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Child-free adults are just as happy as parents, study finds

Couples who don’t want children “represent an important type of family,” researchers say.
/ Source: TODAY

Laura LaVoie knew all her life she didn’t want to have children. Now 46, she never felt that draw, she said, part of a growing U.S. population opting out of parenthood.

A new study finds child-free people are as happy as parents, with the authors surprised by just how many men and women indicated they didn’t want to have kids. It’s part of a larger trend of Americans having fewer children in general: the U.S. birth rate fell to a record low last year and there could be 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births in 2021, according to some estimates.

Laura and Matt LaVoie share a happy moment during a trip to London. A passion for travel and adventure is one of the reasons they decided not to have children.Courtesy Laura LaVoie

For LaVoie, there were many reasons to choose to be child-free.

“The most important is that I just don't want to raise children. It’s just not something that has ever appealed to me. I don't want to be responsible for another human being in that way,” LaVoie, a writer who lives in Asheville, North Carolina, told TODAY.

“But I also really like traveling. I'd like adventure, never sitting in the same spot for very long and just kind of lifestyle things that don't really fit with having a child.”

Her husband feels the same way, she said. They’ve been together 26 years and both agreed they didn’t want to have children. They’ve discussed it over the years, but knew the answer would always be the same, she noted.

"It wasn't something either of us wanted and it just wasn't something we were we were willing to do," LaVoie said about the couple's decision not to have children.Courtesy Laura LaVoie

Over a quarter of adults, 27%, identified as child-free in the new study, conducted by psychologists at Michigan State University and published last week in the journal PLOS ONE. The number “dramatically exceeds” previous estimates of 2% to 9% reported by earlier studies, the authors said.

More than a third of child-free people, 35%, were in a partnered relationship, suggesting couples who don’t want children “represent an important type of family,” they added.

The findings are based on a representative sample of 981 Michigan adults, but the researchers anticipate they’d see similar patterns in other parts of the U.S., said lead author Jennifer Watling Neal, an associate professor of psychology at MSU.

Besides parental status, the participants were asked about their life satisfaction, political ideology, personality traits and “warmth toward child-free women and men.”

The study was careful to distinguish child-free people — those who voluntarily choose not to have children — from other types of non-parents such as “not-yet-parents” who plan to have children, and childless people who would have liked to have kids but couldn’t because of infertility or other circumstances.

It turned out child-free people were as satisfied with life as the others. There were no differences in personality traits between the various groups, but child-free adults were “significantly more liberal” than parents.

The study also detected a coolness towards people who choose not to have kids, with parents feeling “substantially less warm” toward child-free adults than the child-free individuals felt toward each other.

“Because having kids is the norm in the U.S., it’s possible that child-free individuals are viewed as breaking that norm,” Neal said, noting previous research has suggested this could have career consequences.

If child-free employees are viewed as not having caregiving responsibilities, they may be assigned extra tasks or expected to work longer hours.

“Our study suggests that child-free people are mostly the same as everyone else… (they’re) making a reproductive decision that is right for them. Ideally, everyone would respect the reproductive choices that individuals make for themselves,” Neal said.

More people have been open about their choice not to have kids, she added.

LaVoie identified with all of the study findings, noting she’s fully satisfied with her life and does sometimes sense a chill from people who have children. She’s also heard other child-free women complain that they’re treated differently at work than colleagues who have kids.

“It’s important that businesses start to address things like that,” LaVoie said, adding the child-free movement keeps growing.

“I'm definitely seeing a lot more people in their 30s or even their 20s saying, 'At least right now, this is not for me' or 'I don't think it will ever be for me.'”