New York Magazine has a very provocative cover story this week by Jennifer Senior about happiness and parenting. Senior wrote:
“Most people assume that having children will make them happier. Yet a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so.”
The most horrifyingly accurate paragraph went as follows:
"Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity. As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed. (The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child’s value in five ruthless words: 'Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.') Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses."
. . . being our bosses.
I oftentimes feel that, in the world of modern parenting, many things, people and institutions elevate children above their parents, putting the parents – who are financially, legally and morally responsible for said children, must raise them and teach them, etc. – at a power disadvantage. A loud chorus of parenting "experts," who are so fond of prattling on in the media, loves to tell us how very important it is to focus on bolstering our children’s self-esteem, urging us to concoct alternatives to the word “No” and to afford children, even very young ones, the “illusion” of control on many things in their day-to-day life.
Additionally, these experts tell parents that they should not ever shout (never mind swear) at their children because to do so is akin to committing lasting emotionally damage, like the verbal equivalent of whacking the kids on the head with a two-by-four. When parents are struggling for alternatives to the word "No," when they can't shout, can't reprimand, they're expected to be hyper-vigilant, hyper-involved and hyper-aware of everything, like whether the kids have applied sunscreen, bug spray, are properly hydrated and whether they've consumed any high fructose corn syrup.
Then throw into the mix the notion that, as Senior wrote, “middle- and upper-income families . . . see their children as projects to be perfected.” Those “projects,” and the high expectations that people have for parents to entertain, educate, fill with organic/homemade/locavore fare (but not too much "filling" lest we have an obesity issue with which to contend), to take to the “right” sports camps, to get onto the “right” teams, to make sure have the "best" science projects for the science fare (it's called “aggressive nurturing” in the article) are, frankly, freakin’ exhausting. It’s no wonder people aren’t having fun and really enjoying this precious time with their children before they grow up and leave us crying about the end of their childhood like the parents in the audience did at the end of Toy Story 3.
The most fun I have with my own kids, the times when I feel most fulfilled is when we’ve got nothing planned, when we’re not in a rush and there's no pressure to make a specific meal and we just hang around together, maybe talking or playing a game or just lying in a big pile on my bed being goofy. That’s when the pressure to be perfect, to “aggressively nurture” is off and joy enters the picture. And I think that if parents were able to spend more time hitting that release valve and depressurize our families – and stop making parents do things like sign all the homework assignments, fight with their second graders to make them complete homework assignments and run the children run off to yet another practice or game – we’d all be a lot happier, or at least I would. The simpler, the better.
“Loving one’s children and loving the act of parenting are not the same thing,” Senior wrote . . . especially when "parenting," according to today's insane standards, has become an unnecessarily complicated, high-pressured gig.
Image credit: New York Magazine.