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If We Left Kids Alone, Would We All Be More Joyful and Happy?

Welcome back to The Brilliant Book Club, a collaboration of five parent bloggers. To learn more about BBC, read this post or follow us on FacebookG+ or Twitter with the hashtag #BrilliantBookClub.

Brilliant Book Club LogoAnd make sure to check out what my co-founders Deb, Sarah and Stephanie have written about this month’s selection. See the links to their posts are below.


alljoynofun.jpgDo we really need a book to tell us that parenthood is often no fun?

Yes, I think we do.

For those of us who like to pay attention to cultural observations about modern parenthood, the idea that parenthood — particularly the variant practiced today — often brings tedium, anxiety, and, yes, even misery is hardly unfamiliar territory.

I spent the last few days in a world of exploding puke and poop. My almost three year old contracted one of the most dreaded illnesses of parents everywhere: the stomach bug. Actually, his third this winter. (And this is also why this post was late for today.) But this one was epic: hardly a single sheet, blanket, stuffed animal, or carpet in the house escaped its wrath. No one in the house slept much, and I think we all felt like prisoners in a bad virus movie as the Buffalo spring snow swirled outside our windows.

Last night my son was finally feeling better. At bedtime he chose a book for me to read, one that we hadn’t read in quite some time, “Caps for Sale ,” a strange book about a napping peddler who gets his caps stolen by monkeys. I didn’t think that my son would remember much about the book, but to my surprise, he not only remembered it, he knew almost every word of the book and said them along with me. Then he collapsed into giggles, laughing about “Those silly monkeys, Mama!” We cuddled together under the blanket and told ridiculous jokes about mischievous monkeys. In an instant, my heart was unbearably full and proud, and the vomit, screaming, poop-smeared walls, and tired nights were forgotten.

I suspect that this has been one of the hallmarks of parenting across cultures and across time: Raising a family has always been hard, but children will always bring transcendent joy along with responsibility and obligation.

But what captivated me about Senior’s book is that it attempts to answer a question that I’ve been thinking about for so many years, long before I was a parent: Why have the norms about parenthood shifted so dramatically in so short of a time? She begins with the assumption that the nature of childhood itself has changed in just a generation or two, and this transformation has had profound effects on the experience of raising children for parents.

So Jennifer Senior had me with just a one-line summary of the book. I was hooked. Since my first class in sociology as an undergraduate (Sociology of the Family) in the early 1990s and later as a doctoral student in sociology studying gender sociology highlighting the just-released at the time The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood by Sharon Hays, I wanted to understand the dynamics of how family life is changing. And Senior does a brilliant job of integrating sympathetic portraits of real families with so much of the research that has been done in the last decades on parenting, gender role shifts, and (most of all) the transformation of children from “useful” within the family to “protected.” Childhood itself has been redefined in recent decades so that the modern kid is “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”

And this is the part of modern parenting — the child as perpetually protected — that I can’t stop thinking about. As I’ve written about before, my dissertation was ultimately about the role of resilience and “grit” (yes, that trendy, inescapable, educational buzzword) in the improbable success of a group of disadvantaged adolescents who overcome enormous challenges to attend and excel at elite private schools. These children faced an overabundance of obstacles: large, small, logistical, financial, cultural, emotional, racial. Their childhoods had been characterized by unrelenting adversity.

As a former teacher at one of those elite schools, I had a great deal of experience with teaching these kids’ middle and upper class peers and negotiating with their parents. What shocked me most about teaching during my 13 years of teaching in this population of students and families was how with each passing year the average child became more and more protected, more and more sheltered from experiencing everyday life’s setbacks, and less and less capable of confronting ordinary challenges. And, truly, this is one of the primary reasons that I left teaching and returned to academia.

My life as a teacher became less about teaching and inspiring my students and more about finding ways to placate parents and take over responsibilities that I felt should not the job of any adult. There were no enemies here (with rare exceptions); I sympathized with and truly liked nearly all of the intelligent, loving, and well-intentioned parents, but more and more it seemed to me that their goals were to prevent their children from experiencing many of the important life lessons that children should learn on their own. Lessons as simple as “What do I do when I’m bored? What do I do if my friend doesn’t like me anymore? What do I do when I don’t like a kid that I’m sitting next to? What if a teacher gives me an unfair grade? What if a homework assignment is hard for me? What if I don’t like the novel that we’re reading in English class?” These questions were increasingly not the responsibility of the child to answer or resolve themselves, but rather the job of adults to provide children with each answer. With each request from a parent to change a child’s seat because the child didn’t like a classmate, with each parental request to monitor and intervene during recess during what I observed to be ordinary peer interactions, I became more concerned for my students and uncomfortable with my role as a teacher. I wasn’t worried so much about their academic skills or future earning potential, but for their life skills as resilient human beings who are capable of and not afraid of persevering through difficult (or even everyday) experiences.

And it turns out my entirely anectodotal observations may not be so far off base. In an extraordinary Atlantic article called “The Overprotected Kid” that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind as I thought about All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Hanna Rosin argues that recent research demonstrates that today’s children are actually growing up to be more afraid, less creative, and much less independent.

As Rosin describes, this all returns the historical progression that Senior describes toward the “protected child.” According to the introduction to Rosin’s article,

“In the past generation the rising preoccupation with children’s safety [I would include emotional as well as physical] has transformed childhood, stripping it of independence, risk-taking, and discovery. What’s been gained is unclear: rates of injury have remained fairly steady since the 1970s, and abduction by strangers was as rare then as it is now. What’s been lost is creativity, passion, and courage. Now a countermovement is arising, based on mounting evidence that today’s parenting norms do children more harm than good.”

Throughout Rosin’s article, she asks herself, a mom in her forties, Was my childhood actually real? Am I imagining a childhood in which kids lived in a kid-centered world, spending enormous chunks of their days entirely unsupervised by adults?

I too remember that world: “wasting” endless hours running through woods, walking around town by myself even as a young child, learning about risk-taking through climbing trees and jumping from rock to rock in the middle of a fast stream with not a single adult who knew where I was.

The statistics — both from Senior’s book and Rosin’s article — demonstrate how far modern parenting has strayed from that world in just one generation. As just one telling example, in the 1970s, about 80% of third graders walked to school by themselves. Today it’s in the low single digits. (In my first days of teaching at a private school in Cambridge, I burst out laughing because it seemed so preposterous when I was told that fifth graders were not allowed to walk home from school without an adult, even if they lived in the same, affluent, entirely safe neighborhood as the school.)

Parents — even full-time working mothers — spend vastly more time with their children than they did only a few decades ago. But what is lost when children spend increasingly amounts of time confined to the world of adults with no opportunity to learn about risk-taking and, yes, even a little danger? One child play expert says that recent data show that kids have become “less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative…less imaginative, less unconventional….”

Which brings me back to All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Yes, changes in parenting norms may not be good for kids. But I would argue that they’re just as bad for parents, for their well-being, for their identities, and for their marriages. The lesson from both of these engaging, astute writers is that there needs to be a deep cultural shift.

According to Rosin,

“There is a big difference between avoiding major hazards and making every decision with the primary goal of optimizing child safety (or enrichment, or happiness). We can no more create the perfect environment for our children than we can create perfect children. To be believe otherwise is a delusion, and a harmful one.”

I’d like to think of both of these writings as part of a growing call for action among many modern parents. Let’s stop the madness. Stop trying so hard for perfection, for protection, for constant happiness, for the cultivation of talent, for the avoidance of all risk and discomfort.

Maybe we’d then all be a bit happier and joyful.


Be sure to read the rest of the Brilliant Book Club members’ posts:

Deb from Urban Moo Cow — “Reasons to Keep Your Toddler Around

Stephanie or Mommy, For Real — “The Parenting Paradox: A Snapshot of Two Mothers

Sarah from Left Brain Buddha — “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Parents: 5 Ways to Make Parenting More Joyful”


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  1. Lauren Apfel says:

    An *excellent* synthesis of the issue, Jessica. I read Rosin’s article and was utterly captivated by it. The line that has clung to me is the one in which her husband realizes their daughter has not been left unsupervised for more than ten minutes in the entire ten years of her life. One would hope that is an exaggeration, but I imagine it’s not. Based on the way we value our children (“emotionally priceless”), it’s all too easy to see why we get sucked into these fears, and how they in turn generate certain parenting practices, which are then reinforced by everyone around us so that you look like the crazy person for letting your eight year old walk down the block to the shop by himself. And the question it raises for me is how we do stop, how do we crack the cycle of fear and protection, when it has become so ingrained? It takes a conscious, almost unnatural, effort to do it. My older boys get a lot of unsupervised play time now, out the back of our development, running around with the neighborhood kids, much in the same way I did when I was young (I know for a fact that I used to ride my bike all over creation). But that was only a result of having been convinced by the other parents involved that it was okay. Maybe because we live in the UK, I was the odd one out for being ‘overprotective’ and after a while, having tested the waters, I conceded. It was like breaking a seal on my fear and I haven’t looked back since. I still worry, but the context has changed and I am able to make decisions about what my kids can or cannot do based more on reason and less on ungrounded fear. That being said, I’m still not crazy about the idea of them playing with fire ;). Thanks for such a thoughtful post. I will look forward to a re-read.
    Lauren Apfel recently posted…against ‘ban bossy’My Profile

    • Jessica says:

      Lauren, I wish that I had talked more about this exact point in my post… How in the world do we stop “overparenting” and overprotecting whenever everyone around us is doing it? I heard an interview on the radio with Hanna Rosin, and she talked about how many parents in her neighborhood view her as completely insane for letting her young kids walk to the store by themselves. I guess you really have to be strong in your convictions that this is what’s best for kids and be willing to be somewhat of a parental misfit until this potentially growing backlash gains momentum.
      Jessica recently posted…If We Left Kids Alone, Would We All Be More Joyful and Happy?My Profile

      • I’m just going to reply here for a moment and say that YES, I had that same question, if you remember, when we were reading Parenting Without Borders. HOW can we go against the cultural tide?? It seems hopeless. Lauren was able to do it because she LEFT and joined another culture (with its own issues I’m sure, but not this one). Help! Can we all go live somewhere together? I’m only half kidding….
        Deb @ Urban Moo Cow recently posted…Reasons to Keep Your Toddler AroundMy Profile

        • Jessica says:

          Interestingly, my little street is sort of a throwback in a lot of ways. It’s a small, one-way street with very little traffic. The neighborhood kids (ages preschool to tween) do run around largely unsupervised by most (not all) parents. (there are a few “hovering” parents.) The kids run into and out of each other’s houses. There are spontaneous hockey, wiffeball, and basketball games in the middle of the street. As far as life in a city, I think this may be as good as it gets for a kid. I am grateful for that.
          Jessica recently posted…If We Left Kids Alone, Would We All Be More Joyful and Happy?My Profile

  2. Kerry says:

    I’ve added this book to my “list.” 🙂 I agree that I can be one of those parents trying to protect my kids from everything, but this past year I’ve loosened the reigns. I’m letting my boys walk home from school, explore parts of the Internet and let them pay the consequences when they forget something from school – rather than always making the mad dash back to pick something up. It’s part of letting them go and stretch – and I ultimately know it’s good for them. 🙂
    Kerry recently posted…Her Juggle: Christina FowlerMy Profile

  3. Alexa says:

    This was a really interesting read…. I imagine the book will not be very popular with helicopter parents! I haven’t read this book, but I have observed many of these phenomena in society. Someone told me the other day that they have had parents actually go with their college degree holding children to job interviews. What? No way would I hire someone who’s mommy came along to the interview.
    I understand the need to protect, but I hate that we are limiting our children. And making them so reliant on others and making them terribly self centered.
    Alexa recently posted…The Mom Cafe… a place I like to hang out!My Profile

  4. This could be one of my favorites of yours. I’ll put it in in the top 5 because I’m too chicken to pick a favorite. 🙂

    We’ve discussed this a lot over the past year and I think this essay distilled in the issue in an important way — the effect of our “new parenting norms” is detrimental to both us and our kids. Why do we continue? I also loved the phrase she used, “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.” So spot-on.

    Sharing this everywhere. I hope you continue thinking and writing about the issue of resilience. Maybe we’ll figure it out.

    ps – sorry about your pooptastic weekend. 🙁 poor little boy. there’s nothing worse!!
    Deb @ Urban Moo Cow recently posted…Reasons to Keep Your Toddler AroundMy Profile

  5. Lea says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful discussion of this topic. Personally I still lean towards overprotection, though I like the idea of letting go, in theory. I am not yet ready to let my children out on their own – but then, my oldest is only 4 right now. Hopefully as they get older, I will learn to loosen the reigns!
    Lea recently posted…Mozilla is a Weather VaneMy Profile

  6. Allie says:

    My first time “around the block” I was on the phone with my pediatrician all the time. I’m surprised he didn’t boot me from the practice. In my defense, I had premature twins , no help, and no clue what I was doing. I loved him and actually sometimes called his nurse about questions for baby # 3, who was born in another state! We moved back to Georgia, added a 4th baby, and he’s still our doctor. I never call anymore, and rarely bring them in if they’re sick. We see him once a year at well checks – but I still have his number memorized!
    Allie recently posted…I Dare Allie – Update # TwoMy Profile

  7. As the mom of 2 sons, 28 and almost 30, and a teenager left in the home, I have noticed a huge difference in how people think of “safety” for our kids. I had a family member insist that it was a safety concern that my daughter didn’t have a cell phone when she was 12. As her parents, we had decided that cell phones come with a lot of responsibilities, and takes away from time spent….reading, doing homework, imagining, visiting friends….thus, our decision was that we would wait until she really needed one, which, for us, was with the advent of high school. Our older sons grew up just fine (before the cell phone craze), and I managed to know where they were and when they were coming home. I knew the phone numbers of their friend’s houses (and addresses), in case I needed to call and check up. In short, I think there’s an illusion that cell phones keep our kids safe (although I conceded that GPS tracking is a nice feature), and they might even encourage “hovering,” As in, we can reach our child at any given moment, wherever they are, at the mall, at a friend’s house, even when they’re sitting inside their school.
    Our daughter was none-too-happy that she had to wait until high school for her cell phone when there were 9 year olds on the block with their own phones. We’ve gotten a lot of grief from our daughter because “everyone” else had a phone (blah blah). We stuck to our guns but it is very hard to go against the grain of what society tells us we “should” do in order to be good parents. There’s way too much of that.
    Let me add that cell phones have been the result of much angst in our house, making rules about night-time use, putting it away when we have company, etc. There have been expensive ring-tones without permission. And there have been incidents of mean texting.
    Cell phones, Facebook, and the internet are evolutions in our society that have contributed to parents feeling like they can or should “hover.”
    Also, the urbanization of society over the past few decades means that fewer children have access to running thru the woods or wading thru creeks, both activities I engaged in when I was a kid, unsupervised. I commented to my husband just the other day that whenever I see an empty lot, it’s got a fence around it (we live in suburb of a large city). There’s no such thing as an empty lot where kids can gather for an impromptu game of baseball. Interaction with nature is very limited in the urban/suburban setting. If we want our kids to play a sport, it seems like organized sports is the path (read: mom/dad must drive junior to and from the field which is probably a couple miles away via busy intersections/streets that truly do present a hazard).
    Parenting is a balancing act. Every aspect of it begs the question, do I help my child navigate a situation or sit back and let them stumble? My answer would be: it depends on your definition of “stumble.” A bully is not going to get away with inflicting physical harm on my child. But there will be verbal bullies and I’ve had to zip and stay out. As parents, we want to save our child from pain, but that’s just not always possible. And as they grow, the pains they experience are bigger and more impactful.

  8. Julie Burton says:

    “I too remember that world: “wasting” endless hours running through woods, walking around town by myself even as a young child, learning about risk-taking through climbing trees and jumping from rock to rock in the middle of a fast stream with not a single adult who knew where I was.”

    Love this, Jessica and this parallels my childhood as well. I do think I learned a lot from this kind of upbringing and I think most parents feel like they would be arrested today if they didn’t know where their kid was at any given moment. This issue is a real struggle for me as I parent kids from ages 10 up to 19. How much space to give them? How much to protect them? It’s exhausting to do all the thinking and analyzing about these issues…our parents seemed to just live their lives and let us live ours. Thank you for your thoughtful reflections, Jessica. I always appreciate your honest and straightforward perspective.
    Julie Burton recently posted…How a New Book on Childhood Helped Soften the Rough Edges of 17My Profile

  9. Helen Boulos says:

    I loved this post. My children are a bit older than yours, and as they get bigger I am finally learning to say no to the structured activities (at least some of them) and leave them alone. I have a likeminded friend and her two daughters come over every Thursday and we ignore. our. kids. And they make movies, and create plays. They have dance contests and dream and hide in the attic.

    Other moms have actually asked why I had kids if I didn’t want to take them to activities when I told them we are taking this spring “off of scheduled after school sports,” so they can play in the yard and we can spend weekends as a family.

    They aren’t doing camps this summer. I am forgoing the opportunity to have them learn how to program robots, so that they can go to the pool and beg for money for the ice cream truck.

    I am learning as I go, but when I read articles like this one and the ones you referred to I realize we are depriving our kids of the opportunity to develop any independence if we have them scheduled and monitored every moment of the day.

    GREAT read!!!

  10. Actually, when you think harder on an issue to solve, it became more complicated. Sometimes you just need to let it. In the case of children, a parent can handle a situation much better when you and your child is comfortable. You can not force a child to behave like what you want but you need to teach them how to behave. Parents need lots of patience and sometimes a hard heart for the well-being of their child.

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