Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Kids Are Still Vital to Married People's Happiness

A new study by the Pew Research Center reports the scary news that only a minority (41%) of Americans think that children are very important to a happy marriage. Press reports have noted that people rank doing the chores higher as a factor in marital happiness. However, when you ask parents how important children are to their happiness, 85% say kids are the most important source of happiness (rank 10 on a 10 point scale) -- higher than any other factor.

I think the first question is a little misleading. The question asked which factors made for a happy marriage in the abstract -- not "your marriage," but marriage in general. On that scale, the rank of kids fell 24 points since 1990. What has changed in the meantime in the public's discourse about marriage? Same-sex marriage, both as a debate and, in a handful of states, a reality. While most people (57%) oppose homosexual marriage, the percentage thinking it should be allowed has risen in the past decade and a half as gay marriage has become a reality for the first time.

I believe that what we are seeing here is a change in how some people - maybe even a quarter of the population -- think about what marriage is. If "marriage" can include homosexuals, then it would seem unfair to assume that children are important to marital happiness in general. However, when married parents are talking about their own, non-abstract happiness, children rank at the very top.

What the Pew survey shows is not a change in how most people rank children, but rather a shift in how some people define marriage.


Mark Smith said...

85% of people who have kids think that having them is important to marriage.

41% of people in general think that having kids is important to marriage.

I have a feeling that if you asked people who live in houses, they'd tell you that houses are the best place to live. If you asked apartment dwellers who have no interest in owning a home, they'll say apartments are the best place to live.

Gruntled said...

People who have kids are not a peculiar minority. Nearly 90% of everyone marries, and nearly 90% of them have kids. This is nearly everyone.

Mark Smith said...

I never said that people with kids were a minority. I'm sorry if my wording confused you.

I'm just saying that people who have done X are generally likely to say that doing X is important on a survey, while the population at large may not.

Anonymous said...

People with kids ARE the population at large.

Renee said...

It reminds me of a poll taken over a decade ago, asking women if they think "a woman" can be happy if she is not married. From my memory well over 90% thought so. I think I read it in Christina Hoff Sommer's "Who stole feminism?" which was published in 1994.

Yes, 'a marriage' could be happy without children, but if so many people thought children within marriage was not a desire then so many women wouldn't be figuring out when the ovulated or seeking infertility treatments. Marriage has a lot of heartache in too. You need that strength in a relationship, when things are rough.

100% of us have been a child at one time, everyone would of liked to seen their biological mother and father in a healthy stable monogamous relationship.

Carol Howard Merritt said...

I think you're right, homosexual marriage is shaping the issue.

But I also wonder if more married people who are unable to have children are shaping it as well. People are older than ever when they marry for the first time, and they'e often unable to have children at the time that they plan to. Infertility is very real struggle among my friends.

Nearly everyone may have kids, but according to the last census only 10% of households were made up of mom, dad, and child(ren).

Mark Smith said...

I think this is the same survey:


Only 58% of people who attend church weekly feel that the main purpose of marriage is for "mutual happiness". Only 25% say for "raising children" and 14% say "both". For those who don't go to church weekly, the percentages are more lopsided towards happiness.

Alexander Riley said...

Where did you find the 10% figure? Is that on the census page somewhere?

Gruntled said...

The 10% figure is way low, and is very misleading, anyway. Nearly half of all households are married couples. Another quarter, at least, are single people who were or will be married. A growing hunk of the married households are childless because the kids are grown and making households of their own. All of which means that we can safely count at least three quarters of American households in the married-couple-with-kids narrative, though some of them are not in that stage at the moment. The others can afford to have separate households because we are a rich nation.

Alexander Riley said...

The 10% figure would seem to be virtually IMPOSSIBLE by a quick check at the latest census page. THere, one finds that there are around 75 million children (under 18) in the US and about 50 million of them (2/3) live with Mom and Dad. Even if we don't count ANY parents in those households, 50 million is 1/6 of the 300 million Americans living in Mom-Dad-kids households.

Now maybe if ALL the rest are atomistic one person 'households' (but they're not--the other 25 million kids all live in something other than atomistic 'households') that 1/6 + of all Americans would come out to only 10% of the households. Maybe.

Who has touted the 10% number publicly and how do they derive it?

Renee said...

Here is a study that infertility does have an effect on the husband.


The scientists selected 256 men from the Copenhagen Multi-Centre Psychosocial Aspects of Infertility (COMPI) research programme. Most men were in the mid thirties, and had been married, on average, for almost 8 years. They had known that they were infertile for over 4 years, and the majority of couples had no children either together, or from previous relationships. Participants completed a series of questionnaires that included measures assessing physical health, support, and psychological and social stress. They completed the questionnaire before the start of treatment, and again after 12 months of treatment, only if their partners had not become pregnant during this time. The men were divided into four categories; unexplained infertility; female infertility; male infertility; or mixed. "We found that social stress, marital stress, coping effort, and physical stress increased over time, whereas mental health decreased", says Ms Peronace. "Perhaps surprisingly, though, we found that men in all four groups suffered equally. Infertile people appear to rely particularly on their social environment for support, and this seems to deteriorate over time. Couples should be made aware of the possible decline in their social support network and encouraged to organise support systems that no not solely include close friends and family."

Gruntled said...

Thank you, Renee, that is a very interesting study. When men are married fathers, they know what Job One is supposed to be. Childless husbands can and do make great marriages and worthwhile lives, but if they had geared up to the most familiar narrative -- married fatherhood -- they may be distressed if they have to figure out Plan B unexpectedly.