True or false: A person can never be truly satisfied in life without experiencing the joys of parenthood?
If you thought “true,” you might not want to read a recent study by researchers Richard P. Eibach and Steven E. Mock. In a paper published in Psychological Science, Eibach and Mock review evidence to suggest that the often touted emotional rewards of parenting are a myth. Instead, the cite evidence that the real payoffs of parenting include a downturn in emotional well-being, a lowered frequency of positive feelings, and a higher frequency of negative emotions like anger when Junior turns over his breakfast bowl with a loud yucch). Children also seem to lower their parents marital satisfaction whilst raising their levels of depression. And incidentally, they note that all these benefits come at a cost of approximately $200,000 per child. And the authors don’t even list the much more important non-monetary costs of parenting: the year of lost sleep, the thousands of dirty diapers to change, the ranting and raving of the terrible twos (which really last until about age 5), followed by a period of adolescent disdain in which junior rolls his eyes up to the ceiling at every stupid thing you say (with periods during which almost everything you say qualifies as a stupid thing).
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So, how to explain the fact that many people (including yours truly) do in fact report that being a parent is the most fulfilling part of their life? Eibach and Mock turn to Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory. You remember that from intro psych, right? If you have to undergo a severe initiation to join a group, you rate it more positively than if you undergo a mild initiation. If you receive a paltry payoff for a task, you rate it as more intrinsically satisfying than if you are well-compensated. What could be a less well-compensated task than parenting? As mom used to eloquently express it: “After all I’ve done for you kids, this is the thanks I get?”
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The researchers conducted a pair of clever experiments to test the role of dissonance in parental satisfaction. Consistent with predictions from dissonance theory, they found that emphasizing the costs of parenting led to a paradoxical increase in parents’ tendency to agree with idealized statements such as: “Nonparents are more likely to be depressed than parents.” and “There is nothing more rewarding in this life than raising a child.” They also found that thinking about the many costs of raising a snot-nosed brat led parents to want to spend more time with said snot-nosed brat (of course, they used more objective language, with no references to brattiness or snotty noses).
Now, I find this pair of studies troubling for a couple of reasons. For one, I have two sons, one aged 32 and one aged 6. I estimate that I spent more than that average 200 Grand on the Number One Son, and that I will spent still more on Numero Dos (in Lego costs alone!) Besides the money, I spend a lot of energy, waking up at night worrying about how both of them are doing, and about their lives will turn out. I even worry that if I worry too much about them, I’ll have a heart attack and won’t be around to worry about how they are doing anymore.