Are We Having Fun Yet? Jennifer Senior’s Smart, Historically-Informed Take on Modern Parenting

In All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, Jennifer Senior asks why American middle-class parents so often find parenting intense beyond expectation, exhausting, anxiety-provoking, and not much fun, at the same time that they evaluate it to be the most rewarding and joy-producing aspect of their lives.

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Like many readers, I appreciated seeing myself and my struggles represented with compassion.  I have spent a number of years as a stay-at-home parent writing books during naptimes.  I would have felt guilty admitting that I found playing with toddlers incredibly tedious if my own wonderful stay-at-home mother hadn’t admitted that she felt the same way, and assured me that it was ok.  I always felt that the mismatch between the attention span of an academic writer (same project for a decade? no problem!) and a 2-year old was painful.  Senior points to this as a more generally-experienced mismatch between adult and toddler cognitive styles, and connects it to the concept of “flow,” or being “in the zone.”  Adults thrive on focused activities, which makes it hard to enjoy many hours of the company of someone who changes focus every 30 seconds.  I read Senior’s analysis, and thought, “aha!  It isn’t just me!”

But my favorite aspect of Senior’s book is that she takes history seriously, and uses it to great effect.  I believe, with Senior, that knowing where our culture and society have been can tell us a lot about where we are now.  Even more powerfully, it can show us that what we take for granted as universal human experience is often, in fact, shaped dramatically by the time and place in which we live.  As she says, “Any good history provides useful context for present-day conventions and belief systems, but reading about the history of childhood is especially startling, because we tend to think of our beliefs about children as instinctive, and therefore as unchanging, irreducible” (p. 127).  Once we know that our deeply-held beliefs may instead be historically malleable, we can start to imagine how to make improvements.

Senior draws extensively on two of my favorite historical works about childhood: Sidney Mintz’s Huck’s Raft: A History of Childhood and Viviana Zelizer’s Pricing the Priceless Child.  She shows how as the role of children changed between the colonial period and the mid-twentieth century, the experience of parenting changed dramatically as well.  Children had been contributors to the family economy, and good parenting meant imparting traditional skills for earning a living.  In the twentieth century, children were withdrawn from the labor market, and increasingly the assumption was that parents would work for the benefit of their children, not vice versa.  As children became “priceless,” they were sentimentalized.  Parents increasingly had children for the emotional depth they expected that children would bring to their lives, rather than to guarantee a means of financial support in old age.

By the twenty-first century, parenting was mostly about “happiness,” in one way or another, rather than concrete things, like food, clothing and financial support.  The prime parenting goal became producing happy children.  And the special relationship parents had with their children was supposed to make them happy.  This has turned out to be, at best, an elusive goal.  It’s much easier to give another person food, shelter and an education than to give that person happiness.  And the result has been a lot of anxiety and guilt.

While I think that Senior is correct about the source of current middle-class parenting distress, I do wonder if we might see an eighteenth and nineteenth century analogue in parents’ worry about the state of their children’s souls.  It is as hard to make someone “saved” as to make them “happy.”  And evidence from past centuries’ sermons and diaries certainly indicates that many fathers and mothers felt this concern about their children, from early childhood through their children’s adulthood, and worried and pestered their kids in attempts to make them into believers.  Is “happiness” totally different, or is it the secular faith of twenty-first century America?

Occasionally, Senior looks directly to the past for inspiration.  Perhaps “duty” is not such a bad concept after all.  Maybe sacrifice can be a virtue.  But mostly, she uses history to show us why we so often feel anxious, guilty or frantic.  It’s not us; it’s our current parenting culture.  In the end, she compassionately assures us that it is ok to be content with “joy,” and lose the guilt when “fun” is too high a bar.

46 thoughts on “Are We Having Fun Yet? Jennifer Senior’s Smart, Historically-Informed Take on Modern Parenting

  1. Carrie Adkins

    Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Why are parents so guilty, anxious, and generally freaked out? Lara Freidenfelds reviews Jennifer Senior’s new book on modern parenthood, which looks to history to help explain our current approaches to raising children.

    Reply
    1. larafreidenfelds Post author

      If you read the book, I think you’ll find that she has interviewed some pretty spectacularly good parents. This is not about being unprepared. I think it is about accepting that no matter how hard we try, we cannot make our children’s lives perfect; we cannot give them “happiness.” It is something they will need to find for themselves, and hopefully we can give them the love and tools to help them find it. We may, in fact, have more fun if we take some pressure off of our parenting. And as well, I believe that it is ok to not always have fun when we take care of our kids. As in any family relationship, the important thing is to act with kindness, patience and love. It is easy to do this when we are having fun; it is a virtue to do it when things are less fun.

      Reply
      1. Last Mom Standing

        Lara,
        thank you for your review of this book; I plan to order Seniors book because of it :) I completely agree that parents can not give “happiness”, I wrote a post called “choose happiness” when I had challenges with my oldest son. Luckily he (and my other two children) is “practicing happiness” and realizing that it must be cultivated within.
        Would love your feedback on the post if you have a chance to check it out.

        Laugh hard. Love strong. Live to serve.

        Best!
        Kimberly Crawford
        http://www.lastmomstanding.com

  2. aishakhan0208

    Concur with Senior totally. Maybe the old methods were not all misdirected and perhaps the youngsters are not appreciating all they claim as their birthright. But this is the cyber age, kids are smarter with the smartphones, more street smart and less respectful.

    Reply
  3. anntogether.com

    There’s a line from, Everybody Loves Raymond, that Ray’s father says, “If your kids don’t like you, you’re doing a great job.”
    I understand what the author has concluded based on her expertise, interviews and studies and I agree. My first goal as a parent has always been and is always to raise thoughtful and respectful human beings and if there is some fun to be had in the process, so be it. And I do enjoy my kids and vice versa. Probably my greatest frustration is finding decent chunks of time for my art and writing. We’re all working together on this – not only to meet my creative needs but to ensure their schedules are carried out as well. And we all still give hugs and kisses good night…that’s the joy :-)
    AnnMarie
    Wonderful and interesting read – thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  4. neighsayer

    guilt is simpler than we imagine. In one way, it’s a simple ingrained fear of punishment, learned in a childhood when punishing was the go-to method of teaching everything for so many of us.

    In another way, it’s the proper feeling of having failed on a moral level when we use punishing in our turn. We have a lot of ways to justify the violence and betrayal of love that is punishing, but if you feel guilty, that is your clue that all is not right about it.

    For me, anyone who punishes a child probably feels some form of guilt – and maybe they should.

    In case this appears as the inexperienced ravings of a troll, know that I have raised two children without the use of any punishing at all, and I have none of the conflicted feelings this post talks about. For us, it really was fun. Our girls are 16 and twenty, and we wish we had started younger so we could have another round of kids. This wish never changed, all through the teen years.

    My blog, if anyone wants detail:

    http://abusewithanexcuse.com/

    Reply
  5. Holly

    Definitely food for thought. Not something I had considered but very true that basic needs can easily be met, but true happiness may at times come with challenges. Great review.

    Reply
  6. Love, Life & Whatever

    Wow….absolutely engrossing….a different perspective on parenting through the eyes of an historian kinda….I too write some of the times on parenting…my first hand experience as a parent…..if you got time …you can visit…but for sure I enjoyed reading yours and I am gonna follow you for now..

    Reply
  7. awax1217

    I was a teacher for a long time. I was told if the students like you it was a negative. But I was a negative for I kept it at a distance. I think I was more fair than a friend and I never got involved with their antics of putting one teacher against the other.

    Reply
  8. peterjfoster

    …”we tend to think of our beliefs about children as instinctive, and therefore as unchanging, irreducible” (p. 127). Once we know that our deeply-held beliefs may instead be historically malleable, we can start to imagine how to make improvements.” I think that’s really good. I’d never noticed that. Really interesting Post. Thanks.

    Reply
  9. Pingback: Very interesting read! | Gina McGinley

  10. Nani No Shinpai

    An overwhelming number of voices in social media describe parenthood as the penultimate blissful experience, and any moment NOT spent worshipping the perfection and developing the infinite potential of the children is a selfish waste of time. One celebrity mom published a book suggesting we not inconvenience our babies with diapers now, and instead devote our waking hours to vigilance toward baby’s individual bowel movements. The pendulum may have swung too far.

    Reply
  11. Jen

    Great post. So glad to find you on freshly pressed as I have not heard of this book and it’s RIGHT up my alley in where I am in my parenting cycle. (10 years in, kinda feel like “that was fun, what’s next?”) Adding it to my GoodReads cue.

    Reply
  12. The Waiting

    I loved the book too. It was massively refreshing to hear from so other parents who openly admit that parenthood is not all sunshine and lollipops.

    Reply
  13. Pingback: Shared from WordPress | dayspringacres

  14. sjhigbee

    Reblogged this on Brainfluff and commented:
    After having just had the grandchildren for the week-end, this interesting and thought provoking article by Lara Friedenfelds on Jennifer Senior’s analysis of 21st century attitude to children is definitely worth relaying to you…

    Reply
  15. Jean Brown

    I love your question about the parallel between parental concerns over raising happy children and erstwhile concerns over imparting faith or piety in children. I do think that “happiness” is our modern iteration of something like religion, and that this phenomenon can be seen in many areas of our lives–the ever-growing popularity of the self-help genre that holds some broad notion of happiness and contentment as the goal in our spiritual existence. There’s definitely something to this idea…

    I write about parenting, happiness, and the self-help industry on my blog and for SEEK Safely, a non-profit dedicated to promoting safe self-help. Some interesting thoughts to ponder here!

    Reply
  16. Logan GLT

    Parenting kids these days is tough!!! My wife and I raised 5 (3 sons & 2 daughters). It was rewarding but very stressful. We tried to impart faith and piety too. What really threw us was when our oldest son told us he was now an atheist. That impacted the younger sons too. It put me on quite a journey that I ended up blogging about (http://lifeafter40.net/2014/04/20/45/).
    I agree though – parenting can be quite a paradox!

    Reply
  17. settingtheworld

    It’s definitely a generation thing – my parents don’t seem to have ever had the remotest sense of guilt, or worry that we were turning out okay. Unlike me, who worries constantly! Children have always needed love and security, I am sure of that. So, when they didn’t get it, as in when they were sent out to work, or treated harshly, I am sure they suffered. However, on the upside, they probably learnt the value of things, and how to be grateful for the small pleasures, a lot more than kids of today do!

    Reply
  18. MissFit

    intriguing article. Would you agree that The happiness derived from parenting has much more to do with the motive for parenting than anything else?.

    Reply
    1. larafreidenfelds Post author

      Can you elaborate? What is your perspective? As a historian, I would note that culturally-approved motives for parenting have changed quite a bit over the last century. There is far less mainstream approval of the idea that we have children for God, country and continuing the family line. Instead, our culture approves of having children for personal growth, the fulfillment of providing nurture, and the development of intimate ties. This shift in culturally-approved reasons for parenting puts different kinds of pressures and expectations on parents, which I think affects how and why we derive happiness (or don’t find as much happiness as we want) in parenting.

      Reply
  19. revtimbrown

    Lara, I thought you were insightful to compare the goal of happiness (21st C.) to the goal of saved (18th C., e.g. Puritans).

    Thanks also for including your comments about valuing our children from Colonial (practical value) to Industrial (sentimental). That’s vital to understanding our current efforts. Interestingly, the common thread is that we are still parenting for our own fulfillment.

    Reply
  20. Vibha (www.pixelvoyages.com)

    In today’s world parenting equals performance anxiety. Am I doing enough? Will my child be happy/talented/socially adept and what-not are questions that cross our minds. I sometimes feel that we mistakenly presume more control over our children’s minds and hence, future than we actually have.

    Reply
  21. findmeg

    As a new mom, I’ve been planning on reading that book… Thanks for your review! I just hope my kid knows that he is loved, valued, and never alone – and has the tools to find happiness on his own. If I can do that, then I’ve done my job!

    Reply
  22. Andrea!

    I guess parenting is heartfelt and a profound feeling! It isn’t superficial and negative thought oriented. Well, I was about to buy this book, thanks for your thorough review, I guess it is worth purchasing :)

    Reply
  23. Pingback: Nursing Clio The Baby as Scientist and the Parent as Gardener: Alison Gopnik’s Inspiring Views on Childhood

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