Family Relationships

What really makes parents happy?

Published: 16 May 2014
What really makes parents happy?

If you’re like most parents who read the title of this piece, you’re probably thinking that what would make you happy is if the kids would just do as they’re told! Or at least let you get a proper night’s sleep, or some peace and quiet from time to time.

Since at least the 1980’s (and probably since Adam), children have been creating stress for parents. And psychological research has provided us with a pretty clear picture of how having children impacts on parental happiness: negatively.

That kids diminish our happiness is unsurprising. Have time pressures and stress meant you’ve washed the same load of washing every day for three days because you haven’t had time to take it out of the machine and dry it. Have you ever hidden in the toilet to get some time to yourself – and still been interrupted with kids banging on the door, or just walking right in anyway? And let’s not even mention the variety of bodily fluids (not ours) that we have experience cleaning up. It is literally breathtaking.

Where our children rank on our hierarchy of happiness

Studies by Nobel laureate, Dan Kahnemann, show that when parents are asked to write down each of the things they’ve done in a day, and also describe their emotional state during each event of the day, the average mum will place shopping, watching tv, talking with friends, and even some household chores as more positive experiences than spending time with the kids!

In her TED talk on the topic, author of All Joy and No Fun, Jennifer Senior, tells us:

“Interacting with your friends is better than interacting with your spouse, which is better than interacting with other relatives, which is better than interacting with acquaintances, which is better than interacting with parents, which is better than interacting with children. Who are on par with strangers.”

But this is only a general finding. It doesn’t apply to all of us. It’s an average. And this is where we should be careful about over-interpreting psychological studies. You see, there are some parents who fall at either end of the spectrum. Some parents really are miserable with their kids. And some are exceptionally happy.

Child-centric parenting

A few years ago one of my studies at the University of Wollongong showed that parents who view their childrearing role as their ‘calling’ defied the trend towards unhappiness that is so prevalent in parenting research. In fact, the more central being a parent was to their identity, the more positive emotion, satisfaction with life, and meaning in life parents experienced. Plus, this sense of calling increased the wellbeing and engagement in life that their children experienced.

Now a new study has been published in the journal, Social, Psychological, and Personality Science that gives even more insight into how to be a happy parent. The answer? Focus on your kids.

The research showed that child-centric parents spent more time with their children than parents who were not child-centric. They also spent more time thinking about their kids, talking about their kids, and dedicated more financial resources to their kids. In short, their involvement with their children, and their time spent thinking about their children increased the more child-centric they were.

This next bit is the really important bit. Parents who were more child-centric indicated that they derived more happiness from their children than parents less focused on their kids, and less negative mood when dealing with their kids. And they also experienced significantly more meaning in their lives because of their childrearing role.

You get out what you put in

To what extent would you agree with the following statements:

  • My children are the centre of my life
  • The happiness of my children is more important to me than my own happiness
  • My children are the most frequent topic of my conversations
  • I love to forget my tasks and spend time in play or conversation with my children
  • I place my children’s needs above my own

These ideas are not about over-indulging our kids with material goods (little emperor parenting), or loading them up with extra-curricular activities (cultural enrichment parenting), removing obstacles from their paths (snow plow parenting), or being over-involved in their lives (helicopter parenting). And they’re not about pushing them to be the best they can be no matter the cost (tiger mum parenting).

These ideas, instead, focus on a central theme: you are my child and you matter.

Have you ever noticed that your children are happiest when you’re really with them. You’re emotionally attuned. You’re right in that moment with them. They behave beautifully. And our experiences with them are enriching and meaningful and joyful.

This research reminds us that if we want to experience the greatest happiness and meaning that come from being a parent, we can’t just do parenting. Instead, we have to really be a parent. It means we need to disconnect from distraction and become attuned to our children’s emotional world, focus our energy on them, and live and breathe with them – together.

When we invest in the wellbeing of our children, we increase their wellbeing, and we experience greater happiness and meaning ourselves.


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