Monday, June 29, 2015

Why we thought it was a good idea

Some years ago I read about the paradox that whereas parents report lower levels of happiness during the child-raising years than childless couples do, they later remember those years as happier times than their childless counterparts.

I've wondered about this on and off, and a few days ago found a possible explanation. I was reading Atul Gawande's marvelous book Being Mortal, where he mentioned an interesting study of patients who experienced painful medical procedures while awake. (The experiment was one of a series recounted by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.) These patients were asked throughout their procedures to rate the level of pain on a scale of one to ten. “At the end, the patients were also asked to rate the total amount of pain they experienced during the procedure.” (237)

The patients' final ratings were not even close to the sum of their moment-by-moment ratings; rather, “[t]heir final ratings largely ignored the duration of pain. Instead, the ratings were best predicted by what Kahneman termed the ‘Peak-End rule’: an average of the pain experienced at just two moments—the single worst moment of the procedure and the very end.”(237)

Indeed, it seems to apply to a lot of experiences in life, not just surgery and child-raising.

In my own case, as I look back on my own experience in raising two wonderful daughters, I remember the positive experiences more than the negative ones. When we were living in Japan, our younger child attended local schools. They had taken the kids to visit a shrine, and our daughter reported to us that the children had been expected to stand in a certain place, bow, and clap. (No church-state separation there!) "But of course I didn't do it," she added.

She had interpreted the ritual -- correctly I think -- as a prayer to the god of that place, and I was so grateful that our young child had the spiritual discernment to understand she was being asked to worship another god, and also the intestinal fortitude to resist the pressure to conform.

I also recall keenly when our older daughter, then 13, said to a roomful of parents and school officials, "I want to know what will be done to address what happened today." (What had happened didn't include physical violence, but a teacher did behave quite badly. I do not think she was a bad person, but she was certainly in the wrong job.)

The principal, momentarily dumbfounded, asked what our daughter had in mind. "She should apologize to us," she said, "and some of us should apologize to her." Did I mention that our daughter was 13 when she said this?

Do I remember any negative experiences? Well, there's what probably amounted to the stupidest thing I've done as a parent -- which I don't think I've confessed on this blog.

There were times when I was sure one of our kids had reached a new plateau of unreasonableness (this happened more than once). I remember that it happened, and I remember using that bit about the new plateau (I was pleased with myself for coming up with it too). But I don't remember with any clarity what triggered the exasperation, or even the feeling itself; those memories have faded into oblivion. I also know that we had some nights of very little sleep, some hours of continuous screaming and wailing from a restrained child, epic cleanup experiences (you don't want to know), discussions about why you really shouldn't bite your sister, and other things like this... but not very clearly.

Which may be why someone referred to them as "Collin's perfect children": I know my daughters aren't perfect, but I have a hard time locating their faults.

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