The Parent Trap: Addiction

Shankar Vedantam of Slate hypothesizes that people continue to procreate, despite overwhelming evidence that parenting isn’t very fun, for much the same reason that cocaine users can’t quit: they’re addicts. Comparing oxytocin to narcotics, Vedantam writes: “The unexpected, kind, and loving things that children do produce chemical surges in their parents’ brains like the rush of the pipe or the needle. Like addicts, parents will sacrifice anything for the glimpses of heaven that their offspring periodically provide.” Furthermore, the roller coaster of parenting seems designed to ensure addiction. “The unpredictability of those moments of bliss is an important factor in their addictiveness,” writes Vedantam. “If you give animals a predictable reward – say, a shot of sugar every time they press a lever – you can get them to press that lever quite regularly. But if you want irrational and addictive behavior, you make the reward unpredictable.” [%comments]

Mike B

Children provide many tangible benefits in the long term. Once they become independent they will begin to repay the initial investment through free labor and companionship.

Robbie Laney

The obvious oversight on this tidbit is that drugs bypass the brain's natural reward system (with dopamine) while kids do not. Kids are addictive because the "glimpses of heaven" through the mar of dirty diapers and strewn about toys are worth it in the long run.


I would argue that the counter is true. We as a species evolved brains that are addicted to kids because those who were able to put up with the hard work and rough times of being a parent were rewarded, genetically speaking, with survival. (If you don't have kids that have kids you don't have any genetic impact on future generations)

So the behavior of kids and those rare moments have trained us into being susceptible to being addicts!

Joe H. (Father of a 2 year old)

Josh b

Guys are freeks and more than likely not parents


Nothing wrong with a little addiction.

Sex, coffee, time with my son, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu -- these are all addictions that I value. Sad to see commenters already trying to justify the difference between morally "good" things and morally "bad" things (drugs vs kids). It's absurd to say drugs bypass the brain's "natural" reward system while kids do not. The only difference between the two is social, not neural.

If you get pleasure out of it -- not just short-term, but in whatever balance of short- and long-term pleasure maximizes your life -- and you're not hurting anyone, then do it more. Just make sure you're not leaving out consequences, that you're judging risk and externalities accurately, and then maximize your pleasure in life.

Unfortunately, for some people maximizing pleasure comes from imposing their values on other people and wallowing in a warm soup of moral righteousness. I personally don't enjoy drugs, but I do think it's absurd that we outlaw them. If you take your narcotic directly, you might very well be externalizing your addiction far less than if you get them via having children that you then don't raise well.


Eric M. Jones

One can make a good case for love itself being a cheap chemical thrill.

Justin James

Then how does he explain the allure of parenting to people who are not currently parents?



"parenting isn't very fun"

That depends on what part of parenting you look at... last night I was laying on our living room floor with our 1 year old daughter crawling all over me. I was tickling her and listening to her giggle; she'd snuggle with me, give me a kiss, and then look at me with deep concentration so she could mimic the silly sounds I was making at her. I can't think of a single thing I've ever seen on a commercial or in a store that's more fun than what I was doing last night. As a bonus, I get to do it again tonight. And tomorrow night.

Sure it's not always fun, there are difficult times, but that's true for a lot of things in life. My job isn't always fun, but I happily go every day because the benefits it provides me are worth more to me than the effort/time I put into it. This basic principle should not surprise anyone with common sense, much less a trained economist.

For me, if I have to deal with dirty diapers to get hugs, or temper tantrums to hear giggles, I'll happily - and rationally - make that trade. There's no addiction or irrational behavior, instead I've discovered a source of true, lasting joy and I'm willing to put a little hard work into earning/keeping/enhancing it.

This is true joy (as opposed to temporary 'happiness' from chemicals or most other experiences), one for which there's not really a crash from - when I come down from the highest of highs, I'm still happy, I still feel good. Rather than negatively impacting the rest of my life, having kids enhances pretty much every other aspect of my life (even the hard choices/tasks are made easier knowing the reason for them are your kids). Even if I have to spend significant amounts of time away from my sources of joy, I get to look at pictures of my daughters, listen to their voices, watch video clips, or just think about them, and I'm happy.


Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team


The Ultimate Financial Question of a Parent: Will a Child become INDEPENDENT, WEALTHY AND ABLE TO SUPPORT YOU as a form of retirement pension? This was the case for children since the dawn of civilization. But it seems to have been abandoned since the 50's.

OR will they struggle for their independence, leave the nest but return, force you to raise your grandkids, maintain a parasitic financial relation and continue to be tethered by an umbilical cord well into a half century.

Children are wonderful, but they grow old and stale when they are 50 and still living with their mother.

Then there are the Psychological Benefits of children, but also the Family Dysfunctions that may negate it. Homer Simpson yells at Bart, more than he parents him.

Do you think your children will ever support you? Be Realistic.


I must be addicted to the comforting feeling of not having children.


@Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team - Grammatically speaking, you may wish to consider the plank in your own eye before the speck in that of another commentor.


And let's not forget the ego boost provided by the sense of moral superiority that (some) parents display at every opportunity. Self-righteousness is addictive too.


Why do articles like this, that theorize or draw on the theories for the reasons for unhappiness or parents, always forget a key element. That the drive to procreate is an animal drive that some of us can not avoid.

We get defensive about having babies, one after the other, mostly because we know on some level that when we give in to this animal drive we admit that we are in fact animals and we have conflcts about admitting this. We can't stand being animals and yet we are animals.

Personally I've found that the older I get as my drive to procreate dissapates, and the more parenting horror stories I see and hear, the less and less connected I am to that animal drive to procreate. At this point it seems really silly to me that people keep getting pregnant (or impregnating people) over and over.

Scott W. Somerville

Interesting hypothesis, but it needs to be a lot more specific to be tested since there are so MANY factors that contribute to reproductive choices. Agricultural societies tend to produce large families, whether or not birth control is available, and industrialized societies tend to produce smaller families, whether or not birth control is present. (One reason for Victorian "prudery," perhaps?)

The "parenting is addictive" hypothesis, standing alone, would predict large families regardless of Welfare policies, Social Security nets, etc. Of course, the "crack is addictive" hypothesis would predict that EVERYBODY would be an addict--but only people who TRY crack get hooked on it. The problem is, lots of people TRY parenting and DON'T get hooked...

I'm afraid the "parenting is addictive" hypothesis doesn't pass the most trivial tests I can come up with. But I may be missing something here.



Immortality, you dunce.

Jeff S

And then we come across these people who are addicted to writing about being addicted and they have no idea what they are writing about and what addiction really is. This would be called insanity rather than addiction (on the writer's part).

Kristine A

Nothing worthwhile comes easily. When did we as a society forget this? You mean we actually have to sacrifice things we want for something that brings us joy?

Isn't this the blog that highlighted Dan Gilbert's "Stumbling on Happiness"? Basically that we suck at predicting things in life that bring happiness to our lives - because humans are too materialistic to believe that making personal sacrifices (usually temporal/materialistic) for other people will produce a return on investment in personal happiness and satisfaction.

I have never been so exhausted, so frustrated, so entertained, so amused, so happy - since becoming a mother.


Lame. Parenting brings about a complex human relationship with high points and low points. All parents have moments of misery as do all friends/lovers/spouses. I guess I don't buy that parents are miserable in the long term. Much richness comes from being a parent.


As a parent, I relate parenthood to Stockholm Syndrome.


here is one of the things with me... some would call it lazy...some would call it selfish....not that I dont have discipline to take care of responsibilities...but to me, marriage and children seem like 'going out of my way' to 'load up on things to do'....I like being busy, but dont like 'busy-ness' to come out of nowhere,or know that after work,my day is be constantly 'busy' because of things that come up ..1 thing after another for each kid......kid needs to go here/there everywhere there is never a moments peace,no end in sight...and at the END? there is a list of things that still need to be done..I dont like living like that with all that shit hanging over my whatever 'woman'' things she has to take care of.....I have become so hardened that I have very little empathy left......whatever empathy is left is saved for a small group of people..........PLUS....another reason is that it makes me feel like a 'drone' a 'commoner'....meaning just another faceless person waiting their turn for hte parent teacher conference, or some shit.....does this make any sense? cause im jumping around a lot......EX....ex- chick...sometimes she complains that she needs help with her kid...that she wants some down time or something and she WISHES she had a man to help her out.( I just get quiet and blatantly change the subject).....ok, why should I help YOU out,why would I take YOUR son to an appointment or game or somehting,cause YOU need peace?....Peace came in the form of a 3 dollar box of rubbers,you chose not to........this is your lot in life, this is what you chose,now,its not what its cracked up to be and you realize it is a LIFETIME commitment......they all think they are 'DIF' but all say the same exact Dad got married late....35-36, and my Mom was/is 8 years younger....believe me, he was a good lookin guy, single with a good steady job....I bet he laid more pipe than a plumber......hope this helps somewhow......its like a ' game' that I have no interest in, a 'lifeplan' that is mapped out for me...ill map my own shit out wether it turns out good or bad in the end? who cares...nobody will know who we are in 100 years..........and I have zero feeling that I didn't 'provide' grand kids