The Changed Goal

Several weeks ago, I referred to the new book by Jennifer Senior, “All Joy and No Fun” as provoking a discussion about the impact of children on their parent’s lives.  The book itself is interesting, analyzing the various factors that make being a parent challenging in today’s world.  Enlightening as well, as Senior shows through interviews and “fly on the wall” observations how these factors play out in the lives of real families.

The book rounds up the usual suspects responsible for the pressures and stress parents are under.  In one sense, these can be understood as coming from two sources.  One is the changes in the world in which parents now raise children.  The other is the nature of children themselves, which can be challenging in its own right. 

Certainly a major change has been that of women’s role, which has changed both child-rearing and family life.  The pressure created by women working outside of the home has received much attention – both positive and negative.  Senior also illustrates the difficulties for women trying to maintain a work life while continuing as stay-at-home mothers.  Either situation confronts the nature of children and childhood, the most basic of which is the need for physical care and attention.

In discussing these issues, Senior, writing from a parent’s point of view, labels the problem one of autonomy.  Beginning with the sleep deprivation of the parents of newborns, and moving on to other ways children’s needs interfere with the interests and needs of parents, while calling it autonomy Senior is really pointing out the way children do not allow for a focus on parents themselves.  

What stands out here is a more fundamental change in a society that now puts a premium on self-fulfillment, which was a driving force in bringing about the changes that have taken place in women’s lives.  In an earlier era, self-sacrifice was understood to define a “good mother.”  A mother was supposed to put her children’s needs ahead of her own.  In a still earlier time, all family members were expected to work and sacrifice, if need be for the good of the family or larger community.  The value now is personal autonomy, which is unquestionably impinged upon when one has children.

Senior discusses the impact of children on marriage.  Here, too, the realities of a changed world come into play, specifically an economy that may require dual incomes and the changed expectations of fathers now that women are often breadwinners.   New issues such as appropriate division of labor and availability of personal time for each parent create tension, as well as conflicts in differing approaches to children and child-rearing.

Much attention is given to what Senior calls concerted cultivation.  This relates to social and cultural changes which also have brought about changes in the behavior of children.  Underlying these changes was a new view of the nature of childhood, of children as different from adults, as requiring protection and education.  These ideas ultimately led to child labor and protection laws, which prevented children’s participation in an industrial society that differed from an older agrarian one.

Children were no longer an economic asset.  On the contrary, increasingly they became a financial drain.  As childhood became long and sheltered, devoted to the education and emotional growth of children, the cost of sustaining this dependency has continued to grow.  The rising cost of education is a primary culprit in this discussion.  But perhaps even more significant is what parents perceive to be required for their children’s success.  A sense of declining opportunity and increased competition forgood schools and ultimately good jobs has led to the over-scheduled lives of children as parents pursue every possible educational advantage.  Children who no longer have  the opportunity to develop inner resources expect to be provided with activities and are demanding of their parents’ time and attention.

An interesting aspect of Senior’s book is the way in which an explanation of children’s behavior – perhaps with a view toward enlisting parental understanding of their own plight – is offered repeatedly in terms of brain function, neurology and general biological development.  This is especially true in the discussion of adolescence and the rewards adolescents find in risk-taking.

At the same time, Senior provides a thought provoking overview of the way in which a changed economy and long childhood provide few opportunities for adolescents to find meaningful outlets for the changes that drive their behavior at this time in their lives.   The author also offers a clear picture of the way social changes have created an adolescent culture of its own.  This fact, combined with the major impact of technology, has created an even greater splitting off of children from their parents and greater worry for parents about protecting their children.

Perhaps the most striking feature of this picture of children’s impact on their parents is the changed goal of child-rearing in the modern age.  The goal has shifted from raising a child to be a contributing member of his family and community to a goal of benefiting the child himself.  The child and what benefits him or her has become the focus.  It is not surprising that such an arrangement creates stress for parents.

In an era that values self-fulfillment, finding the balance between one’s own needs and those of one’s children remains the major challenge, not only in raising children but in living with others.