PARENTING'S HAPPY FACE JUST A PUT - ON, STUDY FUNDS
Idealization a way to cope with costs
When parents say their children are the true source of happiness and fulfillment in their lives, they may be enacting a psychological defence to justify all the time, money and energy they put into the job, finds a new Canadian study.
The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests parents are idealizing their role to cope with the downsides of being mom and dad — namely, how expensive it is to raise a family.
“The well-being literature shows that during the years when most people are parenting, people tend to report lower life satisfaction and lower levels of happiness,” said study co-author Steven Mock, an assistant professor in the health studies and gerontology department at the University of Waterloo.
He and colleague Richard Eibach, an assistant professor in the university’s psychology department, set out to “explain the disconnect” between quality of life reports that consistently show low points in middle age and the common assertion that parenting brings all the joy one could ever ask for.
“It’s this cultural idealization,” Dr. Mock said, pointing to previous studies that have found the idea that parenthood is a trove of emotional joys is a myth.
The pair conducted two studies to test their hypothesis that parents idealize the emotional rewards of their role to help justify the financial costs of raising their children.
In the first, half of the group of 80 parents of children under age 18 recruited for the study in the northeastern United States was given reading material that focused on the fact it typically costs more than US$190,000 to raise a child to age 18.
The other half was given the same material that also addressed potential benefits of parenting, such as financial and practical support in old age.
The parents who were primed to mostly think about the costs of children were more likely to idealize parenting when answering questions about how much happiness a child brings to a parent’s life.
In another test with similar preparation techniques, the parents who were preoccupied with the costs of raising children were more likely to report higher levels of enjoyment in spending time with their children and intending to spend more time with them in the future.
“It appears from our results that if you direct parents’ attention to just the financial costs of raising kids, that then motivates them to idealize parenting and exaggerate its emotional rewards. In doing so, it helps them cope with the dissonance about their costs,” said Prof. Eibach.
Years ago, children were part of a family’s economic engine, working on farms and bringing home paycheques that would land in the family’s communal pot, the researchers point out. Parents were also less emotionally available or in tune with their children at that time, they add, but that has changed over time as children contributed less wealth and cost more. With that rising cost has emerged an idealization and an emphasis on the emotional rewards of being a parent, they said.
It’s not always a bad thing to idealize, said Dr. Mock. In fact, research has shown those who tend to see and experience things in a slightly more positive light than most, accurately or not, tend to report better mental health.
A new study released this week, and also published in Psychological Science, found that people who idealize their romantic partners lead a happier life in the long run.
“We’re not trying to say parents are deluded,” he said. “Idealization is a strong word and if we challenge it people think automatically the inverse, that we’re attacking parenthood. We’re not doing that at all,” he said. “What we are saying is that maybe people idealize it a little bit.”
The study ignited online debate after its publication in February.
On 11 pages of comments in response to a column about the study on the Huffington Post website, readers praised the researchers for having the courage and forthrightedness to study such a culturally fraught subject. Others were offended by the suggestion that they may be denying true feelings they might hold about the experience of being a parent.
Dr. Mock said he’d been asked by interviewers whether he and Prof. Eibach were parents themselves.
“What it implies is one of these cultural myths of if you’re not a parent, you don’t know what it’s about,” he said. “From a research perspective, we can’t always study things we experience directly.”
Sarah Boesveld and Derek Abma,
Postmedia News •
Mar. 3, 2011
Posted by BEYOND RISK at 3/04/2011