Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Are children less happy if they don't know their father?

Theres something which I feel has been overlooked in the debates about single motherhood by choice (this, you will remember, is the abhorrent practice of aging selfish women to buy sperm over the internet (or similar) to create a child who will never have a dad in their life, or, indeed, even meet their dad). Whenever theres a debate on this subject, women who've had children in this fashion will say something like "Oh but my little johnny is a happy child, therefore not having a dad hasn't done him any harm." Many opponents to Single mothers by choice (henceforth: SMBC) find this point hard to counter, and usually simply say that "Well, maybe YOUR child is happy, but I bet a lot of them aren't".

However, I believe its useless trying to make a case against SMBC simply on the basis of the child's self-reported levels of happiness.

Recent research into happiness shows that particular events that happen to us - be they good, like winning the lottery, or bad, like being in an accident that renders us disabled - over periods of time longer than 3 months do NOT alter our happiness levels! People are basically, in general as happy or sad as they either make up their mind's to be, or as their physiological and brain composition renders them. Yes, there are exceptions (such as people who have a bad experience which triggers depression), but my understanding of the research is that this is not the norm. In fact, one psychologist summarised this as: if it happened more than 3 months ago, it has no bearing on your happiness. The second key point from the happiness research is that if something bad happens to us which we have no control over, then we do not let it make us continuously unhappy. One example given was of a man who was falsely imprisoned for almost all his adult life, then when he was released as an older man, he basically said that he had no regrets and he'd had a good life. This seems counterintuitive, but think about a similar instance in your own life where you've had no choice. For example, do you allow yourself to be depressed for months because you didn't win the lottery? Do you shake your fist at the sky in rage each day and curse the Gods that you weren't born with a higher IQ, better looks or greater entrepreneurial instincts? Of course not. We all, more or less, accept what we're born with. However, what DOES make people unhappy is when something bad happens which they feel they could have prevented. For example, when you make a choice which turns out to have been a mistake.

Put these two factors together and what do they predict about the children off SMBC? Of COURSE they are not going to report that they are 'unhappy' in general! Their position was something that they've known since birth, they've never known any different, and it was something they had no control over. There may, of course, be other effects than unhappiness. They may have an emotional longing for a father, which is quite a seperate thing from their general level of happiness. They may indeed be less likely to form emotional bonds, more likely to take up crime, less likely to do well in school, and more likely to suffer divorce, but none of these are, per se, their general happiness level!

Also, we don't always look at 'happiness' as a measure of desirability of a course of action, or of wellbeing. Children might be more happy, for example, not going to school, or by never eating any vegetables. But we recognize these things are good for them. Equally, we treat some things as immoral acts, even if no one person's happiness level was seriously affected by them. For example, shoplifting from a big store.

Furthermore, its perfectly possible that children brought up by SMBC are brainwashed by the mother into thinking that fathers are useless. So, when asked, they might be likely to say "I don't think I've missed having a father." simply because their mother's low opinion of men has rubbed off on them.

So, just because some children of SMBC are no less happy than other children, does not mean that it is right. You could go around and ambutate one leg off newborn babies, and those babies would grow up into children who would cope fine with their disability, and would not let it affect their general level of happiness. But does it make it right? Or, imagine if there was some evil scheme to lowwer the IQs of all babies born to mothers with ginger hair, or black skin, by exposing them to radiation when they were pregnant. The resulting babies are then born with IQs 10% lowwer than average. Would we accept as a valid excuse that those children's happiness levels will not be affected? Of course not, because its still affected their lives, and its evil. Just in the same way as SMBC is evil. It doesn't ruin their lives, children are amazingly resiliant. But its still evil.

SMBC deliberately deprives a child of a father, and all the benefits that can accrue from having a father. Because they don't know any better, and because they never had a chance to change it, such children don't let it get them down, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have other side-effects on them. They may do less well in school, have poorer relationships later in life, have a lack of someone to turn to if their mother isn't around, more likely to be a victim of child abuse, or be more likely to engage in crime etc etc. Many bad effects, and probably many more which are very hard to measure or prove. But simply saying that they are not 'unhappy' misses the point.

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