Don’t decide to have kids based on how you feel about others’ kids

I was talking with a friend who is in her early 30s. She expressed ambivalence about having children. “I love my nieces when I go to visit them but it seems like a huge amount of work and I’m happy to turn them back over to their parents.”

I told her that it was a mistake to make decisions about having children based on observing other people take care of their own children and/or one’s own experience taking care of others’ children.

Speaking for myself, I spent about 25 adult years watching friends and relatives taking care of kids and periodically babysitting others’ children. (Typical babysitting experience: taking care of three children at my Cambridge apartment for three hours and needing to take a 10-minute business phone call during that time. The 7-year-old picked those 10 minutes to break away from her siblings, come into my home office, and say “I’m bored.”)

From the outside the life of a parent has many unappealing aspects. These people appear to have hardly any time to concentrate on reading a book, watching a movie, or engaging in an adult conversation with a friend.

But when I finally moved into the parent role myself the things that I would have expected to be bothersome were not. It doesn’t bother me to interrupt an adult dinner table conversation and cut up food for Greta, for example. Perhaps it is because I did a lot of traveling when younger but I don’t feel trapped because I can’t run off to New Zealand for two months. Generally I like to do things efficiently and quickly. This is simply impossible with a 3-year-old in tow. She is not interested in point-to-point walking time. She is interested in having her hand held while she balances on a curb or line of bricks. She wants to ask about the function of a metal strip that separates a brick sidewalk from mulch. She wants to know why there is a green railing alongside a wheelchair ramp in front of Harvard’s Sackler Museum. So a 10-minute walk to meet friends for dinner turns into a 25-minute exploration of the urban environment. If you’d asked me ten years ago “Would it get on your nerves to spend 25 minutes on a 10-minute walk?” I would have said “Absolutely.” But in fact I enjoy answering her questions and helping her explore.

This is not to say that parenthood is for everyone. My point is only that you can’t expect to learn much about how you’ll feel as a parent by watching other people, even close relatives, engage in parenting. Nor can you learn that much by taking care of others’ children.

19 thoughts on “Don’t decide to have kids based on how you feel about others’ kids

  1. Children are a gift. You’ll learn more by raising a child than by getting a Ph.D.. Lots more. Yet, while I agree, it’s different with your own, the world doesn’t need any more children who their parents regard as even a little bit of a burden.

  2. I’m not sure I agree, but then again, I’m not yet a parent. Nor do I plan to be one (I’m 39 and single).

    Having kids is a drastic lifestyle change. Suddenly:
    – your adult conversational life goes away, replaced by baby talk or talk about baby
    – ditto for your intellectual life
    – you cannot take long, adventurous trips anymore
    – your home is filled with unsightly toys and child paraphernalia
    – you have no freedom and must give up most, or all, of your hobbies
    – any social contact you have is with other parents
    – you cannot go out in the evenings anymore, without a babysitter. Your single friends’ homes are not childproof.
    – you must buy a minivan or the equivalent: Volvo wagon, etc.
    – you must live for years with chaos in the home
    – you must make every decision with ‘security’ (physical, financial, etc.) as the leading criterion
    – and most importantly, it fundamentally changes your deepest relationship, the one you have with the most important person in your life. Once I’ve found someone like that, I’ll be damned if I give them up!

    I learned all this by watching my friends and their kids. Having kids changes everything I enjoy about life; why would I do it? And what other way shall we make the decision to have or not than by observing others and their children? Shall we have a kid, see how we like it, and after a couple years decide if we want to keep them? 😉

  3. Longleaf: Your last point is an excellent one, but I don’t think an insoluble problem. I said that watching other people wasn’t like to yield much understanding of what it felt like to be a parent. But that leaves open a variety of options. The most obvious of these would be to talk to parents and ask them how it feels, including in your survey parents of children of various ages, including fully grown. If the consensus response is “I wish that I hadn’t had kids because I didn’t like driving a minivan and cleaning up blocks from the floor” then that would be good evidence in favor of remaining childless.

    [And by the way, I’m not suggesting that I know what the results of the survey would be. I have heard some people say negative things about being a parent. One neighbor says “You’re only as happy as your least happy child.”]

  4. -ditto for your intellectual life

    Perhaps I move in particularly dull circles, but I’ve found that an enquiring child of 3-5 years – which is to say, all of them – will ask more and deeper questions than any adult you are likely to meet.

    A single breakfast could easier cover topics from why the light passing through their glass gets bent the way the it does (remember, an honest answer is going to require an explanation of the quantum nature of light suitable for someone whose number line still consists of positive integers), through why exactly they need to eat “carbon hydrons”, finishing with an additional stack of “whys” on mortality (grandfathers, yours, theirs) before you finish loading the dishwasher.

  5. Having children is a lot of work. I had 3, all adults now.

    The hard part is learning to let go as you and they get older. Once you realize and accept that after a certain age you can not control your children you can only persuade them, life gets much better.

    Another lesson is realizing that talk is cheap since children are keen observers of how parents and other adults act. Walk the talk, etc.

    I’ve never understood the hostility of some adults to children, nor the hostility of some people who do have children to adults who do not have children.

    (I have heard that grandchildren and grandparents get along so well because they have an enemy in common.)

  6. I wonder how much angst over parenthood is due to the culture of over parenting. I get the impression that my grandparents, both pairs of whom had seven kids, practically just provided a bed and food. That’s an exaggeration of course, but their kids could walk where they needed to go. They went to their own sports activities on their own. There was no expectation of paid for college. It just seems like in the old urban and first ring suburban environments it wasn’t so big a deal to have a few eight to 18 year olds going about their own business.

  7. cc47…: So true! I grew up in early 1970s suburbia, in Bethesda, Maryland about 1 mile from the Washington, D.C. line. We got off the school bus (no pavement-melting SUV pickup at school for us!), dropped our books (no iPad!) at home, and then ran/biked wild in the streets until dinner time. Our parents put dinner on the table for us, participated in a dinner table conversation, told us that we couldn’t watch TV unless we’d completed all of our homework, and then told us to go to our rooms and go to sleep. At least by the time that we were school-age the weekday investment of time was not huge.

  8. My point is only that you can’t expect to learn much about how you’ll feel as a parent by watching other people, even close relatives, engage in parenting

    It’s also worth reading Bryan Caplan’s book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, in which he argues that the high-intensity parenting many affluent Americans engage in is a) unnecessary, b) historically unusual and c) unnecessarily raises the cost of child rearing.

  9. Caplan’s book is quite good, well worth reading.

    Personally, I’ve found that the biggest plus to having kids is that they find everything so exciting. The most prosaic pedestrian event can be just incredibly fascinating when you’re 3 years old and this feeling is at times quite contagious. The end result is that you get excited about doing all the stuff you loved doing when you were a kid because you know your kid is going to have a blast. Science Museums, trips to the Zoo, even a trip to the local park, they’re all much more interesting when there’s someone discovering the world for the first time going with you.

    Not saying there aren’t drawbacks, because there certainly are. Kids can be a pain and it is a big lifestyle change, but as long as you don’t make every little thing into some epic event then even the hard parts really aren’t that bad. You just need to learn to roll with the punches and accept that yes, sometimes your kid will go to day care wearing mismatched socks and the world simply will not end.

  10. Great insight Phil. I must confess that I was nearing 40 years old before pulling the trigger on starting a family, largely based on the reasoning expressed by Longleaf. Now that I have two daughters though (grade 3 and 5) I have found that Garrett’s take on the enthusiasm for discovery rubbing off was also spot on. It’s almost sureal how much I enjoy being a dad to two inquisitive, intelligent little girls.

    The experience is nothing at all like baby-sitting my nieces and nephews, though I confess that it was usually at least mildly interesting.

    Give Longleaf credit though, his reasoning is sound and largely true. There are enormous lifestyle tradeoffs to be made most dramatically in the years that the kids are 0-5 years old. After that they are much less dependent (can feed themselves, tie their own shoes, brush their own teeth). Even so, there is an enormous amount of time that you really no longer are in control of (due to their soccer, softball, cross country, track and field, dance, skiing, scouts, school…). One must embrace Zen qualities — become at peace with this new reality. Me? I’ve developed sports photography skills, am learning to build furniture in the garage, and am stepping up my social involvement by helping coach other peoples kids and serving as team photographer.

    My kids are old enough now to participate in more of life’s adventures (we camp and hike a lot, including a 10 mile backpack trip last fall, spent two weeks in Hawaii, including a Napali Coast hike last spring, and are planning hikes in Yellowstone this summer, we do alpine skiing every week in the winter, we go snowshoeing, etc. etc.) I believe that doing things as a family that we loved doing as a couple is key to keeping the couple relationship strong.

    By the way, no minivan is necessary with just two kids. The Subaru Outback that we bought pre-children has served just fine as a family car.

  11. Phil –

    I like your idea:

    ” The most obvious of these would be to talk to parents and ask them how it feels, including in your survey parents of children of various ages, including fully grown. ”

    Yes, perhaps I should be more formal about it. Over the years, as I’ve asked parents about their parenting experience, I’ve gotten what seems to be a 100% positive response rate. Since nothing is 100%, I’ve come to the conclusion that some parents lie about how enjoyable and fulfilling parenting is. This is probably due to societal norms, inability to confess regret to one’s self, and the like. But being a little more organized about it, as you suggest, may yield more insightful results.

    I got curious after your comment and wondered if there are indeed somewhat more rigorous studies of the joy and fulfillment of parenting. Although susceptible to the errors inherent in any study relying on self-reported data, they do make for entertaining reading:

    Popular articles:

    This paper is often mentioned; it contains a study of Texas mothers who ranked parenting as one of their least enjoyable activities from among a range of options:

    Kahneman, D., Krueger, A. B., Schkade, D. A., Schwarz, N., & Stone,
    A. A. (2004). A survey method for characterizing daily life experience: The day reconstruction method. Science, 306, 1776–1780.

    [I get an uncomfortable feeling whenever these articles mention the financial sacrifice of child-rearing and how much richer you’d be if you didn’t have kids. As mentioned above, I don’t want kids, but Jesus people, if you are going to have them, would it be for the emotional rewards? I hope folks don’t weigh money vs. emotional rewards and fulfillment!]

  12. This puts it well: “All babies are scary and gross. Except your own.”

    It constantly amazes me how people with at least some knowledge of biology can imagine they’d hate having kids. Being good at taking care of your own kids has been selected for strongly for nearly a billion years. Every one of your ancestors, for untold millions of generations, have successfully raised offspring. We have special neurotransmitters and hormones and brain areas and organs dedicated to this stuff. Liking raising your own kids is up there with liking orgasms in terms of evolutionary pressure.

  13. Exactly! Also one of the points in Caplan’s book (I was reading his blog while he was working on it and occasionally publishing notes) is that the utility of children tends to increase. Being chained to your house at 40 by the necessity to change your toddler’s diapers? Has its downside. Playing with your grandchildren at 70? Priceless.

  14. Phil,
    I could not agree more with your OP. I was nearly fifty (!!) when my daughter was born and it was an absolute shock to my wife and I. She (wife) has a PhD in a health related field and I have a real estate sales and development business and neither of us truly wanted kids now/then. (Note: We have been married less than three years.)
    When we married we thought we’d truly have it made, doing whatever we wanted whenever we wanted it, so it was a jarring phone call from my wife on a Monday afternoon (letting me know the cause of her recent nausea) that changed my life forever.

    Like Longleaf, I wanted no part of children and for years I had shrugged off all the “You’ll never know how it really feels to have your own child until you actually have one” as just so much rhetoric from all my child-bearing friends who secretly wished they were me.
    But alas, Longleaf, it’s really, really, true. Until you hold your own child, you really won’t be able to understand what all the fuss is about. Says I, who types this out at 5:28am on the east coast due to now being about the only moment of peace I will have today, since mommie is working and it’s dad’s day to stay home with daughter…and only it’s the greatest thing this person has ever experienced.

  15. I have 3 kids, the oldest is 8 and the youngest is 2. It is an incredible experience. But much of the time it is not fun. It is certainly not about short-term happiness. It is about long-term life satisfaction. I would not have been interested in having kids but for a few older people in my life who were childless and, despite having lived what I would have called rich lives full of travel, culture, intellectual and artistic pursuits, these people expressed that they deeply regretted not having children.

    A side note: My wife and I look at each other and cannot figure out what we used to do with all the time before we had kids. The amount of time I wasted prior to having kids is astounding.

  16. It’s the one who won’t be taken
    Who cannot seem to give,
    And the soul afraid of dying,
    That never learns to live.

  17. I too followed Longleaf’s line of logic before, at 42, I had my daughter. Yes, if 100% of people you speak to rate parenting a positive experience, one possibility is that some are lying. But you should also consider the possibility that they are not. Ask people if they like orgasms; you’ll probably get 100% positive responses on that question as well. If making them is so pleasurable, is it not also likely that raising them is too? As Barack points out, enjoyment of parenting is strongly selected.

    Far more regret not having children than having them (which I’m sure happens, but is very, very rare), so consider that as well. I would also recommend Bryan Caplan’s book. I think everyone should have kids, even if you (think you) don’t want them, maybe even especially if you don’t. I can say this because I was absolutely dead set against kids and had no interest whatsoever in them before I had mine. I can’t emphasize how strongly I did not want any. Luckily my stubbornness ran out before my wife’s biological clock did.

  18. Age 51, female, no kids, never wanted any and neither does my husband of 21 years. For me, it’s not a matter of reasoning or making lists of pros and cons. It’s not because I ever thought that they would be hard work or would be obstacles to other things I wanted to do; it’s because I just never felt the slightest urge to have them. I never think about it at all, even when with other people’s kids (some of whom are great and have become fabulous adults.) Yes, it would possibly be more practical to have them, as someone mentioned, to take care of us in our older age, but I could not justify bringing someone onto the Earth to be my nanny.

    Garrett said “Personally, I’ve found that the biggest plus to having kids is that they find everything so exciting.” I already feel this way about almost everything. My life feels full of wonder and enchantment. The urban discovery walk that Phil describes is my life most days (except it occurs in a small town, usually, and often in the garden). I don’t think children are needed to open one’s eyes to the extraordinary ordinary.

  19. I’m presently childless (and womanless), but I tend to agree with Lenore Skenazy’s “Free Range Kids” philosophy, which makes a more human argument against overprotective / overinvolved parenting than Mr. Caplan is capable of making.

    (These discussions point to a deficiency of the written word: paranoid, overprotective parents will tend to be attracted to books decrying neglectful / absentee parenting, and parents who rather not bothered by parenting will likely claim to be “free range parents” without understanding what it really means.)

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