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 Facebook, G+ or Twitter with the hashtag #BrilliantBookClub.
And 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.
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”