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Rights + Justice

For Love or Money?

Given a devil's choice about your child's happiness, what would you choose?

Vanessa Richmond 22 Oct

Tyee contributing editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media.

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He gave his child to Madonna for a better future. Would you?

"Madonna's adopted son would be better off in Malawi,'" says his biological father in the U.K.'s Daily Mail.

Apparently, "The real father of Madonna's adopted son feels bitterly disappointed that she is getting a divorce -- and yesterday declared: 'I am still a poor farmer with nothing to offer, but maybe he would be better off back with us.'"

The father, Yohane Banda, came to this conclusion because, he says, David "doesn't look happy" in recent photos. When Madonna and Ritchie adopted him, they told Banda that David would have a stable, very happy life. ''I thought she would take him away from the danger of malaria and other diseases that kill children here… It feels like yesterday that Madonna promised me a happy life and good education for him."

But, "If there is no love in the family, is there any love for him?" asks Banda, who has since remarried, after his first wife died in childbirth with David. The photos show the Bandas as a smiling family, standing outside of their hut in Malawi. The "dream has been turned on its head," the story concludes, "David now faces a life spent shuttling across the Atlantic between Madonna and Guy's homes."

Of course, none but a few people in the world know what kind of a parent either Madonna or Banda actually is. But the Mail sets up the classic excruciating choice: would you give up your child for wealth, hoping the wealth will lead to happiness, or would you keep your child in a poverty-stricken situation that is full of love?

If you were a custody judge, charged with picking the best home, which would you pick? Despite the message we're fed by Hollywood, it's not a simple question.

According to the research, parents all agree on one thing. Four years ago, two American psychologists asked the simple question: What do you want for your children? Over 10,000 adults in 48 countries across six continents responded overwhelmingly with one answer: for their children to be happy.

The question is whether money or love leads to that happiness.

In the wealth corner...

On the side of Madonna, the world is more about money and privilege than ever before, and Madge is the ultimate material girl. In 2001, the richest one per cent of households in the U.S. held 18 per cent of the income, and in 2006, the same one per cent held 26 per cent.

More than ever, access to power, money and fame is determined not by merit but by lineage. David would truly grow up under a ray of light -- just by being Madge's kid, there'll be more doors for David than almost anyone else in the world. He would be able to do whatever he wants, at the highest level.

In the love corner...

But it’s not just the Beatles (and almost every romantic comedy ever made) who think all you need is love, science is starting to chime in.

One recent Canadian study that interviewed kids from all social classes found spirituality was the most important factor. Defined as "an inner belief system," it accounted for eight to 17 per cent of the average child's happiness. How they measured this so empirically, I’m not sure.

By contrast, money and the material status of the parents mattered not even one per cent. "What we found out with kids is they know how wealthy they are. They are well aware of how rich their parents are, but it contributes to less than one per cent of children's happiness," said one of the study's researchers.

A second study found that good relationships are the key ingredient for lasting happiness, and that strong relationships with parents lead children to go on to have positive, less troublesome relationships with friends, romantic partners and even their own future children.

Banda: two, Madonna: zero.

All you need is... a little money?

The second study found that money does matter -- to a point. "While it is true that living under very deprived circumstances is related to being unhappy, once people's income exceeds the poverty level, further increases in wealth do not lead to corresponding increases in happiness... if wealth did lead to happiness, we might expect people in today's society to be much happier than in the past decades as we are earning much more. However, studies across the globe have shown that, in spite of great increases in income since the 1950s and 1960s, levels of happiness have remained pretty much the same."

Given that Banda gave David up due to concerns about extreme poverty, I think it's fair to say Madge gets that round, but with no extra points for her dozen or so houses.

Also, while relationships are extremely important for children's happiness, another important ingredient is called mastery. This means that children are happy when they have something they are "good at," and when their family and other important people in their lives notice and appreciate these skills." Of course, it can be easier to experience "mastery" when you have enough leisure time and money to be able to practice a skill or take lessons, and aren’t worried about whether there’ll be dinner afterwards.

I'd say they're tied at this point. But as a wringer, both studies showed that kids aren't doomed to repeat the negative parenting patterns they learned, and can be happy regardless of good or bad childhood relationships if they have reflected on them.

Look for happiness in your genes

The second study also finds that a large part, perhaps even more than half of children's happiness, is dictated by genetic factors. So, David might be equally happy, regardless of environment. And if he had the promise of future power, wealth and fame in one, that might just tip the scales, so to speak.

I took the question to my own highly scientific study of six friends in a bar the other night. At the beginning of the evening, all emphatically said that love beats money every time. But after presenting some of this evidence, the response was mixed. Interestingly, the friends who appeared to have come from money, or who have achieved it, are on the side of love, and those who seemed to come from loving but less wealthy backgrounds picked money.

The irony is, as I reported in a previous column, more and more people are putting off having kids because they don't think they're materially ready. As Nathanael Lauster, a professor of sociology at UBC, said, "We have defined upward the kind of staging required to be a parent; it's increasingly tied to affluence." Potential parents need to be able to not only afford daycare (which in Vancouver is around $1200 a month, if you can get a place) or a nanny, expensive kid gear like strollers and fashionable baby clothes and the keys to their own house. "Until you can afford this list of things, you're not ready," says Lauster, which means more people put off parenting until later or forever.

So, while most of us might say all you need is love, including me, our actions may be speaking louder than our words.

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