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Parents exaggerate joys of parenthood to justify its costs, study finds

OK, parents.

OK, parents. Maybe it’s time to get real — and acknowledge that we all too often idealize the joys of parenthood.

Few of us will admit (not even to ourselves) that parenthood is not the be-all and end-all of a happy, fulfilled life.

Yes, yes, we love our children, but that’s not the same as saying they bring our lives unbridled happiness. In fact, study after study has shown parents are more likely to be depressed than nonparents. Parents express more negative and fewer positive emotions than nonparents, and thus tend to experience an overall lower emotional wellbeing. They’re also less satisfied with their marriages.

Yet the idealization of parenthood continues. Why?

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Could it be that we need to rationalize the huge financial investment we put in our children?

A new cultural model
That’s the hypothesis that two Canadian social psychologists, Richard Eibach and Steven Mock, explored in a study published earlier this week in the journal Psychological Science.

“Children’s emotional value began to be culturally idealized just as their economic value to families declined,” they write in their study’s introduction. “Urbanization and child labor restrictions significantly reduced children’s economic contributions to families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As children’s economic value plummeted, their perceived emotional value rose, creating a new cultural model of childhood … aptly dubbed ‘the economically worthless but emotionally priceless child.’ ”

Eibach and Mock believe psychology’s famous cognitive dissonance theory (which was developed right here in Minnesota 50-plus years ago) may help explain this new cultural model.

“Research on dissonance theory shows that when investments in ventures are high and external incentives are low, people convince themselves that their costly ventures are intrinsically rewarding,” they write. “In individualistic societies, people feel especially compelled to offer self-interested justifications for their life choices. Thus, dissonance theory predicts that when parents recognize that the external incentives for raising children are negligible, parents will experience internal pressure to rationalize their costly investments in children by convincing themselves that parenting entails substantial emotional rewards.”

And that self-justification appears to be what parents are doing when they talk about the joys of parenthood — at least, according to a couple of interesting experiments conducted by Eibach and Mock.

Experiment #1
For their first experiment, the psychologists recruited 80 mothers and fathers, each with at least one child under the age of 18. Half of the parents were given information about the high costs of raising children ($193,680 for the first 18 years) in their area (the U.S. Northeast). The other half of the parents read that information as well as other material about the financial and practical support that adult children provide to aging parents.

All the parents were then given psychological tests to measure how much they idealized parenting and how much dissonance (discomfort and unease) they experienced as a result of reading the information provided.

The parents who read only about the costs of parenthood not only expressed more discomfort and unease than the other group, they were also more likely to idealize parenting.

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Experiment #2
Does this pressure to rationalize child-raising costs lead parents to exaggerate how much they enjoy spending time with their children?

To answer that question, Eibach and Mock recruited 60 parents for a second experiment. Once again, some were primed to think about either the costs of parenthood or about its costs and benefits. (This experiment also included a control group, which received neither bits of information.) All the parents were then asked to rate how much intrinsic enjoyment they received from various activities, including spending time with their children. They were also asked how much free leisure time they hoped to spend with their children during their next day off from work.

Parents who read only about the costs of raising children were much more likely to say they enjoyed spending time with their children. They were also more likely to anticipate spending one-on-one fun time with their children during their next days off.

“This may help explain why parents believe that spending time with their children is more emotionally rewarding than experience sampling suggests it actually is,” write Eibach and Mock.


These findings have intriguing implications for our society’s attitudes toward children — and parenthood. As Eibach and Mock point out, the idealization of parenthood may function as a self-perpetuating belief system. “[W]hen prospective parents overhear parents describing the emotional reward of parenting, this may encourage them to become parents in order to experience those rewards themselves,” they write.

The idealization of parenthood may also help explain why so many people dislike parent-friendly programs, like lengthy parental leave or subsidized childcare. “[W]hen people idealize the emotional rewards parents gain from raising children,” write Eibach and Mock, “they may feel that their society is less obligated to share the costs of raising children.”