An Economist's Guide to Happier Parenting
Happiness research hits a lot of nerves, but the finding that kids don’t make people happier may be the unkindest cut of all. As a proponent of having more kids, I could make methodological objections, but the truth is, I do notice a lot of people who don’t seem to enjoy being parents. My view, however, is that to a fair degree, these parents just aren’t doing it right! Fortunately, basic economics is here to lend a helping hand.
My main observation about parental unhappiness is this: The last 10% of parenting hours causes half of all the parental unhappiness. First two hours with your kids: a joy. Second two hours: pretty good. Hours 5-8: Tolerable. Hours nine and ten: Pain. Remaining hours: Anguish. There are few better illustrations of the law of diminishing marginal utility.
Once you see this clearly, there are some obvious solutions:
1. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Don’t plan three activities every Saturday, and wind up exploding at your kids’ behavior in the middle of the third. It’s far better for them and you to do one thing together that you can all enjoy, then let them watch t.v. Seriously.
2. If you can afford a nanny, get a nanny. If you can’t afford a nanny yet, consider waiting to have kids until you can. If you’re the typical person who isn’t sure if he or she wants kids, you’re well-educated and have good income potential. So if you can’t afford a nanny yet, you’ll be able to soon enough.
3. Don’t let American prejudice against live-in nannies influence you: Live-in nannies mean you can sleep in, stay out, and get a break when you need one. Your best bet is to get a mature woman to bond with your kids when they’re infants, and keep her happy. A little respect goes a long way.
4. Read Judith Harris’ The Nurture Assumption. Don’t worry about “moulding” your child for life; you couldn’t do it if you tried. Realize, instead, that the purpose of discipline is:
a. To keep your kid in one piece.
b. To make your life easier – you count too!
c. To force your kid to sacrifice very short-run gains (playing ten more minutes) for short-run gains (not being cranky later today)
Thus, I am adamant about naps. Partly this is because little kids get cranky without their naps, but refuse to accept the fact. But mostly it’s because I’ll be cranky if I don’t get a nap, and I can’t nap if they don’t.
If you can’t mould your child, what’s the point? As Harris observes, that’s a lot like asking “If you can’t mould your wife, what’s the point?” The point is to enjoy your time together. If you spend most of your time trying to make your kid be something he’s not, no wonder you’re not enjoying yourself – and don’t expect your kid to be grateful for your efforts.
How would you like it if someone you depended on kept trying to change you? It’s even more foolish to try to change a kid, because he’s likely to change in the desired direction all on his own, in time. In the end, your kid will probably be a lot like you.