Should parents – and not just their babies – be crying?

The costs and benefits of being a parent have been in the news a lot in the last few years.  Some studies apparently indicate that parenting is linked to unhappiness.  According to one study, “parents often report statistically significantly lower levels of happiness (Alesina et al., 2004), life satisfaction (Di Tella et al., 2003), marital satisfaction (Twenge et al., 2003) and mental well-being (Clark & Oswald, 2002) compared with non-parents.”

So why should anyone have children?  This is a reasonable thing to wonder about. We wonder about good reasons for doing and creating things all the time. Should we build that stadium? Should I go to school or get a new job? Should I make the pizza or the steamed kale? Given that child-rearing is seemingly a monumental task, it is reasonable to wonder if and why one has reason to do it.  

There are various reasons for having a child that are not, in my estimation, good. For instance, people often cite the apparently innate biological drive to procreate as a reason to have children. There are various problems with this. For one thing, most of us certainly have an innate drive to copulate, but it isn’t clear everyone has a drive to procreate. (I have friends whom I respect very much who have no such drive and who have well-thought out reasons for not wanting to.) More importantly, merely having a biological drive to do something isn’t a good reason (think of some people’s seemingly innate drives to manipulate, violate or act violently towards others). It doesn’t help this position if we try to say that having a drive to procreate is typical of our species. This kind of description of us is descriptive rather than prescriptive – it tells us the way we tend to be rather than the way we ought to be. We need argument to get from the claim that we tend to procreate to the claim that we ought to. Some use claims about what God commands for this purpose – God commands them to procreate, they say, so that’s why they ought to do it. While this line of reasoning may work for some, I find it unsatisfying. (For one thing, I can’t find any good reason to believe that there is a God (let alone one who commands such things), and for another, philosophers since Socrates have noted big problems with thinking we ought to do things simply because a god commands us to.) Other people seem to think that we have some obligation to further the survival of our species – we ought to have babies because that helps to ensure that the human species lives on. Given how insignificant we are in this huge universe we inhabit, I find it hard to imagine why we, as individuals, have any such obligation. Perhaps someone could instead say it is good but not obligatory to have children in order to preserve the human race, but I can’t think of why that would be so either. Why think the universe is better with us in it?

So why the heck should anyone have a baby?  One interesting answer we hear a lot is a self-interested one: it would contribute positively to a person’s well-being to have a child. Caring for, nurturing, teaching, and learning from a child will make a person happy. Now, this is obviously different from saying that having a child is selfish. Not all self-interested reasons are selfish ones: selfish implies that you are self-interested when you ought not be. But I think we all have good reason to pursue what would make us happy – whether that means having kids or not having them. What makes having a child selfish is when a person has a child in an attempt to increase their happiness without properly acknowledging the child’s well-being. Having a child just so you’ll feel needed can lead you to neglect teaching your child things that are important for his or her own well-being – being independent, making her own choices, etc. (It seems likely that having a child for these selfish reasons is not usually in a person’s best interest anyway – it just seems like it is to them. Being needed by someone is a poor substitute for feeling confident and worthwhile without needing to be needed.)

The self-interested answer seems initially plausible but limited in scope.  Clearly, not everyone would be made happier by having a child.  Benefitting from having a child requires having, among other things, the right skills and circumstances.  But there do seem to be people who have genuinely been made happier by having children, so perhaps – for some people at least – parenting can contribute to well-being.

But how should we reconcile this with the research?  If happiness is the best reason to have a baby, but research shows parenthood leads to unhappiness, what should we conclude?  I think a profitable project would be to look at the account of well-being used in the studies to see if it is a good one.  Doing so would help us decide when and if having children contributes positively to well-being.

Tiberius, Valerie (2006), “Well-being: psychological research for philosophers,” Philosophy Compass, 1(5): 493-505.

Author: jasonswartwood

I am a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Minnesota, Twin-Cities. I am currently beginning work on my dissertation, which will give an account of the intellectual virtues that help one succeed at moral inquiry.

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