Parenting: A Selfish Act

Wednesday, Aug. 17th 2011 9:19 PM

When we choose to have children, we’re signing up for years of lost sleep and significant financial investment. Traditional wisdom would say that’s about as selfless as you can get, right? I disagree. Many would even say that parenting is equivalent to decades of self-sacrifice and putting someone else’s needs before our own. Again, I disagree.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while now, you know that I believe we are all selfish. None of us does anything unless there is something in it for us, even if that something is simply that a particular action or “sacrifice” supports the beliefs we have about ourselves and what “good” or “normal” people do.

A recent Psychological Science report called “Idealizing Parenthood to Rationalize Parental Investments” supports my theory – even as it pertains to what many people consider the ultimate selfless act. It suggests that in a day and age when children no longer have any economic value (i.e., we no longer put them to work on the family farm when they’re out of diapers) and cost more (on average, almost $200,000 before age 18), we have simply found other ways to justify what’s in it for us.

In this study, researchers asked two different groups of parents to rate the emotional value of child-rearing as well as the enjoyment they get from spending time with their kids. With one group, researchers first discussed the costs associated with raising children. With the other group, they discussed both the cost as well as the long-term benefits (like elder-care). Surprisingly, the group that was only presented with the cost and not the benefits ranked their experiences more favorably.

Despite the fact that studies have shown parents to experience lower emotional well-being, less-frequent positive emotions, less marital satisfaction and greater depression levels than childless people, modern-day parents rate the emotional value of their youngsters much higher than they did back when children “earned their keep.” And we seem to enjoy parenting more when we consider the astronomical cost – or at least we say that we do. Why? Because “normal” people have children, but normal people must also justify to themselves the time and money required for such an endeavor.

Does this mean that parents are bad or delusional? Absolutely not. We’re just selfish … just like everyone else. The first step to being a Powerful Person in a Partnership is: “To thine own self be true.” In being true to yourself, you have the opportunity to also be honest with yourself and to examine what you’re getting out of any relationship – whether it’s with your children or your mate. Not only does this perspective help us evaluate and maintain our own happiness, but it also prevents us from convincing ourselves that we are making sacrifices for the sake of others and from acting holier than thou. After all, martyrs aren’t great company, or much fun as parents and partners.

So, that’s my two cents. But I would love to know your thoughts on these findings – and on my take. If you’re a parent, what do you consider to be the rewards of child-rearing? Would it seem less rewarding if your children had more economic worth and didn’t require so much work on your part? Or do you believe it’s a selfless sacrifice necessary to propagate the species without any benefit to you? I look forward to your feedback.


Keep Rising,

Frank Love

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38 Comments on “Parenting: A Selfish Act”

  1. Rudy Wietfeldt Says:

    It is both selfish and selfless to have children….and the degree to which it is one or the other depends on the individual in question….

  2. Codruta Ilie Says:

    Thanks Frank, there are powerful partnership and love lessons to be learned from our children

  3. Naghma K Khan Says:

    I think parenting is a middle path. It is not purely sacrifice or selfishness. You tend to make various compromises but at the same time gain a lot of contentment also. It is not black or white, like most of the things in this world, but a shade of grey!

  4. Amy Schoen, MBA, CPCC Says:

    I feel as a woman there is choices I have to make that does not always benefit my personal desires. My family comes first so sometimes my business desires takes a back seat. I do feel people who have children are less self centered and are giving of themselves. Yet I do see my friends without kids being able to devote time and energy to causes they believe in. The other thing I see is that most of my mom friends, especially if they are working are focused on their kids and have little time for friends who do not provide playdates! We only have so much time in the day- it really gets down to how we choose to spend our precious hours.

  5. Ricardo Ibarra Says:

    Frank,… I feel that having children is not selfish at all as long as the mission to build Godly and wholesome lives is there. And yes it is a sacrifice but it is also a purpose to carry the message forward to unknown countless others that God lives and loves and most of all forgives.

  6. Prof.Raymond Feldman Says:

    I very much liked and respected the question, but unless you have children how can you possibly know? i have had 3, and each one is very different, while one has been ill all her life. But I would not change them for Solomons wealth. Selfish…Why? and Sefless Why? Children cost time, effort, and monies, but in my opinion I would not say we are selfish or selfless. Because life is not only about ones self, but to enjoy the fruits of your family. Being a sacrifice…of course, but so is having an animal as a pet. I would rather have a child. Selfish as every thing else we do, I feel sad for the poor individual who feels that every thing we do is selfish. Try giving your time for free, helping others witout renumeration, giving more to charity, What a dull life you poor souls must have. I appreciate it is only a question, but have you nothing more tostimulate yoiur sad lives..

  7. Marie Manuchehri Says:

    Parenting has been and continues to be one of my greatest joys! A hard job true, but one filled with much love and adventure. I believe that children are our enlightened teachers and parenting can become one of the best class rooms on the planet!

  8. Rhonda Ouellette Says:

    Could be both. I know when I was raising my children a lot of my decisions were based on what I really wanted, ie…selfishness on my behalf and then certainly, the sacrifice to my career is still reverberating through my daily life. Would I do it differently? I say yes, but perhaps no. Yes because in a perfect world I would have figured out my own insanity, cleaned that up and created a financial safety net for my children before I brought them into this world. No because on a soul level we do what we do and have to learn from it. Interesting part is that my hopes were that I would teach my children not to do it the way I did, but you know what? They both took the hard way. Funny strange how that works. Thanks for the question Frank.

  9. Al Rosenblum Says:

    Frank, I agree fully that all human behavior is motivated for self. Every motive is ultimately related to what we perceive as our own needs. Needs for security, for challenging experiences, for significance and for love/connection are hard wired into the human soul at birth and drive our efforts all of our life. Marriage is often the primary strategy we use to meet our needs, believing that our mate will give to us unconditionally through all the stages of life. Choosing to have children is driven by a similar strategy, believing that we will gain others to love and who will love us. The primary motive for having children is to gain another person with whom we can intimately connect for life, not to produce a worker to enhance our financial bottom line. Even today, children (especially sons) can be big helpers in getting things done and accomplishing financial gain but I doubt that many people choose to reproduce for this reason.

    Reading your article, I believe your primary premise is that selfishness motivates humans to do everything. I agree. The question that comes from this premise: “Is there a way for us to grow beyond the boundaries of our own selfishness and act with altruistic motives”? Is the human race locked into selfishness permanently or is their a way to transcend our own needs to contribute to the needs of others? For me the answer is no and then yes. 🙂

    No, because I have adopted the Christian view of total depravity that says mankind is selfish to the core, rendering him/her incapable of acting outside of his own nature. If this were the end of the story then we would be trapped in our own depravity.

    Yes, because God has made a way for us to escape our selfishness through the sacrificial work of Christ, who satisfied God’s justice by paying for our sins. Having freed God to bless man without compromising His integrity, He now offers a spiritual life that enables a person to grow into an intimate relationship with Him. We can now direct our needs to God who is able and willing to meet those needs perfectly, fulfilling our souls for the first time in our lives. It is from this place of fulfillment that we can give freely to others without needing anything in return. Only when our needs are met by God, filling our souls are we able to overflow with love to meet the needs of others.

    As Christian counselors, our real hope is in God and he is willing to free us from our selfishness if we will grow into intimacy with Him.

  10. Janne McKamey Says:

    Being a parent and knowing other parents, I think that most parents are indeed selfless and want to give part of themselves for the well-being and love of another person (their child. While people are inherently selfish I believe most of them change for the better once they have kids. When divorces play out, the attorneys can usually tell which parent took having kids more seriously, as they continue to look out for the child’s best interest, despite how they feel about the spouse they are divorcing.

  11. Brent(ly) Stewart Says:

    I think choosing not to have children is selfish. I admit I’m guilty of it, and see having children as a major sacrifice.

  12. Prof.Raymond Feldman Says:

    I have to say it is a very good question, and I am sure you will open many aladins caves and pandoras boxes, good for you. It is a question that must challenge the mind, and make people think deeper than normal. My comments were my own initial views, but not neccesarily right for every one. I often wonder when we have exhausted some of the best brains available, what can we learn, or do about it, but never the less its as old as the oldest profession, which still exists. top marks for stimulating thought,creating mind challenges,but one day I hope we will have the question which is closest to my mind……..wait for it, it will come, good for you.

  13. Prof.Raymond Feldman Says:

    Naghma,your are future guru, I wonder what wisdon you have to deport on this question? We need anew fresh direction to think about,as you contemplate your own students, and wonder how their parents think? I know that your mind is very active,exploring every possible avenue, some have children for company, some for them to take care of them in old age, others for love that no one ever gave them,some for gratification etc, some dont have children because they may be self centred, ego centric,not wanting responsibility, not wishing to be burdened, others to spend every thing on them selves, now lets hear the deep rouited answers…Raymond.

  14. Rina M. Goodman Says:

    I am responding to this because, as a parent who adopted a child, I am frequently told how wonderful I must be because I gave a child a home. But I didn’t choose to adopt my child because I wanted her to have a home. I believe that we choose to parent for reasons that are self-serving. I wanted desperately to be a mother at a mature age. I am so grateful that there was still a way for me to parent. I passionately believe that my daughter was a “gift” to me. But now that I’ve become her parent, I owe it to her to cherish and nurture her. I wish that I could do this perfectly.

  15. Daniel Roberts Says:

    Sacrifice? Selfish? Depends on the couple having the children. For many it becomes a sacrifice after the “cute” years are gone. Many have children or adopt purely out of selfish desires of wanting children to fit in with friends. Yet there are many that desire to give a good home and life to someone else. It really comes down to your motivation and perspective.

    Another question however is what do you mean by “parenting”? Most parents who find it a sacrifice or are selfish, typically don’t “parent” their children.

  16. Michael Lonergan Says:

    Both, depends on who you are talking too. More than likely it is the need to pass on their goo so the family name continues, so that would be somewhat selfish. But then if you spoke with my grandmother it was a sacrifice as it was expected of a family at the time but would never have had children otherwise. Most folks who have kids should not and have considered a dog or cat.

  17. Linda Diaz Says:

    Hell yes it is a sacrifice. Expensive too. Really fun when b4 they discover the opposite sex and alcohol! I have 2 grown. One gives me joy and the other heartache and verbal abuse.
    For those that r lucky enough to have respectful kids the experience may be different.

    Mine was diagnosed with oppositional conduct disorder by 9 MSWs I don’t believe in that. I think first born selfish Jerk. Not a disorder a choice!!!

  18. Linda Diaz Says:

    Still Love them both very much but I actually turned my kids into Dr Phil because I did not have anyone else to tattle too. They wanted our family in their house for a week.
    I did not do it because the boy was going to have too much fun ruining my reputation.

    I wish I knew then what I know now.

  19. gretchen slover Says:

    Who is this Frank Love anyway? Not any Biblical support for his findings. Sounds like a really progressive position. Be careful with lumping all people into one category. We operate with many different motives.

  20. Paula Young Says:

    It depends on what kind of a parent you are!

  21. Debra Cole Says:

    Making the decision to not have children does not make a person progressive. And, selfish people are selfish in every endeavor, whether it’s in business, friendship, family relationships, or parenthood. People make a lot of decisions in life and we live in a time of more choices. So Mr. Love, if you don’t want to have kids, good for you. Don’t put others down because that is their choice. I believe that progressive thinking is recognizing that all choices in life have upsides and downsides. Marriage offers wonderful things for people who want it. So does parenthood. Remaining single is great for some people. Whatever you do and whomever you are with, life is hard and anything worth having requires work and sacrifice. People need to be comfortable with their choices and respect others for what they want. No place in this world is easy.

  22. Dr. Janet Teresa Alario Says:

    Having children is one of the most self-sacrificial choices we can make. We give all of our resources to nourish God’s miracles and make Him known to them by our unconditional love. We put their well-being before our own. We are motivated to achieve for their benefit what we might be tempted to procrastinate if only for our own.

    If Jesus emphasized the importance of children, I rest assured that we can trust they are truly His greatest blessing. I learn so much more from them in all their purity and unconditional love before the world spoils it.

    My dear hubby and I have lost our jobs and home after 22 years along with all of our savings and possessions. God has rewarded us with a grandchild who is entrusted to our care. The world might say “what bad timing.” We say a whold-hearted “thank You, Lord;” for He has given us the greates gift of laughter, joy, and love that money could never buy. We have lost nothing and gained everything 🙂

  23. Rudy Wietfeldt Says:

    Human motivation and intention are neither all-good nor all-bad; having children is no different. There certainly are many examples of unconscious (if not conscious) selfish desires to have children (because we want to perpetuate ourselves on earth). There are also many examples of total selflessness on the part of parents. So, even within one individual parent, I would argue that the issue is never cut and dried.

    With honesty in our hearts, I would imagine that each of us has prayed for something we “want” — as opposed to simply praying to be closer to God.

    I prayed desperately prior to each of my four children dying that God might leave them here on earth.

    I learned that children are not “ours” at all. God lets us “borrow” children, for however long, to raise — for the ultimate purpose of together spending eternity in True Happiness in heaven. Paradoxically, children actually help US grow up…by helping us lose much of our selfishness. The smiles I have smiled thanks to looking through the eyes of my surviving four children!

    Janet, may you continue to enjoy the things that matter most and may God’s mercy help you through any and all material hardships.

  24. Iris Bacoate Thompson Burse Says:

    Back in the day (1950’s, 60’s, 70’s and some 80’s) people had children and made sacrifices. but today 1990’s, 2000’s people have children for selfish acts. New parents are not watching their children. DSL’s and other electronic games are the new babysitters for OUR children. These games, do not teach…., “Do NOT run down the steps”, “DO NOT slide your hands down the walls”, and these games surely do not address………. “DO NOT address adults as you would your friends (peers)”. The children are fed sugary cereals, fortified sugar candy, sugary drinks, and the parents are wondering why they cannot control their kids. I am a grandmother and the new rule at my house is this “Do Not Bring Your Kids and their sugary candies into my home”. I have to watch these WILD off the chain kids. It is a big mess, and my husband and I are becoming unbenefitted because he wants to see his grandchildren, and so do I, but I am the disciplinarian and these WIRED children cannot be disciplined if their thoughts and body parts are going into a million different spaces. PLEASE NEW PARENTS SAVE OUR CHILDREN!

  25. Cristina Marreiros da Cunha Says:

    I would say:
    If you sacrifice yourself, please don´t have children!
    They don´t need your sacrifice, they will suffer with it, they didn’t ask to be born.
    Please be a parent, only if you are able to transform “sacrifices” in your free choices, and feel good with them in such a way they aren’t sacrifices
    Yes, we are selfish. Selfish when we choose have children, or adopt, or not to have them.
    We do things because they fulfill our needs.It may be have children, (it accomplishes also an existential goal) or not to have them (it accomplishes an existential goal too, in another way, but with same purpose: “feel good and belong to this world”)
    Altruism, is feeling good with our selfish need to feel good helping others.

  26. Mary Romero Says:

    I have to agree with Paula, it most definitely depends on what type of parent you are. I have seen many a parent who use their children for many selfish reasons including the reason they had them in the first place. Yet, for the majority, I would have to say that they truly do care about their children and do not look at them/it as a sacrifice in the big picture. Even if we were to take the monetary part out….children can cause us many things, grief, pain, heartache, joy, happiness, love….we cannot put a monetary value on these things.

  27. Maureen T. Dougherty, Psy.D. Says:

    Ditto, Mary.

  28. Alexandria Jones Says:

    I have devoted most of my adult life to rearing 3 children one who is disabled one who had very bad bullying and anxiety problems and one that was burned aged one year old. Although it has been hardwork as I have been on my own for most of the 24 years I have enjoyed every minute – so Im not sure whether it is selfish act for I have put a lot of effort in helping to mould 2 older children who will I hope make a valuable contribution to the future of the human race and one – well who know what she will make of herself but I know I am and will continue to give her all the love and support she needs to be a happy and contented member of Society.

  29. Alexandria Jones Says:

    Rudy, you have experienced the death of 4 of your children? I am at a total loss for words to respond to that image. If I understood you correctly, that is way beyond any adversity I have ever envisioned. I have 4 children, all still living. I just asked the Lord to comfort you and give you an impact on other parents who lose children.

  30. Al Rosenblum Says:

    Thank you Valerie.

  31. Rudy Wietfeldt Says:

    Thank you, Al.

    God is indeed very good — and my life’s work is now ever more directed to the purpose of helping others with grief and depression.

    I also had lost my parents relatively early in life — my dad when I was 17, my mom when I was 25. Their memory survives as characters in a novel, “The Core of Happiness,” to be released this fall. (It’s really a self-help book written as a novel — with the idea that people learn best when they are engaged in the process.)

    If you’re up for an excerpt, I’d be glad to post it.

    Also, I’d invite you to visit my new project:

    All inspired by my four angels, Richard, Mary, Lucas and Josef.

  32. Dr. Janet Teresa Alario Says:

    Rudy, your words and sufferings move me to tears. What a purposeful work God is doing through you to help others. My prayer is that you continue to share His grace with those in need and find endless comfort in His omnipresence. I look forward to reading your projects.

    Alll, thank you for opening my eyes to a broader view.

  33. Al Reynolds Says:

    It has always been a selfish act. Back during the argricultural age, more children were desired to help work the farm. Fast forward to today it is not hard to identify those women who use having children to better their income from more than just one baby’s daddy. And it is certainly not hard to find men who have several babies’ mama’s beating their chest about their seed being their legacy. Yes, it is selfish just like the eastern cultures that require payment to the brides family so the older persons can have money to live on. People in this country might wave the banner of parenting being a sacrifice but in reality, it is an investment that they hope to survive and profit from. Ask most son in laws what happens if thiier wife wants money or something for their mother and he doesn’t go alone with the program. All hell breaks lose and there is no peace and the sex stops to. Is that selfish?

  34. Galia Krasteva Says:

    There is a third reason to have a child- because the society sais so. The pressure increases, when people reach certain age. It is somethig like : “Youre country house is not a real country house, if you do not have a dog.” The care is similar.

  35. Ricardo Ibarra Says:

    This has all been very touching and heart warming. I still do not believe having children is selfish in any shape or form. One of the major reasons the Essenes of Jesus’ time died out is they did not propogate and when Jesus said to “go and make disciples of all nations” I chose to do just that through my children and now am the proud father of four deeply committed to the Lord disciples. The ripple effect of their upbringing has brought some of their friends to Christ as well and they are raising their children in the teachings of Christ. Sorry. Doesn’t sound very selfish to me.

  36. James (Jim) M. Strawbridge, Ph. D. Says:

    How do I as a Christian counsel others with a “little splinter in their eye” when I have a “big log” in my eye? Before I can understand others and their problems, I must understand and deal with my own problems which are in common with theirs (I Corinthians 10:13). In order to understand myself I must understand what my Creator intended my image to be which is in His likeness. He revealed Himself in His incarnate perfect human God man Christ Jesus. He lived out the life here on earth to show me what God intended for me being created in His image.

    First I found that I was blinded by my sin nature, I was born with. God had to open my eyes through the new birth so that the “old man of the world” I was born with must be identified with Christ’s death (Romans 6) and the a new man identified with Christ’s resurrection be raised up in his stead. Once I experienced this spiritual transformation (John 3) I began to understand the Bible in a new way. I then began to realize that even though the “old joe” was dead, his presence and influence was still in my life (Romans 7). A struggle began between the old joe of the world and the new man in Christ. As I looked at Jesus and the life He lived here He showed me the way, and the truth about my new life in Christ as well as providing a contrast to my old life in Adam.

  37. Ricardo Ibarra Says:

    This indeed has been a great discussion and I would like to add one thought. I had an “Ah-Ha!” experience in Seminary when I read the passage of Jesus’ parable about the man with a demon that was cast out. The demon wandered around in the “dry places” and then reasoned it should return to his former home and brought seven others with him so the “last state of that man was worse than the first.” I do not believe that we can remove completely the attributes of the old man as they are hard wired into the brain BUT what we can do is a type of psychotherapy of reprogramming our mind by targeting specific sin areas we want to correct and REPLACING the old behavior with a new pattern. DAILY, even hourly we are to work on the new behavior and the old one will slowly BUT steadily lose its power. If we slip into the old behavior it is not a failure but a lesson we should learn that we are and will remain human as long as we are on this side of Eternity. Lions fail to make a kill 9 times out of 10 BUT do they quit? NO! They learn, remember and try again until a successful hunt is made. Like the man with the demon cast out there was a void that needed to be filled and since it wasn’t, the old returned with additional private demons as off shoots from itself coming into play. It works well with my clients and every successful newly practiced behavior pattern then gives them confidence AND additional strength to continue the practice until it is hard wired and becomes automatic in practical application as the old one once did. Prayer is the greatest tool in the Universe and FREQUENT prayer makes the walk better, more in the presence of the Lord and allows more fuel for the modification effort to grow. Hope this helps.

  38. Ann Burton Says:

    As a professional woman who did not have children, I am amazed at the replies of “God meant” me to have —–. Children need stability, care and responsible parents who teach by example and provide an environment in which a child can grow up to be a solid human being. Unfortunately, I don’t see much of that in our society today. I have been made to feel like an “outsider” or “different and not in a good way” when often asked if I regret not having children. This is usually from women who spent their ENTIRE life rearing children and are limited to relating to others who share that experience. The self-righteousness of parenting, expecially motherhood, is a way to justify a decision to reproduce, whether they did a decent job of it or not. My take is that people use religion, societal pressure and other selfish motives to make themselves “right” even though they may have been lousy parents. Just ask anyone if they are a bad parent, and see if they admit it even if evidence points otherwise.

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