Work-Life-Child Balance in 2017: 5 Myths Busted

It is 9:25pm and The Husband and I can sit down for dinner. Finally. After I spent two and a half hours bathing and feeding three under 6 year olds. The eldest two fell asleep at 8pm, which is a miracle as they usually tend to hop around until after 9. But the little one, despite his only eleven months, struggled to calm down. It took another one and a half hours of me limbo dancing with him in a baby sling until he eventually dozed off. And in between back rubs and sandwich folding, I checked on various urgent work email trails. (I usually take care to answer only the most important ones, because, under the circumstances, I may end up sounding less composed than I actually am.)

During the same time, The Husband was trekking through Rodman’s and Aldi chasing some vital ingredients to reconstruct a German Christmas in America. (Let me take a sip before I continue. I have just been handed a Cabernet with a blue cheese and fig jam tartine on the side. Hm. Senses slowly coming back.)

How do people do this? I mean, spending quality time with your kids while earning the means to do so and still getting enough sleep to ward off premature dementia? How are you supposed to do it? – The question keeps occupying researchers and I am not sure it is solved yet. Still, my recent dive into the research rewarded me with busting a few myths:

Myth #1: You need to spend a maximum of time with your kids

No. In fact, the quantity of time is irrelevant for children age 3 to 11 as long as it does not drop below the minimum of about 6 hours per week, according to this new large-scale study. Frankly, 6 hours is nothing, like just getting dressed and one meal together six days a week. Or, one weekend afternoon and nothing else. Kids that have this much of parent time, or the double of it, fare just the same in terms of achievement, behavior and emotional well-being.

So there. What have we been stressing about? Mothers in 2016 spend on average 14 hours with their children per week, while mostly, half of it would do. The only group of children for whom more time makes a difference are those that are about to grow out of childhood: for adolescents, 12 years+, more parental time makes a difference in terms of better behavior.

The quality always matters though. The time you spend together should be interactive. If you spend it doing nothing or watching TV, it will be detrimental.  – On the other hand, unstructured alone time is good for children; it has been shown to build executive skills. 

Myth #2: It doesn’t matter if parents sleep less when they have kids

Oh, it does. If parents are stressed and sleep-deprived, parent time will be harmful for children, Milkie’s study found out. As a parent, you should see to your own sleep at least as much as to your children’s sleep. Let’s be realistic, this is unfeasible without enlisting outside help from time to time, as well as taking turns with your spouse in getting up at night and a flexible employer who understands that on some days, your full brain at work at 10:30am is better than half of it at 8:30am.

It’s a tough nut to crack, but I understand it a bit like the oxygen mask in planes: you must put on your own mask first, if you want to have a decent chance at helping your child.

Myth #3: It is a good idea for a mother to give up her job to have more time for children

Better not. Two things that do more than parental time for the future success of a child, according to the above study and others, is family income and a mother’s educational level. Higher income and higher maternal education are always good. Milkie also finds that mothers’ work hours don’t matter much at all.

So, both spouses working is a good thing. I can imagine some non-linear reasoning here though, with the impact of dual earning being particularly strong at lower income levels and less so above a certain level. Further studies should look into this.

Myth #4: Only your kids’ fun matters, your own doesn’t

Actually, your own fun is vital. A study on 6500 children and their fathers published in the British Medical Journal found that the amount of fun fathers had while parenting was much more important than the time they were involved. Fun fathers were 28% less likely to have children with behavior problems.

“The researchers discovered that how secure the fathers felt about their role and their partner, and how emotionally connected they were with their children, were more important in reducing the likelihood of behavioural problems than the time they put in to childcare.”

Myth #5: We want to keep our kids supervised because of the risks they are exposed to.

Nope. We supervise them closely because we find it immoral to do otherwise. It has nothing to do with the actual risks the kids face. As Ashley Thomas and her team carefully researched with an experiment, our brain muddles up the two, morals and risk perception. The less morally acceptable we find the reason why a child is left alone, the more at risk we believe the child is.

This is not to say that there are no risks out there. I am not in the camp of ‘let the kids be in the street alone all day, like it used to be’. Yes, it used to be the case, and I had collected two concussions by age 6, while my 6 year old today has never had one. But we do need to take a step back and realize our risk perceptions are out of whack. Kids need enough unsupervised freedom to develop their own life skills.

So they can make their own blue cheese and fig jam tartines and get themselves to bed. For example. Eventually. Bottom line, parents need to let themselves off the hook a bit more, take license to live, and breathe and have fun, and stress a bit less in 2017.

(Second) Spring, Fertility and Happiness

Despite the ever changing weather, I hear birds chirping outside. Beams of sunlight come and go, as do bees that are kept at the local elementary. The daffodils have not given in to the rain and the mosquitoes have not arrived yet. Perfect spring. New green life is piercing through frosty soil, and a somehow larger family of Easter bunnies gathers on our lawn. A good moment to think about how human families form and grow and pursue happiness. I have witnessed this lifecycle building best in my immediate friends, such as Beth (not her real name).

Beth has been married for over ten years now. She confided to me that her wellbeing had changed markedly since she first partnered with Jack. Getting married and moving in together nudged up her happiness. Trying for a child and getting pregnant brought an even deeper contentment and feeling of security, also for Jack. The actual birth of the first baby was life changing and laborious. But at the same time deeply rewarding and instilling pride. Beth and Jack felt like family. Both of them older than 36, they also saw a long held wish materialize, and at a time where their biological clock could have decided otherwise. In spite of the hard work that followed and would eat up part of their leisure for good, they were happy.

Mikko Myrskylä und Rachel Margolis mined the extensive data from British and German household panels and found that the birth of a child normally increases the parents’ happiness. This is strongest for the first child and a bit milder for the second (and non-positive for the third). The effect is temporarily very strong. As they write, “happiness is, on average, 0.3-0.5 units higher (on 0-10 scale) when a child is born compared to the baseline 4-5 years earlier. This magnitude is comparable to the effect of divorce (-0.49) or going to from employed to unemployed (-0.47).”

Happiness gets a boost around the birth of a child, with 2-3 years anticipation before the birth and lasting 1-2 years thereafter. The happiness increasing period before birth may reflect partnering, marriage and getting pregnant; and the post birth decline possibly a realization of the permanent loss of spare time.

And, wait for it. You better have your kids at a mature age. Older parents, above 35, as well as the highly educated have a stronger happiness surge, and even when happiness drops around 2 years after the birth, it still stays above the long term average. So for these groups, parenthood increases their happiness sustainably. Younger parents (below 25) can see their happiness decline long term. This may reflect that younger parents typically have fewer resources available, and also that they still have a – now unfulfilled – need to enjoy life and leisure on their own. Older parents likely have had their partying years and can let them go.

Looking at all this it is understandable that more and more people decide to have their children later, and to limit their number. Parenthood in the second springtime of life lets the new happiness last.

Memento mori

“Memento mori – remember you are mortal.” This is really not big news, all our lives will end. But we are most of the time too good at ignoring it.

See, I have to write about death and mortality today because I am seeing too much of it. The Brussels and Ivory Coast hate attacks, people surprised by a diagnosis of terminal illness, young top-of-the-crop talents taking their own lives, car accidents, and again, diverse health struggles lost, heroically. Always untimely. Sorry for not coming up with a more uplifting topic, but bear with me. Because first, it is Good Friday and death is for a while the theme, and second, because by the end of this blog, I will try to extract some beauty from the setting. Somewhere.

Likely, none of us knows for when God has ordered the taxi, or who the driver is. And we repress thoughts about it successfully. We live as if we live forever. We love as if our relationship will last forever and beyond. It is easy to value today as if we had lots more of them coming, and value it barely more highly than tomorrow. Economists call this intertemporal preferences, or discount rate. For example, with a low rate we don’t discount the future strongly because we are convinced we have lots left. Or we are good at waiting. There are advantages to a low personal discount rate, such as willingness to save, invest, delay gratification, to work hard today for a better tomorrow. Most education aims at instilling these values in children.

But they may not be entirely realistic. In the long run, we are all dead, as Keynes wisely observed. We live moving towards death.
Some people get the news about God’s taxi, its driver and the approximate departure years in advance. It is still shocking news. It changes one’s outlook completely, and often quite painfully. Arguably the more painfully, the less prepared one is. There is a sudden realization of the strength of the will to live. An anger with fate or a higher power, sometimes turning one’s faith bitter. And the fear that the driver may be really unpleasant. And of the radical good-byes. (Radical, but not terminal, I believe.)
Even when the taxi is announced at a point in life that one could consider rich in years, and fulfilled, more often than not it pulls the emotional rug from under people.

My lesson from observing this is to get prepared. To live life, love, friendships, faith and work knowing the road will once end. To cherish every day, to worry a little less, to breathe more deeply, to savor food more, to spend more time with your kids, to give more and hoard less, to hold on to good memories and let go of grudges, to care for one’s time wisely and abstain from things, people and situations that drag.
To take liberties and forget others’ approval. To indulge all those who don’t know this. Simply, to put things into perspective. Many annoyances lose their weight in front of the fact that our stay on earth has an expiry date.

It is still fine to work hard and invest in tomorrow. But it is wiser to plant Lutheran apple trees and take joy in the planting rather than doing it only for the harvest. The apples may well be our offspring’s to enjoy without us, which is also worth it.

The Growth Mindset for Relationships

These days, The Growth Mindset is all the rage as a recipe for success, and for raising successful children. What does it mean?

A Growth Mindset, as discovered by Stanford professor Carol Dweck, is the inner belief that intelligence and talents can grow by effort. A Growth mindset lived out in practice means attributing successes and failures to one’s actions and effort rather than one’s fixed abilities. The opposite would be a fixed mindset.  In education, it means praising children for effort rather than ability such as smartness. A child that is praised for effort will invest in effort. A child that is praised for smartness will stagnate and rely on existing abilities only.

What use is this for relationships? Well, I would like to think that a Growth mindset can be applied to about everything. For example, to the extent to which partners are well suited to each other. A fixed mindset would take this as given, a  growth mindset would believe that a couple can be well matched today and better matched tomorrow. Personal affinity can grow. So can closeness.

On a sidebar, shhh, it can be a good way to influence your spouse. Praising his or her efforts…

For now, this is all theory. I challenge economists and other empirical researchers to test the effect of a growth mindset on relationships. Let me know what you found.

 

New Year Special: 6 Things To Make The Joy Last


Do you still feel the holiday warmth? Our house for sure still breathes hot chocolate, cookies, spiced goose, gifts, generosity and good company. I love it, and would like it to linger.

Can it? Over the years I have found that what can last without boredom is the inner part, the family ties, the altruism, the generosity – non-material would be too simple an expression; family ties can be very material. But transcendental nonetheless. The consumption aspects grow stale far too quickly. I mean I lurrve chocolates. Really. But I can’t look at them right now. Not even the finest brands – which I usually crave all year.

Another phenomenon came up this holiday, and everyone, including president Obama apparently, is going gaga about Fates and Furies. I also enjoy the read. Being still in the first quarter of the book, it’s kooky and a little bit crazy, a tasty and lighter bite after Crime and Punishment, which my book club wormed through earlier.

The new book, as many of you may know, dwells on marriage. How it can be something altogether new even after a string of relationships. The book marvels, almost like a distant perplexed observer, about how marriage can last, about passion that lasts.

But it can. Yes it can.

Psychologists have found that the kind of passion that typically a new love brings can indeed last decades. In very long-term couples that report still being madly in love, MRIs find brain activity that suggests new love next to other feelings commonly found in older companionate marriages, such as trust, familiarity and a feeling of kinship.

I am actually not surprised. In fact, I am rather happy that someone else provides a good argument-ology to my anecdotal observations and doesn’t let me look like a doe eyed dreamer when I claim the same.

So what makes the joy of marriage last? There are six attitudes you need to hold on to and cultivate, according to this research. Hint, we are onto our seasonal theme again: inner values matter. Intentionality matters. Having friends matters.

So here you go:

  1. Have some money, but spend it frugally and don’t care if your partner is rich. The couple should have solid earnings (i.e. more than $125k for the household). But only little should be spent on the engagement ring and the wedding, and neither partner should care if the other is rich.
  2. Don’t care too much about looks either. People who report caring about the looks of their partner are more likely to divorce.
  3. Go to religious worship regularly. This one is now well established in the research, and no wonder. Common values bond, a network of friends with the same values supports, and the whole thing is transcendental and non-consumerist = the essence of durability.
  4. Date 3 or more years before engagement. It sure helps to know each other well, to weed out any remaining information asymmetry, and to have weathered some ups and downs together. But to be honest, this one is a bit of a trade-off with the previous habit. The religiously observant, for whom ‘time before engagement’ often means abstinence, will not be thrilled by the length of this time. Religious people tend to have shorter pre-engagement and pre-marriage times.
  5. Have lots of friends at the wedding. People with bigger (but not more expensive) weddings are less likely to divorce. This one may be a proxy for ‘have lots of friends’ generally. People with lots of friends are probably not dramatically difficult to get along with, plus they have networks for help (with kids, the house) and emotional support. The appreciation of friends for the bride and groom is essential also because its absence would mean that partners would sometimes have to choose whom to spend time with, friends or spouse.
  6. Go on honeymoon. People who went on honeymoon are significantly less likely to divorce than people who did not. This probably means, don’t be too stressed or too workaholic to have a honeymoon at all. Or, in other words, be able to rank your relationship more highly than any other gainful occupation.

In the hope that every reader’s joy may last during 2016 and beyond. Happy New Year!

 

How To Heal A Broken Heart? A 5-Step Program

“We broke up”. “It’s over.” “No more.” It can sound so easy. But the hard work sometimes begins right there. If you are done with listening to Sinead O’Connor and a good dose of mourning, and can suffer some humor again, and maybe a fresh outlook, then this article is for you.

What on earth would economists know about this, you may be asking. I must admit, a broken heart is not a topic I would have thought of by myself, but it is one that many friends bring to me these days. So I dug around in the treasure chest of empirical literature and found a few tissues helpful pointers. (Most of them come from Daniel Kahneman’s seminal article in the AER (2003)).

1 Gain perspective. It is not quite as bad as it seems. Human beings experience loss aversion. I.e. we feel a loss of a certain importance more strongly than we would feel a gain of equal importance. In plain English: your sadness without her is bigger than your happiness with her would have been. (Sounds about right?) This is how we humans work.

2 While an end with pain is better than pain without end, your perception may get this wrong. I know it’s hard to believe, but empirically, patients judge the pain of a procedure by the pain they feel at the end. A short procedure that ends with a sharp sting of pain is judged as worse than a much longer procedure with several stings of pain and two sharp stings in the middle. Look back critically: how much *pain* was there already in your time together, which your memory now tries to dismiss?

3 Good riddance indeed. You know, the opportunities you missed while dating your now lost love are likely a bigger loss than losing him now. It will not feel like it. But this is just another way our intuition plays tricks on us. Economists would coldly say ‘out of pocket expenditures are more painful than opportunity costs’. What it really means is that it hurts more to lose an actual mate than missing a good potential mate – even if objectively the latter is the bigger loss. Bottom line: rejoice; you are free to revive the opportunities you had missed in the meantime.

4 Replace the adrenaline and cortisol with endorphines. This advice is not from behavioral economists, but from doctors and experience. Adrenaline and cortisol are hormones caused by stress, such as fear or anger or sadness. Exercise can reduce their levels. Physical activity makes you less stressful. Difficult issues are easier to handle. What is more, exercise produces endorphines that create a sense of peace and pleasure. (Some people call this “runner’s high.”) To be precise, endurance sports are best for this effect: running, rowing, biking, aerobics, for example. For good balance, you may want to throw in something to wind down every other day, such as yoga or pilates.

5 Keep trying. Your past loss has no control over your future success. Meeting good people is a bit like waiting for a taxi, don’t you find? They pass by at rather random intervals. Sometimes you wait and none arrives, sometimes there are lots in parallel lines. The only thing you can predict is that the arrival and departure of one taxi is completely unrelated to the next. In nerdy terms, taxi arrivals follow a Poisson distribution. One arrival (or departure) is no predictor whatsoever of when (or how) the next one will arrive. I would venture that it’s quite similar with dates. Let go of your current pain; it has nothing to do with the next mate.

Holidays without A Better Half? – A 5-Step Survival Plan

I am not quite sure I should be writing this. After all, I am *everything but* without a better half. I have the world’s hunkiest husband, who is currently playing with two adorable little wild beasts on the corridor.
But, boy, do I remember how it was without him. In fact, it is a recurring nightmare that I have: being unmarried and having to decide among a bunch of unpalatable ex-es. These are nightmares that feel quite real. During the dream I genuinely forget that I am married. It’s scary and lonely. And the options look between dour and unfeasible. A group of friends and family that stand around, bewildered and without understanding, does not help.  – And then I wake up next to The Man and feel like singing Handel’s Alleluia, multi-voice.

In other words: dears, I know what I am talking about. Been there. You are not alone. From the vantage point of someone in safe haven, but with a good view of the ups and downs of single-hood, here comes my survival plan for your holidays:

1 – Read the biography of a great single man or woman. (There are MANY. Composers, writers, poets, politicians, successful entrepreneurs – each century has had a few, of both genders.) Take a step back from the couple focus.
2 – Promote this idea to your family: not everyone needs to have a partner. You may use evidence from the biography you are reading. (You don’t have to believe this yourself, but the real bunch that you want to take a step back is your family.)
3 – Focus on yourself. Pamper yourself, become yourself – just better. Train the muscles you’d wish you had, or the skill you’d like to have. Schedule a makeover with a pro, or a friend whose taste you trust. Beautify your best side.
4 – Be the person that is missing from another person’s life. This need not be ‘somebody’s partner’, but another helping hand at the family dinner, or with your cousin’s little wild kids, the community activities of the season, or in the places that lack staff during the holidays but are bitterly needed: hospitals, soup kitchens, hospices, nursery homes, orphanages. You will never know how much you are appreciated till you try.
5 – Number three and four should keep you busy already. But if you have some downtime left: dream. Sit down with yourself and make your personal wish list for the next year. Stick to a maximum of three wishes total if possible. If that includes a partner, work on it and be specific: what are his/her five non-negotiable traits. Promise yourself you won’t accept a second date with someone that does not meet them. After all, dating is about spending one’s time wisely and economically for best results. That’s called optimization.

Happy Holidays!

Love from your Economist.

Stop Worrying About The Kilos: Shapely Women, These Are Your Times!

Are you worried about those thighs? Does your bum look big in that? Well, if yes, rejoice.

A British study has recently found that men under pressure prefer shapely women. The researchers split a group of about 80 men randomly into two groups of about forty participants.  (The fact that the split was ‘random’, e.g. by lottery, is important. This means that each man had an equal chance of ending up in either group. And that the groups can be expected to be fairly similar after the split; similar in things you can see (like height, weight..) and and things you cannot see (like motivation, mood..). This is why true economists lurrve this type of experiment. But I digress…)

One group was asked to solve maths puzzles in front of a critical jury (howzat for being put under pressure), the other didn’t have to do anything. Both groups were then, independently, asked to rank pictures of women for attractiveness.

And lo and behold, the stressed out men preferred heavier built women. (The relaxed men preferred slightly underweight women.) Men under pressure need love handles. The researchers think this is because weight signals age and maturity and stressed men would appreciate the help of a mature partner. Yours truly thinks men also unconsciously know that those thighs come in handy in times of hunger or other economic distress.

This is consistent with another trend: in times of economic crises, the centrefolds in Playboy show heavier and older women than in times of growth. In economic drought, heavier women are hot, thinner women are not.

So, to the extent that the world is still recovering from the recent depression (which it is), your type, darling, sets the trend. 

 

There Is Just No Man!

I don’t know about you, but I have just met one beautiful and accomplished single woman too many. There are three, no, wait, four, acquaintances on the top of my head, spanning the twenties to the forties, who are stunningly gorgeous, pleasant characters, academic and professional high achievers – and single. And it’s not that they want to be; they just happen to be single. They would love a man that is a good match for them, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone eligible around.

What is happening here? Well, Your Economist has three theses on what’s going on. And three antidotes.

  1. Don’t be too modest. Many beautiful high achievers, I am sure, have been told from an early age to be humble and self-effacing. To counteract the stunner effect with an overdose of modesty, so their classmates and relatives can bear the sight and sound of them. That trick may have worked for social integration, but it is a killer on the dating market. Robust evidence shows that popular and outgoing girls are asked out the most. So, darling: get yourself on that pedestal. Be the one to announce the student union activity, the new task force at work, or the new charity project at church. You want to be that girl behind the mic that has all the eyes and ears on it for a moment.
  2. Cast your net widely. If you are ‘rare’ on any trait (rare beauty, rare intelligence, rarely sporty, rare height…) whoever matches you will be equally ‘rare’. If there are not enough eligible people where you roam, roam in other places: go online, visit that aunt on the other coast, let your friends set you up. Let go of the thought that the internet and blind dates are for losers. They are not. They are for choosers.
  3. Make. Time. If you live a lifestyle that only works for a childless single, then that’s what you’ll end up being. If you work endless hours and weekends; if your scarce leisure time is planned out without flexibility, then where will a partner and maybe a family fit in? When will your radar be relaxed and clean enough to register Mr. or Mrs. Right, and recognize them as such?

No guarantees. But these three potions should let an eligible man or two appear.

The Price of Naptime

You know what’s the best time of the day? If you are a parent of young children that is. Naptime. Those 1-2 hours in the afternoon they nod off and let you be. One good hour for mum and dad to do what they want, alone or, together. Read a book, write a blog, engage in a passionate conversation. Essential. Restoring. For body, mind, soul – and sanity.

Of course, this one hour is only worth so much because the other hours of the day are filled with toddlers’ laughter, their crazy and creative ideas, needs, energy and wisdom. It is a clear case of diminishing returns. Given that this is one hour only, it is valued highly. One hour more would still be fun, two hours more (of productive solitude) would be helpful, but three kid free leisure hours would probably max out the fun, and any further minute would be boring and lonely.

Ok, just wanted to quickly get this message out before a little chocolate stained finger tries out my keyboard, as the soft steps on the corridor seem to announce…