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Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: Children bring woe - and joy

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Most of us seem to want to become parents.
Most of us seem to want to become parents.

The news crossed the globe faster than Len Brown saying "yes please" to the offer of an upgrade. "Childless couples are happier than those with kids", gasped everyone from the Huffington Post website to the Ottawa Citizen to our own august organs.

Attention-getting? You bet. Intriguingly counter-intuitive? I'll say. Load of bollocks? Pretty much.

Babies everywhere wondered if they were about to take a one-way ride to the orphanage doorstep as their parents, now with the scientific backing, abandoned them in the pursuit of happiness.

But whenever you see a study quoted in the media you see a study misquoted.

The exigencies of contemporary news gathering, up against unforgiving deadlines, budget cuts and, most importantly, understaffing, do not encourage the sort of subtle analysis that any decent research requires to be understood.

The research, on the other hand, has usually been carried out without those impediments and is worth a close look.

This study was thoroughly credible. The work of the UK Open University's Economic and Social Research Council, it was carried out over two years using more than 5000 people.

The first sign that the reporting did not totally reflect the study was in its name. It was not a study of parenting. It was called Enduring Love? Couples Relationships in the 21st Century. Unlike much of the reporting, the project set out to accentuate the positive from the start, acknowledging that there were lots of studies on relationship breakdowns but few on why so many people stay together.

The council's press release on the survey led with the finding that simple acts of kindness are the things that keep people together. As to the relationship between children and happiness, the survey actually says that childless couples reported feeling more valued by their partners than those with children did. Which is only natural given that those with children have other people to think about, as well as lots more people around to value them.

The survey found that people without children ranked the quality of their relationship higher and spent more time maintaining their relationship. This is a restatement of the truism, known to any parent, that when kids come along, they get in the way. The greatest happiness comes from a combination of relationship with a partner and that with children, in which case each element has to give a little to make room for the other.

Having children is not for everyone - and there's few things sadder than seeing someone who's not suited to parenthood struggling with the job. On the other hand, the number of people - and the amount of dollars - that go into treating problems of infertility suggest that parenthood is, for most of us, a desired option.

Certainly, children can make you more miserable than just about anything. They are grindingly hard work and a job for life. One of the surprises of having adult children is the discovery that you continue to care so much for them, agonising with them when they go through life's challenges. And you wouldn't have it any other way. No one ever dies wishing they'd spent less time with their children.

Religion can be a wonderful comfort to the afflicted, although it doesn't always help them to see things clearly. One survivor of the dreadful Tongan cyclone, after describing the calamities she had endured, thanked God for saving her. She did not seem to have taken in the obvious corollary about who had caused all this trouble in the first place.

- Herald on Sunday

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