Tuesday, 10 April 2007

On not having children (2)

An Irish-born reader from Toronto has pointed me to the Ann Landers survey/straw poll from the 1970s which found that the vast majority of those who had had children regretted the experience and would not have children if they had to live their life again.

Ann Landers, a famous agony aunt with a syndicated advice column in North American newspapers for 45 years, published a letter from someone wondering whether to have a child or not. She was deluged with 10,000 responses of which 70 per cent said "Don't do it."

They were very sad and emotional letters, giving all sorts of reasons for their conclusion, in particular: people who didn't want to bring kids into such a messed-up world; parents who said their children had ruined their marriage; people whose children virtually ignored them once they left home; and parents of teenagers in serious problems with things like crime, drugs and joyriding. They went into parenting with high hopes but sooner or later got disenchanted.

Many of them said their relationships were great until the babies came along and everything went downhill from there. One woman wrote: "I was a successful, attractive, career woman before I had these kids. Now I’m an exhausted, shrieking, nervous wreck—too tired for sex, conversation or anything else.”

How come nobody had realised how disenchanted so many parents were? Because it was virtually taboo (and often still is) to voice negative feelings about your kids. Ann Landers pointed out that while it is just fine to moan about your wife or husband, or your mother-in-law, parents are still expected to praise their children and say that child-rearing is a blessing.

For more details of the poll, go to Happily Childfree

PS (October 20): Emilia has pointed me to a properly designed survey which actually got a very different result from the Ann Landers straw poll. That found only 9% of parents regretted their decision to have children, quite contrary to the Landers conclusion. In that case, glad to hear so many parents are actually happy with their lot!


  1. Hi. Interesting poll. Now that the web is full of whinging parents getting it all off our chests I suspect the figure would be much lower!



  2. Hmmm....not sure the figure would be any lower now given all the extra pressures parents are under nowadays - dropping incomes, families with both parents working, skyhigh mortgages, wayward teenagers, tuition fees, marriage breakdowns etc. Does anyone know of any up to date research on the subject?

  3. Actually, the Ann Landers poll is cited often by statistics professors as being flawed. A more accurate poll by Gallup found only 9% of parents regretted their decision to have children.

    Emilia (emilia_e_murphy@yahoo.ca)

  4. Here's the debunking of Landers' poll:


  5. Thanks for that, Emilia - very illuminating. Yes, I was aware of the problem of voluntary responses, but I had no idea it had skewed the result so badly in this case. The properly designed study you refer to gives a very different picture. In that case, glad to know so many parents are actually happy with their lot!

  6. Hi, it's Emilia again. I must say however that even if the number of parents who truly regret having children are a minority, in my view it is better to regret never having children (which I don't believe most voluntarily childless people do; for example, one sample of 25 "childless by choice" women found only one said she would have kids if she had to live her life over) than regret having a child that is already born. Moral of the story: whenever we make a decision, we may regret it later on. But I think in terms of having or not having children, most people - whether they are childless by choice or have ten kids - know what they are doing.

  7. Hi again, it's Emilia. Just one other thing: polls can be misinterpreted the other way around as well. For example, New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks reported that 70% of women in their 40s without kids "regretted" their childless status. However, the original Gallup poll did not use the word "regret." As well, no mention was made of how many of the 70% truly made a conscious decision to forgo procreation or how many intended to have kids at some time but put it off until it was too late. Or how many were infertile, for that matter. I suspect if the poll were limited to women who had made a definite choice not have to children, the 70% figure would be much lower. Moral of this story: be cautious about polls!