Reap What You Sow


Can putting your child before yourself make you happier?

By Linda Knittel

With terms like “tiger mom” and “helicopter parent” peppering the parenting lexicon, you might worry that being highly focused on your child’s welfare is a bad thing. But new research shows putting your children’s well-being above your own actually can lead to greater happiness and a deeper sense of meaning in your own life.

“There’s a big difference between being a ‘tiger mom’ and one who’s involved and present,” says Tracey Johnson, LCSW, a counselor and parenting coach at Practical Parenting in Portland. “When parents hold on too tight, they often lose their own identity, and that chips away at their personal happiness. Getting meaning from parenting has more to do with investing in your kids and staying connected to them.”

The idea of child-centrism has been a controversial feature of modern parenting. In fact, the recent findings stand in stark contrast to most popular claims that prioritizing children’s needs undermines the well-being of the parent.

In this new work, researchers at VU University Amsterdam conducted two studies involving 322 parents. In the first, they asked participants to complete a child-centrism scale to measure their parenting style. They were then given a survey to measure the happiness and meaning in life that they experienced from having children.

Results revealed more child-centric parents were significantly more likely to report higher happiness and a sense of purpose in life derived from having children.

In the second study, participants were asked to recap their previous day’s activities and report how they felt during each activity. The results showed that more child-centric parents had greater positive feelings and experienced more meaning in life during childcare activities. Such good feelings did not wane during the day, suggesting its not only when child-centric parents are taking care of their children that they feel happier.

“Parenting like volunteering gives you the opportunity to add to someone else’s world. When you are a parent, you get to feel a larger purpose everyday,” says Johnson. Of course she acknowledges that during the grind of the day-to-day, such feelings of purpose are often difficult to achieve. For example, when you’re late getting out the door and your child refuses to put on his shoes. “If you can take a breath and tune into your child, even those moments will feel like connection, and that’s what’s meaningful.”   

Meaningful parenting is not about how many classes you shuttle your kids to or how Pinterest-worthy your birthday party decorations are, it’s about how present you are with your kids when you are with them. “It’s that feeling of ‘I get you and you get me,’” says Johnson. “When you have that, it’s all worth it.”


Claire E. Ashton-James, Kostadin Kushlev, and Elizabeth W. Dunn. Parents Reap What They Sow: Child-Centrism and Parental Well-Being. Social Psychological and Personality Science. November 2013; vol. 4, 6: pp. 635-642.

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