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Friday, November 15, 2013

Good news for children: parents benefit if you're the center of the family

We all have our opinions on whether children are best served by ‘helicopter parents’, who hover over them keeping them safe from physical or emotional harm, or by ‘tiger parents’ who insist on early and exceptional achievement. We also differ on how much nurturing or discipline children need. But the bigger question is, what’s better for the parents? Children everywhere can rejoice to hear that, according to Claire Aston-James of VU University Amsterdam and her colleagues, parents who center their lives around their children are the happiest.

The researchers asked 136 parents with at least one child to self-rank themselves on a child-centrism scale. The parents were asked whether and how much they agreed with statements such as ‘the happiness of my children is more important to me than my own happiness’. 

Parents next filled out detailed surveys on how much time they spent with their children, thinking about their children, talking about their children, driving their children around, participating in activities with their children, etc. More to the point, they were asked how often they had changed their own plans to accommodate the needs of their kids.

Finally, the parents filled out questionnaires on how much enjoyment they got from their children. 

Child-centric parenting correlated with happier parenting. 

In a second experiment, 186 parents were asked to reconstruct their previous day: getting up, having breakfast, getting kids ready for school, etc. For each activity, the parents assessed what their mental and emotional state had been, and whether they had felt any sense of purpose in their lives. Only after this detailed introspection was completed, did the parents fill out the child-centrism survey.

While caring for their children, the parents who rated high for child-centrism felt much more positive about themselves, their day, and their lives. Non-child related activities were not influenced by how child-centric the adults were. Thus, overall, child-centric parents had greater feelings of well being throughout the day. Everyone felt the same during their 'adult time', but the child-centric parents got a boost of pleasure while caring for their kids.

It’s well known that investing in others makes one happier. If this is true for strangers, how much more likely is it to be true for one’s own children? Still, while perfectly believable, these results are also highly subjective. And of course, the data says nothing about what parenting styles are most beneficial for the kids. Nevertheless, I have the feeling that most children would be willing to be the center of family life. For their parents’ sake.

Claire E. Ashton-James, Kostadin Kushlev, & Elizabeth W. Dunn (2013). Parents Reap What They Sow: Child-Centrism and Parental Well-Being SAGE Journals DOI: 10.1177/1948550613479804.

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