A new study, appearing in Psychological Science, suggests that parents create rosy pictures of parental joy as a way to justify the huge investment that kids require.
Psychological scientists Richard Eibach and Steven Mock, from the University of Waterloo, decided to explore the role that self-justification plays in parental beliefs about their choice to have and raise children. More specifically, they wanted to focus on parental views of the economic hardships they've endured while raising their kids.
Half of the parents in the study were primed to focus on the financial costs of parenting: They read a government document estimating that the costs of raising a child to age 18 exceed $190,000. The other parents got this information as well, but they also read about the financial benefits of parenting (support for aging parents). All parents were then asked to take two psychological tests: One measured how much they idealized parenting and the other assessed feelings of discomfort and uneasiness during the experiment.
Eibach and Mock found that the parents whose feelings of emotional discomfort were measured immediately after priming their thoughts about cost felt much worse than did the parents with a more mixed view of parenting. But if the scientists first gave them the opportunity to idealize parenting and family life, and then measured their conflicted feelings, those negative feelings were miraculously gone.
In a second study, parents were again primed to think about their pricey life choice or both the costs and benefits of parenting. But this time, the researchers asked the parents about their intrinsic enjoyment of various life activities, such as spending time with their children or engaging in their favorite personal activity. The parents who had the high costs of children in mind were much more likely to say that they enjoyed spending time with their children, and they also anticipated spending more leisure time with their kids.
Eibach and Mock say that as the "value" of children has diminished (in earlier times children worked) and their costs have escalated, the belief that parenthood is emotionally rewarding has gained currency. "In that sense, the myth of parental joy is a modern psychological phenomenon," they conclude.
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Source: Association for Psychological Science