I recently listened to Jennifer Senior’s book All Joy And No Fun on the paradox of modern parenting. Overall, I appreciated what the book had to offer, though I will share a few criticisms as well. This is not a parenting advice book, but rather a journalist’s perspective on the effects children have on their parents.
Senior did a great job summing up the social science research regarding the history of parenting, along with her own observations of families she interviewed. I think it can be very helpful for parents to realize just how much a child’s role has changed in society. Senior writes, “The way most historians describe this transformation is to say that the child went from ‘useful’ to ‘protected.’ But the sociologist Viviana Zelizer came up with a far more pungent phrase. She characterized the modern child as ‘economically worthless but emotionally priceless.’” Modern childhood has been the way it is for only about seventy years, a mere infant in the lifespan of history.
One of the many challenges modern parenting poses is that there is no collective wisdom passed on as we are living in such a fast paced world. We can’t even begin to know what our children’s lives will be like when they grow up. Gone are the days of family trades when farmers raised farmers and blacksmiths raised blacksmiths. Living in this uncertainty and ambiguity is tough on parents. For these reasons, I appreciate Senior’s summaries on the collective history of parenting and where we stand today.
Senior also does a great job of summarizing some ways the brain works at different developmental stages. She writes about how children primarily live in the present due to their underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes and discusses the implications of this. Senior points out that, “Yet somehow mothers and fathers believe that if only they could convey the logic of their decisions, their young children would understand it. That’s what their adult brains thrived on for all those years before their children came along: rational chitchat… But young children lead intensely emotional lives. Reasoned discussion does not have the same effect on them, and their brains are not yet optimized for it.” As parents, it is so easy to forget this and attempt to rationalize with our children. Children’s brains are still developing and will continue to develop into their mid to late twenties. Senior also points out that in adolescent brains, “Pretty much all quasi-vices to which human beings turn for relief and escape—drinking, drugs, video games, porn—have longer-lasting and more intense effects in teenagers.” Though teens can get pretty good at reasoning and arguing, they lack adult skills in grasping long-term consequences, thinking through complicated choices and overall self-control. I appreciate Senior’s insights on the development of the brain. Reminders like the above are a great way for parents to keep in check their expectations about what their children are capable of, because it can be so easy to forget in the day-to-day disciplining.
Another important topic that Senior hits on in the book is the fact that we are having children later in life and having less children. This produces many implications, including a much higher emphasis and value on the few and long-awaited for (and possibly preceded by a path paved with grief and loss) children we do have. Senior points out, “… this socially respectable option NOT to parent has actually made parenthood more stressful. The knowledge that parents have chosen that role allows for unrealistic buildup of expectations and unavoidable second-guessing.”
Senior did not dedicate a lot of time or left out entirely large populations of parents, including divorced parents, parents of blended families, and stay at home moms who were not attempting to work part time in some capacity. Though you could probably write entire books on those particular situations, I would have liked to see a little more balance in this book. Additionally, I think Senior could have added more of her own experience as a parent, but I am sure she had her reasons for distancing her own mothering from the book. I had to look up her bio (since I was listening to the book) to see if she even was a parent herself because I don’t recall her ever mentioning it in the book.
I would not necessarily recommend this book to expecting parents. Senior herself says modern parenting is in a “crisis” and the first five chapters of her book definitely reflect that viewpoint. But I think the research she references is often just that, research. Much of it was people asked to reflect on the monotony of the day-to-day parenting tasks. When reflecting on the nitty gritty of parenting, you are going to come up with more complaints. But if questions were asked in a more overarching way that gave space for meaning making and more abstract, big picture kinds of things, I think researchers would find vastly different responses. Senior herself points this out when referencing Deaton and Stone Gallup surveys, “And when researchers bother to ask questions of a more existential nature, they find that parents report greater feelings of meaning and reward -- which to many parents is what the entire shebang is about.”
I think it goes back to the stories we are telling ourselves day in and day out about parenting. Senior touches on this in her discussion on our “experiencing selves” versus our “remembering selves”. Senior writes, “Our experiencing selves tell researchers that we prefer doing the dishes…to spending time with our kids. …But our remembering selves tell researchers that no one—and nothing—provides us with so much joy as our children. It may not be the happiness we live day to day, but it’s the happiness we think about, the happiness we summon and remember, the stuff that makes up our life-tales.” This can also point to why that middle aged woman in the grocery store is telling the new mom to “Savor every moment, because it all goes so quickly.” The older woman is talking from her remembering self and forgot the actual experience of the sleep deprivation, constant diapering, and those times baby cries cannot be soothed. So smile and nod as the young mom, but give yourself permission to not savor every blessed second, like when baby wakes up screeching after you just spend 33 minutes shushing and swaying.
All in all, I think that All Joy And No Fun is a valuable read. It definitely speaks to some of the challenges of modern parenting and can be very validating for parents. There are some great take-aways to keep in mind in regards to how we parent in a fast paced world that is ever-changing. I would recommend it to parents who need a new perspective and some camaraderie on the mundane, daily grind of parenting. If you have read the book or have thoughts on the review, leave your feedback in the comments below!