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.

Mom, Dad: Chillax

Alan Kazdin and Carlo Rotella have a sensible essay on Slate discussing how to change your child’s problematic behaviors. Key principle: it isn’t enough to punish the bad behavior. You have to find an opposite behavior and reward it.

They also discuss some of the frustrations and challenges of trying to eliminate problem behavior — things like extinction bursts and a tendency of stressed parents to unwittingly engage in variable reinforcement, which entrenches rather than eliminates the behavior.

But part of their sensible answer is: do you really want to bother? I was generally familiar with the learning-theory stuff, but a little surprised at how common many of these behaviors are.

Many unwanted behaviors, including some that disturb parents, tend to drop out on their own, especially if you don’t overreact to them and reinforce them with a great deal of excited attention…

Approximately 60 percent of 4- and 5-year-old boys can’t sit still as long as adults want them to, and approximately 50 percent of 4- and 5-year-old boys and girls whine to the extent that their parents consider it a significant problem. Both fidgeting and whining tend to decrease on their own with age, especially if you don’t reinforce these annoying behaviors by showing your child that they’re a surefire way to get your (exasperated) attention. Thirty to 40 percent of 10- and 11-year-old boys and girls lie in a way that their parents identify as a significant problem, but this age seems to be the peak, and the rate of problem lying tends to plummet thereafter and cease to be an issue. By adolescence, more than 50 percent of males and 20 percent to 35 percent of females have engaged in one delinquent behavior—typically theft or vandalism. For most children, it does not turn into a continuing problem.