Softening characters

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 16, 2006

In the last ten years, most of my friends became parents. One thing I observed was that many of these New Parents, both men and women, changed their character a little. Of course, people didn’t suddently become different persons by moving into parenthood; but the more I watched them, the more evidence I gathered that people who become parents somehow soften a little. Character traits such as being very assertive, being bossy, being easily irritable, all lost their sharp edges. In addition there were the changes in character, values and worldviews that these New Parents noticed themselves (and that are generally not observable to outsiders). Writing deadlines became much less important, work could wait till another day. What once looked like an almost unbearable cost of parenthood (like getting up at 5.30 am every morning) suddenly was of little importance.
Am I deluding myself when I believe to observe that the move into parenthood softens characters and makes many previously Really Important Things suddenly look rather trivial?



Espen 09.16.06 at 5:27 am

I think it is called “growing up.”


Mr. Bill 09.16.06 at 5:38 am

Let’s just say that we hope it changes your perspective. My late wife and I had never conceived (so to speak) that we would be parents. Indeed, we considered writing the OrthoNovum Co. to see if, when we fell in the 4-6% failure category for their product, we would get anything, besides the kid.
My wife had the ‘real job’ while I pursued a career as an artist, and we made that work for a while:
I did infant care and child care in the studio, and my son and daughter seem to have survived and thrived on this unorthodox upbringing. (And may I say that I suspect that primitive man invented warfare and the market system as means of avoiding the hard work of child care?) I took a lot of flack as ‘Mr. Mom’, but I was fortunate to watch their development. And watching the growth of a child into a human person will mellow anyone with a soul or heart. Now I’m a single gay parent, with a foster kid (same age as my son, who is 15) and my genius daughter is in college.
Clearly much of this is cultural: we sentimentalize childhood and give it a status that previous generations might not recognize (particularly in marketing in the US,)
I have seen, but cannot locate, research, that indicates that men who have been involved in infant care are much less likely to molest those children later. So some of this Parental Mode may be hardwired….


hermit greg 09.16.06 at 8:07 am

Certainly there must be major shifts in day-to-day priorities when kids are had. Softening of the edges is a good way to put it.

I want to know why parents of a certain ilk often take their softening as an excuse to patronize the lives of people unchilded/unsoftened. About every six months, for example, someone sees fit to remind me how I’ll change when I have kids and/or 30 more years.


fred lapides 09.16.06 at 8:10 am

In my first marriage, I was heavy drinker, furthering a career, and in a very bad marriage. I did not pay as much attention to myh two kids as I should have. In my second marriage, I had stopped drinking and later, my carrer ended and I retired. Married to a much younger woman, I was the chief child care giver and I doted on my two kids. My wife notes how I am now so sad because my son has just begun college and “left me.”
Circumstances, cultural background, gender notions, age–all have some effect on these matters.


Dan Kervick 09.16.06 at 8:13 am

Am I deluding myself when I believe to observe that the move into parenthood softens characters and makes many previously Really Important Things suddenly look rather trivial?

I certainly agree that becoming a parent can have a profound effect on someone’s personality, but I wouldn’t say the changes are all in the direction of softening. It may be the case that some previously important things come to seem trivial, but some things that previously seemed trivial may come to seem very, very important. For example, the attitude “work can wait till another day” was much more characteristic of my outlook before having a child than after. Once I was married, and then even more intensely after my son was born, and I was working for others rather than myself, working hard became a solemn duty rather than simply a free choice born of waxing and waning inclination and interest. Previously relaxed and easygoing individuals may become edgy and competitive corporate warriors.

Parents also often take on a quite paternal concern with certain worldly affairs which previously interested them on only an intellectual level, if at all. They may suddenly become very interested in crime, the budget deficit, the price of heating oil, the condition of the public schools and the overall moral condition of society. This may in fact make them more angry and anxious rather than softer.

Also, my experience is that the nest-building instinct sometimess causes a person who was previously only neat to become obsessionally concerned with cleanliness, tidiness and order. In more than one case, I have seen this develop into really neurotic phobias about germs, dirt, household pests or weeds. Sometimes there is an emergence of new allergies.

In addition to the many joys that come with parenting also comes the condition of being at least a little bit afraid – all the time.


Andrew 09.16.06 at 8:36 am

“Am I deluding myself when I believe to observe that the move into parenthood softens characters and makes many previously Really Important Things suddenly look rather trivial?”



Matt 09.16.06 at 8:55 am

This gives me a strong reason not to want to have kids since if I had any more reasons to put off work or writing I’d never get anything done! More seriously, though, I wonder if this is vastly different from any other major changes in one’s life situation. I found that I enjoyed married life much more than I thought I would, for example. My impression is that most people adapt fairly well to the situation they are in, and that they do this especially well if they want to be in that situation (or there is heavy social preasure to adapt to it.) So, I’m skeptical that there’s something magical about parenthood as opposed to other major life changes that makes people better. (It certainly makes many people worse, too!)


Steve LaBonne 09.16.06 at 9:18 am

Character traits such as being very assertive, being bossy, being easily irritable, all lost their sharp edges.

Alas, I doubt anyone who knows me would say that parenthood had that effect on me… and actually lack of sleep only makes me that much more irritable.

Now as to changes in perspective, that’s another story. You certainly have to reorganize your priorities- at least if you place any value on being a good parent. (Sadly we’ve all encountered people who refused to grow up even after becoming parents themselves, much to their kids’ detriment.) And let’s be honest, you have a lot less freedom, and not just the necessity to physically be around all the time when they’re small. You can’t, say, just up and quit your job if it’s starting to get to you, since you now have a dependent mouth to feed.


dearieme 09.16.06 at 10:19 am

I’d never blubbed at a film or play until we had a child. Now even some dreadfully predictable, mechanical formulaic rubbish can wetten my eyes. Hormones, I suppose?


Ted 09.16.06 at 11:30 am

From my experience, it’s the lack of sleep. Due to lack of sleep, new parents are wandering around in a semi-daze all the time and unable to bring the world fully into focus; it loses its sharp edges. From the outside, it looks like the parent has lost their sharp edges.


minerva 09.16.06 at 11:34 am

Oh. That didn’t happen to me. It sounds nice, though. I’d say my experience is much more like Dan K’s. In fact, Dan K really hit the nail on the head.


Halfdan 09.16.06 at 12:42 pm

What changed most about myself was the ability to empathise. Whereas at one time (even while married) my concept of “self” had been limited to my physical being, now my “self” has been extended to include another little person. So those priorities that clash with her interest become muted, and those that coincide with her interest become stronger.


Matt Kuzma 09.16.06 at 1:09 pm

I think you’re right, and I think the same could be said of significant tragedies, though the effects of those wear off over time. So parenthood could be viewed as a prolonged tragedy.

But seriously, there are a few things in this world that are important enough to cut through the false meaning that grows up around us and allow us to see the world for what it is.


bob mcmanus 09.16.06 at 2:32 pm

I hate stereotypes and caricatures, but parents seem to like this one, so I am seriously outvoted.

So, ok parents are just nicer than the rest of us.


bob mcmanus 09.16.06 at 2:55 pm

“Am I deluding myself when I believe to observe that the move into parenthood softens characters and makes many previously Really Important Things suddenly look rather trivial?”

No. Of course not. Taming the violent irresponsible male beast and uppity ambitious young woman has been a primary purpose of marriage and children for millenia. “PW’d” and “barefoot & pregnant” are fine values.


harry b 09.16.06 at 3:30 pm

Here’s my anecdote. Prior to having children my wife had relatively little interest in or liking of children, esp youngish ones; after children she started to like children more. Me, I’ve always liked children, but since having them have a great deal less interest in children other than my own. Of course, we now have roughly the same amount of interest in children other than our own as each other.

The other effect is that I am, as you suspect, much less harshly judgemental of others, especially of the young people I teach. But I can’t tell at all whether that is because I’m a parent or because I’m old.


serial catowner 09.16.06 at 3:38 pm

Why, of course parents become wiser and more considerate people who would never consider setting a bad example for their children. That’s why you should go to a family restaurant for a good meal, see a children’s movie for the most uplifting entertainment, and focus your home-buying search in neighborhoods with good schools. Because parents care.

The best part is, this softening of the hardened soul, the uplifting of ideals, the development of selflessness to nurture a better future- it all means that people get better, with each generation.

You’ll find this hard to believe, but in past ages people went to war and killed each other for religion, for natural resources, or sometimes because they were just too stupid to stay at home. That was before so many generations of parents had nurtured the wise peace-loving people who share the earth in harmony today.

It’s God’s bounteous blessing for those with the wisdom and selflessness to reproduce.


antirealist 09.16.06 at 4:20 pm

It’s interesting that though Ingrid’s original post was about observed changes in other people’s character’s, most commenters have chosen to talk about themselves. Since most of us are prone to self-enhancing delusions, the validity of these accounts of “how parenthood has changed me” is somewhat doubtful.

In my experience, parenthood has varying effects on other peoples’ behaviour. Some don’t change and some become even nicer. Many people who had a pre-existing tendency to selfishness and self-absorption seem to find parenthood the perfect excuse to become even more so.

As Harry B implies, getting older changes people anyway. I, for example, am much nicer than I used to be…


bob mcmanus 09.16.06 at 4:23 pm

Goldie:”How do you like children?”

No, you parents do not get to make your personal preferences into social goods without some fairly serious implications.

If you are willing to admit that the changes in character and priorities are not “good things” but simply the equivalents of buying a house or getting a big car loan…nah I am not even willing to say that accepting consumer reponsibilities are a means of improving character. Probably “better” to join the Peace Corps” or doctors w/o Borders.

I am not even saying you are wrong. But this “breeders is betters” stuff is pretty damn offensive, and pretty damn serious. Talk me into it. Maybe I’ll move to Georgia and join the 700 Club.


garymar 09.16.06 at 5:32 pm

I don’t know about becoming a better parent, but raising two daughters to adulthood has certainly done much to make me more of a feminist. Before daughters, feminism was an abstract good; after them, it became much more concrete.


Peter Macy 09.16.06 at 5:53 pm

This might sound perverse, but being a parent made me care a lot more about the pain of others. When I think about the US complicity in torture, say, I cannot help but imagine how I would feel if it were an older version of my son being humiliated, beaten, or waterboarded. So it makes me outraged in a way that I would never have been before. (I used to be a fairly indifferent SOB).

For simiiar reasons, I have lost some of my taste for action movies, and find it impossible to watch a movie or read a book involving the death or abuse of children (Never saw Mystic River, for instance.)

Antirealist is right that this sort of self-report cannot be trusted, and it’s hard to dissociate the effect of parenthood from the effect of simply getting older. Still, my bet is that there is a real effect here. Interesting post, Inrid.


DC 09.16.06 at 8:10 pm

Oh for goodness sake Mystic River is fantastic!


anonymous 09.16.06 at 9:21 pm

Are you sure of this? It depends on context. The parents and small child who invite you over for dinner are all relaxed (the kid is in a familiar setting, unless he or she is extremely shy).

Contrast the parents with small children in a tense public setting, such as a doctor’s office, supermarket line, or airport:


More relaxed? Softer edges?


Henry (not the famous one) 09.16.06 at 10:58 pm

another snarky quotation:

Un des plus clairs effets de la présence d’un enfant dans le ménage est de rendre complètement idiots de braves parents qui, sans lui, n’eussent peut-être été que de simples imbéciles.

One of the most unmistakable effects of a child’s presence in the household is that the worthy parents turn into complete idiots. Without the child, they might have been mere imbeciles.

Georges Courteline.


ingrid robeyns 09.17.06 at 1:07 pm

Some interesting observations and anecdotes… thanks. Since some of you read the post this way, I’d like to stress that I really didn’t want to suggest that parents are nicer than non-parents; I think that would be a rather silly thing to say, since so many parents are obsessed with their children and turn them into “projects”, which I find rather repulsive, and since there are so many really good and nice people who never had children.

I am fascinated by how parenthood changes people (if it does, that is). As several of the comments illustrate, it does, at least to many or most people. And it would be difficult to find out from traditional social sciences research how it does, since in quantitative analysis we’d probably not be able to collect the subtle kinds of data that we need, and in qualitative analyse we wouldn’t be able to seperate out the effects of aging or the effects of other drastic life experiences, such as getting older, losing a parent, becoming unemployed, or other things that are part of “growing up”. Interviews would also be of rather limited use since I don’t think that most people are the best observers of their own character. Perhaps a good method would be to interview people about the changes in the character of their partners?
Dearieme (#9) suggests there may be some hormonal link: if I look at my own tear-production, I am a little embarrrased to say that this changed too with pregnancy and parenthood (alas self-delusion is more difficult on this front). And I also recognise what peter macy (#21) writes, about the increased inability to watch other children suffering. I wonder to what extent these things could be traced back to hormonal changes. Would there be a long-term hormonal effect of motherhood, independent of breastfeeding or the time you need to get back to your old body? And do male hormones change with fatherhood? Anyone knows?


harry b 09.17.06 at 3:47 pm

anonymous — you should have seen what they were like before they had children!


vivian 09.17.06 at 8:35 pm

I think parenthood has made me a ‘nicer’ person in some internal, thinking ways (like #21 Peter Macy), but much harder to live with in concrete, relational ways. At the moment, two pairs of close friends and one pair of in-laws are messily divorcing, all directly related to having kids, and then coping very badly with the life changes that followed. They all – we all – blossomed personally around experiencing kids of their own, but not “nicer” in some damned specific ways.

So vulnerability, extreme emotional intensity, being yanked from the center of one’s own universe, extraordinary responsibility and the grind of screwing up daily and having to do it all again (often as badly) – absolutely, and probably good maturity generators. Softer edges – maybe in some ways. Better colleague, friend, citizen – depends. But I think Ingrid is definitely onto something that sure feels profound.


Laura 09.17.06 at 8:57 pm

I’m not sure if parenthood softened my edges or not. I have a lot of edges. But I think that parenthood made me much more sensitive to stories about kids who get the short end of the stick in life. Stories about orphaned kids in Africa get me every time. Children killed in wars. There was a recent horrific case of child abuse in New Jersey where three little boys were kept for years in a basement. One died and was stuffed in a container next to his brothers. That story haunted me for ages. I can also relate to the pain of parents who lose their kids in a way that I couldn’t before.


Elena 09.18.06 at 10:01 am

I’m usually a lurker but as the mother of two boys I can’t resist this one. Parenthood definately changes you, but here’s the catch: it doesn’t necessarily change you for the better. For every person it softens, there is another it turns into a judgemental prig, convinced their ability to simply raise a child makes them one of the chosen and righteous. In my case, there are things that are better about me post-parenthood, things that are worse and things that are just different.


Doug K 09.18.06 at 1:25 pm

No softening at all that I can see, rather the opposite, a lot of edges I never had before.

“Dearieme (#9) suggests there may be some hormonal link: if I look at my own tear-production, I am a little embarrrased to say that this changed too with pregnancy and parenthood (alas self-delusion is more difficult on this front). And I also recognise what peter macy (#21) writes, about the increased inability to watch other children suffering.” – ingrid
Dunno about the male hormones, but it’s certainly the case that BK, there was nothing that would make me cry, excepting mere physical responses. Now, a single well-chosen chapter of Dickens will have me weltering in ‘snot en trane’ (as the Afrikaan idiom has it). Even the tawdry emotional manipulations performed by the character of young Anakin in Star Wars are hard to bear: even knowing my buttons are being pushed has no prophylactic effect.

“extraordinary responsibility and the grind of screwing up daily and having to do it all again (often as badly) ” – vivian
yes, that’s exactly it. I used to be able to believe myself a basically kind mostly competent person. Now I find I have to work very hard at being good enough to cover my vanity with even the shreds and tatters of that illusion.

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