Kids: why bother?

Tara Parker-Pope at the NYT Well blog writes:

One of the more surprising trends in marriage during the past 20 years is the fact that most couples no longer view children as essential to a happy relationship.

A few years ago, the Pew Research Center released a survey called “What Makes Marriage Work?” Not surprisingly, fidelity ranked at the top of the nine-item list — 93 percent of respondents said faithfulness was essential to a good marriage.

But what about children? As an ingredient to a happy marriage, kids were far from essential, ranking eighth behind good sex, sharing chores, adequate income and a nice house, among other things. Only 41 percent of respondents said children were important to a happy marriage, down from 65 percent in 1990. The only thing less important to a happy marriage than children, the survey found, was whether a couple agreed on politics.

Parker-Pope suggests that people rank children lower because marriages are becoming more adult-centered. Maybe, maybe not. Another interpretation is that maybe people are just wising up.

My colleagues and I have documented that for most (though not all) couples, relationship satisfaction goes down after children enter the picture. And Sara Gorchoff and others have shown that marital satisfaction goes up when the kids leave. (Obligatory note: there are still unresolved questions about the causality behind these trends.)

Parker-Pope’s explanation might make contemporary couples sound more selfish (“we want to be happy, and kids will ruin it!”). But I can see it the opposite way. Maybe contemporary couples (who, after all, are still procreating) realize that there are other reasons to have kids besides enhancing the quality of their marital relationship.

3 thoughts on “Kids: why bother?

  1. Hi Sanjay –

    Congratulations on tenure! I am enjoying your blog. I agree with your take on the relationship satisfaction trends. I do worry, however, that those measures are not sensitive to the potential upsides of parenthood for some individuals/couples.

    The recent Peter Singer NYT column (“Should this be the last generation?”) raised deeper philosophical issues about parenthood that might flip the “selfishness” perspective on its head. I admit that I find the “it is all about the selfishness” meme a bit tired.


  2. Thanks Brent!

    I agree with you that we need to be measuring more outcomes than just relationship satisfaction (or measuring it in a multidimensional way). Framing things around simple “satisfaction” feeds into the selfishness conversation, even though — as you point out — you can argue the moralism both ways.

    After satisfaction, the next biggies seem to be dissolution and health. But those aren’t exactly psychological outcomes. What other psychological outcomes do you think relationship researchers should be measuring?

  3. Good question. I wonder about the possibility of increased commitment to the relationship. Or psychological variables related to Eriksonian-type generativeity concerns?
    Have you ever used the Positive/Negative Marital Quality measure Fincham and colleagues created in 1997?

    I did some work with Ming Cui and we found that kids can be a source of increased conflict so I think that the basic findings about a decline in relationship satisfaction during the child-rearing years of the marriage makes sense.

    My pet thesis is that research about trends in marital satisfaction is one of the areas of basic relationship research that can be helpful to the wider public. I think it is useful to know that it is seemingly normal to experience declines in global satisfaction with kids in the picture. This way couples don’t mistake something that is fairly typical as something unique to their situation.

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