The happiest children in Spain live with two daddies

Americans like to gather statistics… as long as the numbers have dollar signs in front of them or are at least related to dollar figures (e.g., school test scores, which tend to predict employer demand for graduates).

Europeans, on the other hand, seem to be a lot more interested in how people feel. The Spanish, for example, have assembled a huge data set by surveying school children (roughly 10-18 years of age) and asking them, e.g., how satisfied they are with their lives. They also ask for a lot of demographic data and therefore it is possible to get some insight into what makes children happy.

On a slide featuring these Spanish data at the International Conference on Shared Parenting 2017, there was the same pattern that Malin Bergstrom and colleagues found in Swedish data on 172,000 children (see the Children, Mothers, and Fathers chapter for references): children who live with mom and dad in an intact family are happier than children who live in a 50/50 arrangement with a separated mom and dad who are in turn substantially happier than children who live primarily with one parent (i.e., parental separation makes children less happy, but children in 50/50 shared parenting aren’t all that different from their counterparts in nuclear families).

Much more interesting to me, however, was that the happiest children in Spain were not those who lived with their mother and father in a nuclear family. There was a yet happier group: those who lived with their two fathers. (This phenomenon cannot be explained by a preference for same-sex parenting; children who lived with their two mothers were extremely unhappy, one of the most dramatic differences in any two populations presented at the conference.)

Readers: Discuss! (I posted this on Facebook and there wasn’t a single comment. Either the above information is uninteresting or people are afraid to say anything about it! Of course I couldn’t resist noting that “for couples who really want the best for their kids it may be a good idea to look at transgender options”. Perhaps that was offensive? I don’t think it is that I have been defriended by all of the right-thinking folks on Facebook. An adjacent incredibly dull post about our 1.75-year-old’s first use of chopsticks got more than 30 “likes”)

[Separately, Spain is interesting for its regional variation in family law. Unlike France and Germany, but like the U.S., the law is different from region to region and outcomes are different from region to region even when the law is the same. For example, in some regions of Spain it is obvious that, post-separation, a child’s best interest is to be in a roughly 50/50 shared parenting situation and have ample access to both parents. Since 2010, this may be written into the law as a presumption. Across a state line, however, the statutory and/or judicial presumption will be that obviously a child’s best interest is to have a stable home base and be primarily with one parent, visiting the other parent occasionally. The regional prevalence of shared parenting tracks the legal environment and ranges from 8 percent to 40 percent (with an average of about 25 percent). Like Americans, Spaniards are comfortable with the idea that “justice” and “best interests of the child” may be completely different for two children living on opposite sides of a state or provincial border.]

Consistent with the first paragraph, I’m not aware of any way to compare Americans to their Spanish counterparts. The U.S. has more children not living with both parents than any other nation (both percentage and absolute), but nobody in the U.S. seems to care what is happening with these kids. Their living schedule and access to parents are governed by government court orders, but no state or federal agency bothers to track the contents of these orders. Therefore it would be impossible to say what percentage of children are living in shared parenting versus primary/secondary custody situations. We make K-12 students sit for standardized tests regularly, but I don’t think there are any questions about “How do you feel about your life?”

8 Comments

  1. George

    June 16, 2017 @ 3:28 pm

    1

    I’m not sure how interesting this really is. I don’t have children so maybe I don’t get it, but I would say the top goal for a parent is to guide the child towards a happy adulthood. Maybe total happiness over their entire life is the right metric. This might mean the child is unhappy in the short term, but this is not necessarily bad if there is a payoff in the long term. e.g. practicing piano might not make a kid happy, but if it teaches them more generally how to practice at something to get better at it, or gives them an appreciation for classical music, it could be a net positive over the course of their life. So I would say that a longitudinal study would be much more interesting — how do people feel about their life when they are 30, 40, 50 or 60 and how does this correlate to their childhood family structure.

    Separately, I am not expert in Spanish culture or dynamics of same-sex couples, but within the universe of prototypical hetero US parents I’d guess that the male is more of a free-range parent while the female is more of a risk-averse over-protective parent. Then, I’m not so surprised that kids would prefer to be raised by men.

  2. philg

    June 16, 2017 @ 4:21 pm

    2

    George: The longitudinal studies that you seek are scarce. A few have been done, but on only a limited number of kids (not an entire national age cohort as in Spain).

    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/16/opinion/the-increasing-significance-of-the-decline-of-men.html

    references work done at MIT by David Autor and colleagues (http://economics.mit.edu/files/11558 ). They are looking at children born 1992-2002 (max age today: 25) and they at least started with a large sample (children born in Florida during that time period).

    I don’t think you could get great data for 50-year-olds or 60-year-olds. A 50-year-old today was born in 1967. That was before no-fault divorce and 23 years before the child support guidelines made it easy to determine the profitability of a casual sexual encounter. We weren’t paying Americans to experiment with unconventional family structures and therefore not too many did it.

  3. billg

    June 16, 2017 @ 10:03 pm

    3

    2 dads = 2 breadwinners = richer household (am I caveman for assuming this?) = happier kids?

  4. philg

    June 16, 2017 @ 10:14 pm

    4

    Bill: Generally the first thing that these social scientists do is adjust for income. They’re all pretty good with stats. In any case, Spanish women do work. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.TLF.CACT.FE.ZS shows a labor force participation rate for Spanish women that is not too different from the U.S. rate.

  5. Bill

    June 16, 2017 @ 11:19 pm

    5

    Dads mostly let kids goof off more than Moms. They want to play catch after school rather than do homework. They do not make the kids clean their rooms often. They let the kids go to more sport events and even coach the kids in many events. Dads are also into reading kids stories in bed at night and letting kids stay up late to see something special like a red moon rise. I just see the kids not having to tow the line that much in city raised dad homes. Dad let the kids be kids.

    But I also bet these same kids who are raised on a farm or ranch would have different views. Rural kids have lots of chores and work from either Dad. So those kids might view life different.

    And we did not talk about the money thing but we all know Dads just make more money and no study can account for all the effects due to having enough $$$.

  6. Alexey

    June 17, 2017 @ 4:46 am

    6

    Do you have the numbers? You wrote “happier”: for how much more happier? It’s interesting to compare the numbers.

  7. philg

    June 17, 2017 @ 8:10 pm

    7

    Alexey: I was looking at slides from Luis Flaquer, a professor at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, Spain. He said that he would be publishing these data in the near future. I don’t have a copy of his PowerPoint, unfortunately.

  8. MVI5

    June 18, 2017 @ 12:51 pm

    8

    Modern US wisdom dictates children do will with women not men. And that the woman is a better choice for the parent. But you wrote otherwise.

    Also, based only on reading your post, while the homosexual male coupe did outperform the heterosexual couple, the homosexual female couple did worse. This is not a nice thing for right thinking modern folk to discuss either.

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