The Parenting Challenge – A Review

All Joy and No Fun – New York Magazine

After reading the New York magazine article “All Joy and No Fun, Why parents hate parenting.” I reflected and gave some thought to two core concerns:

  1. What’s the root responsibility of parenting that upsets people?
  2. What is the underlying premise of Jennifer Senior, who wrote the article?

These two questions struck me as central to the piece, because, well, quite frankly, I never thought parenting should be fun. The writer operates with the presumption that parenting ought to bring short-term happiness and long term rewards. Maybe, but life is filled with examples where people undertake an activity (a career as an example), learn from their experiences, adjust their expectations, and make positive contribution that add to their self-esteem, a better society, and enhances the lives of their closest associates. And not all of these are rated as “fun,” especially while they are in progress.

Parenting at its core

Among the essential responsibilities of a parent is to establish the values and cultural norms of their children. These are not born into the child, they are learned when the child observes behavior, engages in question and answer activities, and forms and uses hypothesis about how to behave in unfamiliar situations. Parents are a huge influence on this process. Other important influences are the environmental constructs where peers gather, school or church are prime examples.

Parents often struggle when they are in the process of establishing new concepts with the child. “Stop doing that.” “Do your homework first.” “Say please, when you make a request.” “Open the door for a person when a person needs help.” All of these are examples of language parents use, and each focuses on establishing a norm or value that should guide future behavior. It’s never an easy process, and as the situations rise in complexity (for many parents, the teenage years of their children) the rationale needed to encourage a child to alter a hypothesized belief can be difficult to grasp, and the uncertainty of whether a child “gets it” is a source of stress.

The article uses many examples consistent with this theme, as support or an illustration of parents struggling to enjoy parenting. Which I found odd, as none of these activities are fun, they are hard work. I’d have preferred the writer spent more time examining, no dispelling, the belief that parenting should be fun, and helping readers identify their responsibilities and exploring the tools and techniques that seem to work in the current environment.

Underlying Premises

Reflecting on the article, it seems to presume that parenting is a choice, and the evaluation criteria for whether the choice, was good or bad, is how happy a person feels, compared with their peers making the opposite choice. This type of relative comparison is poor analysis, and leads to many flawed interpretations of what it means to live life, to take on personal responsibility, and to define success.

Happiness versus Rewarding

Parenting seems an inappropriate topic for this linguistic debate. The two ideas are different. And when the writer applied the research to parenting I found the discussion full of inappropriate judgments. Parenting is a lengthy process, lasting eighteen to forty years, and full of uncontrollable variables. It is one long learning event. Yet the writer and many of the quoted social science make the implication that a parent should be happy all along the way. Experiencing happiness and sadness, and the full range of human emotions, along the way of such a long process is the natural occurrence of life. To imply that we should undergo life with only one set of the range of human emotions—In essence states that negative emotions, sadness for example, should not exist. However, we know negative emotions do exist. Reading this section caused me discontent as the writer displayed surprise to find sadness and disappointment in parenting.

Social Services in Europe

The writer makes comparisons of the reported happiness with parenting between Europeans and Americans. The relevant importance of using the European society as the base of comparison is the existence of vast social services delivered by the government. The writer concludes, “more generous government policies, a sounder economy, a less pressured culture that values good rather than perfect kids–all of these would certainly make parents happier.” Hogwash. Her statement is absolutely devoid of personal responsibility’s role in defining happiness. Depressing. Nor is there a recognition that two sets of parents could be both be happy with different sets of outcomes. When people define happiness with recognition of their actions cause and effect, different types of outcome exist with all having the possibility of parents savoring happiness. I think the writer’s implicit argument only applies to parents with such low confidence that they find happiness when their child is accepted by the “right” group. Pathetic.

Expectations–Evaluating Our Initial Expectations

The article seems to endorse the idea that “good” results when first expectations are met and “bad” is when actual outcomes falls short of expectations. The notion ignores the possibility that people have poor expectations before becoming parents. And importantly, presumes people cannot recover and learn from a negative feeling to find happiness in the process of personal growth. I believe that people can know happiness where their initial expectations are met and not met.

If it’s true that people don’t know everything, and, most importantly, lack the curiosity to substantiate all that they believe as a precondition to action, then not meeting initial expectations becomes a learning opportunity or behavior feedback. Thus, implying that first expectations should be met, is analogous to saying people are happiest when they stop incurring failed experiments—No more learning from experience. I believe the opposite, in fact, people enjoy learning, in varying degrees, from all three basic forms:

  • observation,
  • experimenting, &
  • receiving knowledge from experts.

Because learning is difficult, and has frustration, does not mean the process creates unhappiness, to the contrary, researchers quoted here seem to confuse a point in time assessment of mood with a holistic label about how humans learn.

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