All Joy No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting by Jennifer Senior Published by Harper Collins, 2014

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March 28, 2014

Have you ever wondered what influence children have on parents? Every book I have read about parenting was always about how to be a better parent and how to influence children for the better. This book illustrates many of the effects that children have on parents through each stage of life. It discusses research on the parent-child relationship while using real life stories from all over the United States. Through amusing and insightful stories of families, the author illustrates the changes that parents progress through as their children age. All parents of any stage can identify with many of the situations in this book.

The author writes about the stages of childhood in sequential order from babyhood through adolescence. Why is modern parenthood more complicated than previous generations? We have more choices, and most parents had significant autonomy and privacy before having children. Because first time parents are often older and because our work lives are more complicated, modern parents see children and their achievements as an extension of themselves. The author cites research where many of the conclusions may be shocking and/or entertaining. For example, did you know that nonparents are happier than parents on the whole? Mothers of empty nests are happier than mothers whose children are still at home. In a survey of 909 working women in Texas, child care ranked 16th out of 19 possible activities, ranking under housework and doing the dishes. In a telling study on relationship preference, parents ranked spending time with their children as less fun than friends, spouse, acquaintances, and in fact, were ranked on par with strangers. On par with strangers—that made me laugh. 

Offspring influence a marriage, but instead of being a marriage strengthener, having children can often make the bonds weaker. Children generate more arguments than any other subject in marriage. Ms. Senior points out that women and men often think about and handle child care differently, which can lead to friction in a marriage. Women in general assign themselves a much larger proportion of their self-identity as a mother, than men view themselves as fathers. This internal visualization, along with social isolation that occurs as a mother of young children, can cause significant stress in women with small children. Another huge cause of stress is nonobedience on the part of children. A 1971 Harvard study showed that mothers corrections or redirections to their toddlers every 3 minutes with the toddlers only listening 60 percent of the time. In general, “Mom gets the job of family nag.” A great message that comes from all this is that women should not judge themselves too harshly for trying to juggle it all. 

There is a wonderful chapter on grandparents who, because of tragic circumstances, single handily raise their grandchildren. It focuses on the love, joy and tremendous energy it takes to raise a small child. Then there is a long chapter on “concerted cultivation”, where parents spend an inordinate amount of time, energy and money on overscheduling their children in order to compete in the new economy. The author makes the important point that the modern protected childhood is a brand new concept in the history of the world, existing only since World War II. Previous to that, children often worked to contribute to the family income. “The moment children stopped working for adults, everyone became confused about who was in charge.” The author then discusses the “trophy child”, where the emotional well-being of the parent closely matches the successes or failures of the child. Trends such as accumulation of more and more possessions for children, the rise of electronics and internet as prime influences in childhood, as well as increasing involvement of parents in homework, make for easy reading.

The chapter on Adolescence begins with a conversation of a group of parents of teenagers; all children enrolled in great New York City schools, who have dealt with difficult topics such as shoplifting, internet porn, entanglements with the police. What is it about adolescence that makes it hard on families? The author asserts that the transition to adulthood is much harder on the parent than the child. Research shows that when a parent’s first child reaches puberty, forty percent of parents (one half of mothers and one third of fathers) suffered a decline in mental health. The decline in mental health was worse in divorced parents, if the child was the same sex as the parent, and if the parent did not have non child focused outside interests. Adolescence puts stress on marriages as well. Mothers and fathers often disagree on discipline, and studies show mothers are more likely to be strict and quarrel with their children. The author theorizes that if teenagers had more productive ways to take risks rather driving at excessive speeds, throwing eggs at homes, and doing daring things on the internet, they may cause less friction at home. 

Most of this book covers the parental costs of being a good parent; at raising a child from babyhood to adulthood. The last chapter focuses on the joy of that process. It also raises questions of commitment, legacy and redemption. As the author relates, “Kids may complicate our lives. But they also make them simpler. Children’s needs are so overwhelming, and their dependence on us so absolute, that it’s impossible to misread our moral obligation to them. It’s for life. But it is also is our lives. There’s something deeply satisfying about that.” All Joy No Fun focuses on the journey that parents take in our modern culture and the difficulties and rewards of that process. The stories, commentary and analysis make for fun reading and reflection.

Many thanks to my colleague, Dr. Lucy McBride, for pointing out the 2010 article written by the author with the same name but different subtitle as the book: All Joy No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting: This article gives a short synopsis of some of the book’s themes.