In All Joy and No Fun, The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, author Jennifer Senior takes readers through a history and analysis of how modern parenting has become the paradox that it is today. Rather than asking, as most parenting books do, about what effect parents have on their children, she spins the question to ask what affect children have on their parents.
This book is gracefully researched, argued and beautifully written with an entertaining style and powerful prose. I found myself deeply moved while humorously recognizing my own modern parenting journey throughout its vignettes.
“Concerted cultivation” is the term the author borrows to describe, analyze and name the origins of the current trend most parents are dealing with— overscheduled children. This modern tendency “places intense labor demands on busy parents, exhausts children and emphasizes the development of individualism, at times at the expense of the development of the notion of the family group.”
So why, Senior wants to know, do modern parents allow their children and parenting to create this level of stress and exhaustion for themselves and their entire families? Overcompensating behaviors are based in fear of something. The parents showcased in this chapter, and all modern parents to a degree, have fears about the future that they are raising their kids to live in. Our generation of parents has seen so much change that it’s hard to imagine what kind of reality our children will face in 10 or 20 years. Most modern parents feel they are raising their kids to enter a reality they will barely understand: to compete with their peers across the globe for highly-skilled, high-tech jobs that will require them to attend top universities in order to be competitive. So there is an external standard of how our kids should be raised in order to compete.
One of the most compelling lines in the entire book comes during the “Marriage” chapter when one father, who arrives home from his night shift so his wife can leave for her day shift job, says “I am my own standard” when he is raising his kids. The author asks what would happen if we eased the external standard of concerted cultivation and allowed ourselves to spend time with our children according to what we deem is enough, healthy and worthwhile for them?
In the chapter “Adolescence,” Senior relays an important study by Steinberg who found that “…adolescence is especially tough on parents who don’t have an outside interest, whether it be work or a hobby, to absorb their interests as their child is pulling away [into the autonomy of adolescence].” In his sample of parents, this was true whether the parent was an involved parent or a disengaged one, a helicopter or a remote-controlled drone. “The critical protective variable was not, as some might expect, whether or not an individual invested a great deal in parenting,” he wrote. “It was the absence of non-parental investment.” Mothers who’d made the choice to stay home were especially vulnerable to a decline in mental health. But so were parents without hobbies, and so were parents who didn’t find fulfillment in their jobs and viewed them more as a source of pay than a source of pride. “It was as if the child, by leaving center stage, redirected the spotlight onto the parents’ own life, exposing what was fulfilling about it and what was not.”
Reading this summarized most of the questions that I myself have felt in the early years of parenting in deciding whether to continue working, to stay at home, to take classes, to remain involved in my creative passions, cultivate friendships, pursue my passions through business.
I leave you with these two points to consider:
1. Are parenting your children to your own standard? If you find yourself exhausted and depleted running from activity to activity, perhaps it’s time to stop and decide for yourself how to best parent your own child. Giving them time during their day and week to just be, with unstructured time to connect with you, will help them no matter where their life leads. It may seem tough and, sure, there are many things to be afraid of in our fast-paced, changing world. But ultimately, burning you and your child out will not bring that glorious future any more quickly or more efficiently. If overscheduling is an issue for you, your kids and your family, you could start by letting go of at least one thing on the frenetic schedule.
2. What are you doing today to invest in your own life? It can be a job, a hobby, a passionate interest or an activity. The point is it that it is YOURS. It’s something that you do FOR YOU. The kids are going to leave their daily lives and homes in several years to go away for school or work. When they do, it may be unbearably difficult to parents that haven’t taken time to invest in themselves. Besides, kids benefit greatly by seeing their parents engage passionately and with fulfillment in their own lives. In fact, as this book suggests, it is the biggest factor in our kids’ learning to create a life they love, and one that means something to them and the greater world around them.