The Old and the Childless

I was reading a post last week about a woman's decision to not have any children. It seems odd to me that people willingly deprive themselves of life's greatest joy. Thinking over reasons for doing so, one possible reason may be because of pop-Freudianism.

The theories of Freud have resonated in our culture to a surprisingly large extent considering that their principle application, the theory that insight into the causes of behavior will lead to changing of behavior, has proven false. His theories have elegance to them and the appeal of secret knowledge which is hard to resist. However, this does not explain how they have lasted so long in the public imagination without evidence to support them. One reason they have lasted so long is that undergoing psychoanalysis is enjoyable. Talking about your past and your dreams is something most people like to do. However, listening to other people talk about their dreams and their childhoods can be excruciating. Psychoanalysis gives people someone to talk to and the veneer of science which helps convince them they are not wasting their time and money.

 The other main reason Freudian theories have lasted so long is that they help reduce cognitive dissonance. People do bad things all the time, yet few people think of themselves as a bad person. So to minimize imbalance between their actions and their self image they find rationalizations for bad behavior. Freud's theories as trickled down to pop psychology are great for rationalizations. They allow people to blame the things they do not like about themselves on the way they were raised. Since no one can change the past people become helpless victims who can not help but act the way they do.  Thus people can act in destructive ways and instead of feeling bad about themselves they feel angry at their parents.

The implications of this idea are good for the self images of neurotics but dangerous for prospective parents. If every decision a parent makes is a minefield with potential implications for the rest of the child’s life, parenting becomes fraught with risk. If you don't potty train your toddler correctly, he'll be tidying up for the rest of his life, explain the birds and the bees in the wrong way and he'll be unable to enjoy and healthy sex life, etc.  These supposed dangers can make the task of parenting seem overwhelming, like running in an egg race your whole life.

It would be a shame if anyone missed out on the joys of parenting because of fears fed by pop-Freudian fiddle faddle. 

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is raising children life's really greatest joy?

According to Daniel Gilbert in _Stumbling on Happiness_, the happiest moment of child-rearing is when the child leaves home, and those without children are happier than those with children. He explicitly argues almost the opposite of what you're claiming--that it's parents who deceive themselves about the psychic benefits of children. What's your supporting evidence?

Personally, I kind of like the idea of having adult children, but not enough to actually raise any.

Happiness research

What's your supporting evidence?

He doesn't really need any for that remark, since his point is that people may be altering their behavior on the basis of misperceptions. The point stands regardless of whether parents also are deceiving themselves. Rhapsodic remarks about the joys of parenthood do not take part in the meat of his argument.

Anyway, once again, happiness research appears to employ an undeveloped notion of happiness. Preference really is the deeper and more fundamental idea. We only really might care about the results of happiness research because we prefer being happy to being unhappy. If we preferred being unhappy then we would take all the opposite lessons from happiness research. If we didn't care about whether we were happy then we would ignore happiness research altogether. But we do, generally speaking, prefer to be happy - or at least think we prefer that.

So happiness research can never get away from preference, insofar as it is a study of something that matters to us. And yet the happiness researchers have discovered - or claim to have discovered - that we sometimes make choices which make us unhappy. Well, fair enough, we do sometimes make mistakes. How do we know? We know because sometimes we think back and realize, "if I knew what I know now I would have chosen differently". Preference again. Or we might directly think, "I wish I were in this other state rather than my current state" - preference again.

So it is possible to make mistakes and possible to deceive oneself, these things are possible. And yet the happiness researcher should not be so quick to judge contrary to the choices that people make and to the things that they say. While having a child may doom me to twenty years of suffering, if I say now "I want a child" and if, after I have a child, I say, "I wouldn't have it any other way", then the happiness researcher whose questionnaires lead him to conclude that I am less happy with my child should nevertheless hesitate before drawing the conclusion that I have made a mistake or that I am deceived. The test of happiness may not capture every dimension of life that we really care about. An empty and passionless life is not necessarily an unhappy one. And a life filled with caring and concern is not necessarily a happy one. But a person can still reasonably prefer the filled life with some degree of suffering to an empty life in which there is less suffering because there is less feeling.



Patri wrote on this last

Patri wrote on this last year (link eluding me at the moment), the upshot being that the first 2-3 years of a child are the 'worst' (requiring the most toil and strain) and things get progressively easier & thus more rewarding as time goes on, and thus judging the experience by 'most costly' years is in error; the NPV of a hypothetical child in happiness terms is greater than zero so long as you take into account the full lifetime and not just infancy/toddlery.

Caplan's point on this is that regardless of the net benefit for children as children, people erroneously discount the value of having kids to take care of you / give a damn about you when you're older (plus grandchildren, etc).

I think both are right, but there are also people who should not be parents; a good number (if not the vast majority) of the "kids suck" folk fall into that category, and we should be glad that they don't for the sake of their hypothetical children. The category of people I care about are the couples that "would be good parents but are on the fence about reproducing", and the misanthropic/mispedic? folk who slag children are thus a net minus to society to the extent that they convince otherwise good parents to remain sterile.

Obviously the negative externality of the misanthropes is counterbalanced by whatever fraction of "would be bad parents but are on the fence" are convinced *not* to reproduce, so its not completely cut and dried as to the overall direction of effect, but as I'm very biased toward reproduction I still say its at least a small net negative externality. :)

Children and Old Age

On the other hand, if you don't have children, you can add enough to your retirement fund to hire people to pretend to give a damn.

Mostly experience

My comments about raising children being life's greatest joy are mostly from personal experience. In the two years since I have become a parent I have been shocked at how undersold parenthood is. I am skeptical of happiness research in this area because of how crude an instrument the Likert scale is. I was very happy before I became a parent, but I am now on a level of happiness I did not realize existed. My interpretation of the happiness data is that there is more generalized unhappiness because of spousal conflict, lack of sleep, and more housework, but these are offset by the emotional highs of parenthood. Another effect of pop-Freudianism is to make parents overly worried, which can dim the joys of parenthood.

Why not have a child

Here's another reason why some may be just a bit less enthused about having children these days than before.

If dad goes for a walk with his daughter and holds her hand, apparently Virginia Department of Health officials wants you to pick up the phone and destroy his life by reporting him as a possible sexual abuser. [...]

“Billboards and posters show an adult hand holding a child’s hand, with the words: ‘It doesn’t feel right when I see them together.’


No, Your Greatest Joy.

I would take issue with calling children "life's greatest joy," because it assumes one can speak for all life. There really is no such thing as "life's greatest joy." One can only speak for one's enjoyment at one particular time in one's life. You can't feel bad for someone else, because you simply cannot know that having children, which one does not have, is their greatest joy. Quite presumptuous, and making an analysis on the population in general based on such a presumption seems to be coming from a false premise. If the question is "why are fewer people having children," one might start from looking at how women's lives have changed in the last century or so, economically and socially. Now that they are given the choice, they are taking that freedom.

The answer might be that their "greatest joy" is something entirely different.

What I know

I can feel bad for people without knowing them because I have information they do not have. I know what it is like to not have children and what it is like to have children. They only know what it is like to not have children and may have a wrong idea about what having children is like. They may be so different than I am so that what gives me joy may give them pain, but I find that highly unlikely.