplitude than do childless peers. That amplitude extends on one side to painful stress and on the other side to intense joy. So children are a burden and a blessing. 

The authors of the new study set about their inquiry wondering about “the wellbeing of those who do and do not have children” and hoping that clarifying that comparison might help illuminate “why people have children.” To that end, the researchers parse Gallup survey data collected from 1.77 million adults between 2008 and 2012, focusing largely on “the subsample of adults aged from 34 to 46, more than 90% of whom are the parents of the children who live with them.” These surveys incorporate both a life-evaluation metric and measures of day-to-day “hedonic experience” (that, is pleasurable experience).

Using a wide range of indices to compare the well-being of adults ages 34 to 46 with children with that of peers without children, the researchers conclude that “generally, and with the exception of stress, all outcomes are more favorable (higher levels of positive outcomes, and lower levels of negative outcomes) when there are children in the household.” Given the data they have on relative household income, the researchers further conclude that having children in the home is associated with “substantial positive effects on life evaluation, on reducing sadness, worry, anger, and physical pain, and very large effects on happiness, enjoyment, and smiling.”

To be sure, the researchers acknowledge that among adults in this age group, those with children “report more stress.” Still, one clear pattern stands out: “For this age group, those living with children (in nearly all cases as their parents) have markedly better life evaluations and hedonic experience than those who do not.”

The researchers do recognize that the clear association between the presence of children and enhanced quality of life for adults in their thirties and forties may not be a simple one of cause-and-effect. After all, they acknowledge, “people who live with children are more likely to be married, richer, better educated, more religious, and healthier [than are peers living without children], all of which [comparisons] have well-documented positive associations with evaluative and hedonic wellbeing.” 

To clarify the impact on adult well-being of living with children, the researchers reassess their data in a series of statistical models that take into account parental characteristics such as marital status, household income, education, religious involvement, and health. In the most complex statistical model accounting for such characteristics, the researchers find “the presence of a child has a small negative association with life evaluation.”

The Princeton and Stony Brook scholars understand, however, that the “small negative” impact associated with the presence of children in adults’ homes appears only in a model with statistical adjustments so extensive that that they “may overcontrol [the results] by blocking off some of the pathways through which having children affects outcomes.” The researchers note, for instance, that “some people will quit smoking once they have children, or work harder to earn more.” Even more obviously, for many people marriage is “part of the process of having children,” not a statistically independent life event. So for these people, “at least some of the increase in life evaluation that comes with marriage should be properly attributed to children.”

The researchers therefore plausibly reason that just as looking simply at the raw data “overstates the benefits of children,” even so using a statistical model that adjusts for all parental characteristics “understates the benefits.” 

In any case, the researchers’ raw data make quite clear that living with children at least does not prevent adults from enjoying a good life. What is more, “no matter what the [statistical] controls [used to analyze those data], children are always associated with both more positive and more negative emotions.” Regardless of how the researchers adjust their statistical models, those models identify children in the home as a predictor of a broader range of emotions—both good and bad.

The men and women who are keeping our national birthrate low may think they are saving themselves a lot of trouble by not having children. They are undoubtedly right. Too bad they apparently do not realize that they are also denying themselves a lifetime of incalculable joy.

(Angus Deaton and Arthur A. Stone, “Evaluative and Hedonic Wellbeing among Those with and without Children at Home,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 111.4 [2014]: 1,328-33.)