Is parenting a form of addiction?

The last time we encountered Slate columnist Shankar Vedantam was when he puzzled over why slightly more than half of voters planned to vote for Republican candidates, given that polls show that Americans dislike the Republican Party even more than they dislike the Democrats. Vedantam attributed the new Republican majority to irrationality and “unconscious bias.” But, actually, this voting behavior is perfectly consistent with there being some moderate voters who prefer divided government. The simple, direct explanation (which Vedantam mistakenly dismisses) actually works fine.

I was flipping through Slate today and noticed a new article by Vedantam headlined, “If parenthood sucks, why do we love it? Because we’re addicted.” I don’t like this one either.

Vedantam starts by reviewing the evidence that people with kids are less happy than people without kids and that parents report that they are unhappy when they are around their young children. Given this, Vedantam asks, why do people have children at all? (As he points out, it’s not just that making babies is fun; lots and lots of pregnancies are planned.)

The usual answers I’ve always heard about why people want kids, despite the predictable (on average) decline in happiness, are:

1. Happiness is not our only goal in life; we also pursue life satisfaction.

2. We have kids in part because of social expectations, which explains a lot of the things we do. Kids are trendy right now in America and a lot of people are having them.

3. Related to this is a feeling of responsibility. Having children is, in some way, part of our “job” as humans. Not for everyone, but for many people.

4. Little babies grow up and become adults. I haven’t seen the data on this but my experience is that many parents enjoy being around their adult children.

Vedandam doesn’t consider any of these explanations (even if only to dismiss them). Instead, he writes:

Parenting is a grind, and most parents are stressed out much more than they are happy. But when parents think about parenting, they don’t remember the background stress. They remember the cuddle and the kiss. Parenting is a series of intensely high highs, followed by long periods of frustration and stress, during which you go to great lengths to find your way back to that sofa and that kiss.

We have a name for people who pursue rare moments of bliss at the expense of their wallets and their social and professional relationships: addicts.

Children regularly give parents the kind of highs that only narcotics can rival.

Huh? The last time I tried narcotics was when I was recovering from an operation and they put me on Vicodin for a week. It was great and gave me a relaxing feeling, but nothing like the feeling of having a child in my arms. I’m not saying one was better than the other, just that they seemed nothing alike to me.

But Vedantam clearly knows a lot more about narcotics than I do. He continues with that line we’ve all heard about intermittent rewards:

The unpredictability of those moments of bliss is an important factor in their addictiveness. If you give animals a predictable reward–say, a shot of sugar every time they press a lever–you can get them to press that lever quite regularly. But if you want irrational and addictive behavior, you make the reward unpredictable. Pressing the lever produces sugar, but only once every 10 tries. Sometimes, the animal might have to go 20 or 30 tries without a reward. Sometimes it gets a big jolt of sugar three tries in a row. If you train an animal to work for an unexpected reward, you can get it to work harder and longer than if you train it to work for a predictable reward.

We’ve all seen those sad people sitting at slot machines in a casino, methodically feeding coin after coin into the slots. If you made their reward predictable–after precisely every 20 attempts, they would always get a prize–you would lower the addictive power of slots. It’s the unpredictability that drives them. Or, to put it another way, it’s the hope for reward, not the reward itself, that drives them.

At this point, I was expecting to hear him tell the story of the rats that starved to death because they were allowed to freely choose between food and direct stimulation of their pleasure center. But it was not to be. Instead, he writes:

I suspect oxytocin works the same way. The unexpected, kind, and loving things that children do produce chemical surges in their parents’ brains like the rush of the pipe or the needle. Like addicts, parents will sacrifice anything for the glimpses of heaven that their offspring periodically provide.

B-b-b-b-but . . .

Maybe I’m missing something here (and this is not just a generic disclaimer here; I’m no expert in psychology and I can well imagine there’s a bit part of the story I’m just getting), but I see a big problem with the above analysis. The problem is that the decision to have kids is a one-shot, or nearly so. Sure, some couples have 2 or 3 or 4 or even more kids, but this hardly seems like the behavior of an addict who wants one more hit! In particular, once you have the kids, there they are. Maybe it’s true that interactions with the kids give some people a drug-like high, but it’s not like you’re going to have a new kid every month or whatever.

Vedantam’s slot machine analogy seems terribly wrong here. To use his example, parents have already bought the tokens and at this point are forced to play whether they want to or not. Some parents might choose to buy two or three or four buckets of tokens, but once the kid is born, that’s it.

Why does this bother me?

You might ask why this bugged me enough to blog on it (beyond the usual explanations that blogging is a low-cost mode of procrastination). What bothers me–as in Vedantam’s earlier explanation to explain the puzzling (to him) phenomenon of people voting for the candidates of a party they don’t like–is the too-quick reaching for fallacy-based explanations.

Saying that some swing voters are choosing the Republicans to get divided government, or that people have kids because, even though we all know children are a lot of work, they’re also wonderful . . . well, that would be too easy.

Sure, I know, it’s on Slate, so it’s supposed to be boldly contrarian, but, still, it all seems a bit silly to me.

25 thoughts on “Is parenting a form of addiction?

  1. I totally agree with you, but this is the only way our media can rationalize behavior that does not support the individualism of the "Me Generation" that took hold in the 60s and 70s. I view this through two interesting filters, first is the book Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton, and this weekend actually watched the first three episodes of The Century of Self an Adam Curtis documentary from 1992.

    Thanks for calling this bit of silliness out, somehow continuing our society and improving the world through raising children can be compared to substance addiction, what a ignorant idea.

    How about this reason we have and educate kids

  2. Andrew, one of the things I like about your blog is your willingness to avoid the trendy explanation of the month and go right for the no-nonsense simple approach.

    In this case I think it makes sense to separate the decision to have a baby from the consequences. No-one who is childless is likely to really understand what is coming their way, and the decision to have children is in part a very basic biological one, but in part a lot of societal input as well.

    As a recent parent, I can honestly say that while I'm more stressed than I was before, I'm not less happy.

  3. I do think the point of the Slate article is to be boldly contrarian for the sake of it. And I will "bite": It seems to me that, barring anything of gravity (health, finances, and so on), people who choose to not have children are more like addicts: They can't overcome their short-sighted and self-centered tendencies to invest in children and the ways in which they enrich one's life over the long term.

  4. Jonathan:

    Even funnier is the column by Schoen and Caddell that Weigel links to. "We do not come to this conclusion lightly," indeed.

  5. Marveling at "breeder's" suggestion that it is short-sighted and self-centered NOT to have children. I haven't heard _that_ one before!

  6. I like this article which covers some of the psych research (not that I went and looked at the source materials):

    Though I have to admit, I mostly like it for the quote: “[Children are] a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to sh*t,” which resonated with me in that way that only things that are simultaneously funny, sad, and true can… :)

  7. @Phil:

    I was really just trying to keep in the spirit of the Slate piece, but I think there is some truth to it. On two occasions people have told me that having kids would interfere with their lives too much. Also found this from NY Times, citing a NAS report:

    'The report finds that there are several ''significant personality factors'' that can contribute to addiction:

    – Impulsive behavior, difficulty in delaying gratification, an antisocial personality and a disposition toward sensation seeking.

    – A high value on nonconformity combined with a weak commitment to the goals for achievement valued by the society.

    – A sense of social alienation and a general tolerance for deviance.

    – A sense of heightened stress. This may help explain why adolescence and other stressful transition periods are often associated with the most severe drug and alcohol problems.'

    NYT article here

  8. Maybe the addiction is why parents don't drop all their kids off at a hospital, at least in the U.S. in states that support "safe" unwanted child drops.

    re 1. I don't know how I'd separate "happiness" from "life satisfaction", but then maybe that's why I split hairs in fields other than social science for a living.

    re 2. My wife and I were surprised by how many people tried to talk us out of our decision not to have kids on all sorts of social expectation grounds. C'mon people — there's no shortage of children.

    re 3. It's like voting in New York — it's clear others will do the work for you. See 2.

    re 4. In my limited experience, I've seen adult children run the gamut in their relationships to their parents from love and support to neglect and theft.

  9. I agree about the (im)plausibility of the addiction hypothesis and also think your alternative seems much more intuitive, but isn't there also something question-begging about said alternative? It seems like the claim is: we have kids because we like them.

    Likewise for the moderate voter: some voters vote for divided government because they prefer divided government.

    Am I misreading, or is there maybe something more profound here that I'm missing?


  10. @breeder, I think I see what you're getting at. I guess one way in which people use the word "selfish" is, as the word itself implies, "concerned with ones own happiness or satisfaction." More frequently, though, I think it is used to mean "concerned with ones own happiness or satisfaction, at the expense of others'." The latter is anti-social, at least if it is taken too far, whereas the former is at worst innocuous. If I enjoy listening to music on the radio, and I do so, that is "selfish" by the first definition but not by the second (unless I listen so loudly that I bother my neighbors).

    I think that _not_ having kids can be "selfish" in the first sense — I might choose not to have children because I think I will enjoy life without them more than I would enjoy life with them — but it's hard for me to see how that decision could be selfish in the more common sense. After all, who am I bothering if I choose _not_ to have kids?

  11. The similarity in brain chemistry caused by holding a baby and using some drugs is pretty well known. I do agree that the term 'addiction' is overused and misused, but when I first held my baby it did occur to me that the feeling that drugs can give is only an approximation or maybe a strong but poorly aimed attempt to attain the feeling of having and holding a baby.

  12. @Andrew – This analysis seems a bit unfair. The question in the article's subtitle isn't "If parenthood sucks, why do we have kids?" It's "If parenthood sucks, why do we love it?"

    Most of the article is about why parents claim they love being parents, given that point samples of their happiness come out lower than for non-parents.

    Now, Vedantam's explanation is not very deep. It's that the highs are rare but very high, so integral(happiness) > 0, and that's what really matters; whereas what the surveys estimate, he says, is integral(sign(happiness)) < 0 or something like that.

    He then observes that situations with rare but very high highs are known to be addictive in other contexts. Combining this with the previous paragraph, he generates a hypothesis that parents get addicted to their kids. That hypothesis does not necessarily improve the explanation of the original discrepancy that triggered the article: it's already a sufficient explanation that integral(happiness) > 0, whether addictive mechanisms are involved or not. But it's a testable hypothesis:

    The hypothesized addictive mechanism might be used to explain other data, like brain chemistry measurements that test it directly, or data on the time course of parent-child interactions, or data showing that even parents for whom integral(happiness) << 0 behave irrationally (like addicts), e.g., by not deserting their kids and by claiming that parenthood was the best thing that ever happened to them. (I'm not claiming myself that addiction is the best explanation of those things. :-)

    He does also speculate on why parents go on having more kids, given the surveys suggesting that kids often make them miserable. But his proposed mechanism is not that they are addictively seeking the next hit of cocaine (the analogy you object to). It is that they cognitively believe (maybe correctly in most cases!) that cocaine improved their life, so they figure that heroin will too.

    (Note: This is a charitable reading of the article. I haven't read the original studies or looked at the data.)

  13. Anon:

    I don't know anything about brain chemistry and certainly haven't personally noticed any similarities between being with kids and being on drugs, but, as noted above, I have very limited experience with drugs.

    In any case, if this connection is worth writing about, I'd prefer to see it written about directly, rather than using an overextended "addiction" metaphor and posed as a solution to what seems to me to be a non-paradox.


    I still think the article's focus on happiness alone is misguided, but I appreciate your rational reconstruction of the argument, which indeed clears up some things. There is something amusing about the analogy of each new kid to a new drug sensation.

  14. Coincidentally, a couple of weeks ago a friend said he had recently seen a talk, at a financial conference of all places, about kids not making people happy. The speaker was a psychology professor, and he discussed many kinds of research that have convinced most researchers in this area that it really is true that having kids makes most people less happy. (Since it's pretty much impossible to "measure" happiness in different people and compare the numbers, you can see how this would be hard to do.) He said the psychologist pointed out that there's evolutionary pressure to pass on ones' genes, and that one way that can work is that you are happy when you do things that lead to passing on your genes (such as having sex), but that's not the only way. Compulsions work too; so do lapses of judgment that make you less happy but create children. So does making people think they will be happier if they have children, even if they won't. It's not like evolution is controlled by a benevolent power that has your happiness in mind.

    My friend related all of this as if it's fascinating new information — a bit poignant, in fact, because my friend says he knew from day 1 of child 1 (he has two children) that he would have been happier without them — whereas I remember having a discussion with Andrew about this topic in about 1996, in which Andrew pretty much told me everything that the psychologist told my friend.

    And yet, Andrew, you chose to have children! I don't think you got addicted to having 'em, yet you had more than one. So why _did_ you have that first child? Convinced that you would beat the odds? Accepting of the possibility that your happiness would go down, but seeking some sort of satisfaction not encompassed by the word "happiness"?

    It's often said that "the plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data'", and I use that line myself, but actually you can extract data from anecdotes so in a way I disagree with it. Give us a data point: why did you have your first child, given that you knew you'd be bucking the odds? And why did you have the second, if not "addiction"?

  15. Andrew:

    Really, item 3?

    And, for that matter, item 2? (You're as resistant to social expectations as anyone I know).

    As for item 4, How much time do you spend with your parents, and do you think your children will spend more time with you in 30 years?

    Item 1 makes a lot of sense to me. And I do think you like kids much more than the average guy. I'm not saying you didn't make a good decision, just asking for more information.

  16. Phil: I would put a lot on item 3.

    As part of that "job" you often get prompted to re-live or re-visit your past.

    For instance I get to look at possible linear algebra courses I can try talking my daughter into taking next year ;-)


  17. It is interesting to me what mind set one brings into an article when they read the article. It would appear to me you (Andrew Gelman) brought in a pre-conceived dislike of the author. With no prior knowledge of this author or Slate articles in general, I read it as a tongue in cheek, pro-parenting article. I thought it was quite amusing. I am not sure what it means, but there is something to be said when someone spends more words writing the critique of an article than the article itself.

  18. Robert:

    I actually did not read the article with any pre-conceived dislike. I read it because I'm interested in the topic (regular followers will know that I occasionally blog on happiness studies). The article made me steadily more uncomfortable and it was only after checking the author that I realized I'd read something by him before.

    In answer to the (implied) question posed in your last question: Please read the last section of the above (under the heading "Why does this bother me?") for an explanation of why I bothered to write a long entry on this one.

  19. I admit that parenting is hard but there are far more joys and good times than challenging times. It's a big task we have as parents with the job of preparing our children for adulthood.

Comments are closed.