Study: Parents Only as Happy as Their Unhappiest Child

Child-centric parenting lets parents find more meaning in childcare.

Problem: Where two of life’s biggest questions—how to be a good parent and how to be happy—collide, there is bound to be some friction. A recent study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science looks at whose well-being comes first in a family, the child’s or the parent’s. The topic feels a little thorny, to be sure, as the first sentence of the study’s abstract recognizes: “A controversial feature of modern parenting is ‘child-centrism,’ the tendency for parents to prioritize their children’s well-being above their own.”

Some previous research has suggested that this sort of so-called “helicopter parenting” is self-sacrificing and undercut parents’ happiness. In this study, the researchers looked at how child-centric parenting affects parents’ well-being, testing the idea that caring for others can bring a person more happiness.

Methodology: In the first experiment, 136 parents who had at least one child under the age of 18 rated how strongly they agreed with child-centric statements like, “The happiness of my children is more important to me than my own happiness.” Researchers also measured what percentage of their time parents spent with their children, how many hours they spent driving their children around each week, what percentage of their financial resources went toward their kids, and the number of times they sacrificed their own desires or plans to accommodate their children in the previous two weeks. Finally, parents filled out a questionnaire about the level of happiness and meaning they felt they got from their children.

A second study had parents “reconstruct their previous day episode-by-episode” and rate how happy, warm, or engaged (or angry, anxious, or frustrated) they felt doing various activities like working, eating, or taking care of a child.

Results: Parents who rated higher for child-centrism also reported that they got more well-being from parenting, in the first experiment. Worried that parents might have inflated their reported happiness “to reduce any cognitive dissonance stemming from heavily investing in their children,” the researchers used the episodic approach to measuring happiness in the second experiment, which has been shown to prevent biased answers.

In the second experiment, child-centric parents had higher levels of positive affect (good feelings) when taking care of their children, but didn’t have significantly more positive affect during the rest of their day. They also reported higher levels of meaning while caring for their kids.

Implications: Putting your child at the center of your life would seem to necessitate sacrificing your own happiness, at least sometimes. But this study shows that some self-sacrificing behavior when it comes to your kids can actually make you find more meaning in being a parent. The researchers do note that these well-being benefits could be culture-specific, but a more culturally diverse study would be needed to be sure.

The study, "Parents Reap What They Sow: Child-Centrism and Parental Well-Being," appeared in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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