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Should kids’ happiness be the goal of parenting?

May 5, 2014 at 6:42 PM EDT
In an era when parents are working outside the home, many struggle to figure out their proper role in their children’s lives. Competition among families and the concept of making sure kids are always happy may also be adding to the stresses of modern parenthood. Judy Woodruff talks to Jennifer Senior, author of “All Joy No Fun,” about the evolving pressure to raise perfectly well-rounded children.

GWEN IFILL: Now we turn to our new series on the joys and challenges of Parenting Now.

Mothers, fathers and other caregivers have long tried to successfully navigate this tricky terrain, full of age-old dilemmas, as well as new questions. As parents’ roles change, so too does the popular notion of the best way to raise children, as marketing, technology and cultural shifts provide daily challenges, achievement gaps open between boys and girls, and child care costs rockets out of sight.

We will be looking at all these topics and more this week.

Judy gets us started tonight with this conversation she recorded earlier.

WOMAN: That’s typical family life. Right? There’s one snapshot when you get in the car to go on a family vacation, and it’s a different snapshot when you get out of the car on the family vacation, the good, the bad, the ugly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To many moms and dads in this parent encouragement program, or PEP, that sentiment is all too familiar. These parents in Washington, D.C., come together once a week with leader Paige Trevor.

WOMAN: If you happen to be a Piglet and your child is an Eeyore, spending a bunch of time trying to fix that in someone is not a good use of your parenting mojo.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Parents share their joys and their challenges.

MAN: I just needed to cool down after my girls were like doing trampolines from the beds.

WOMAN: Like, in school, they are one thing. At Nana’s house, they are one person.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The ups and downs of raising children are nothing new, but in an era when both parents are often working and in many cases trying to figure out how involved they should be, this kind of help is much in demand.

And these questions are getting a fresh look in a new book by journalist Jennifer Senior titled: “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.”

A young mother herself, Senior asked middle-class moms and dads why is it that parenting seems more stressful than ever. One of the parents at the PEP session us her take on how parenting has changed.

DEANA O’HARA: The new parent style is more of an intensive parent style. It’s not the laissez-faire or the, as we talked about in the past, in which children are expected to behave or to be seen, but not heard. It’s a much more intensive, inclusive parenting style.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For Teresa Mason and Sean Epstein, the joys and challenges multiplied when they had twins, Stella and Lincoln, 17 months after having their firstborn, Lilah.

Teresa, a corporate health care attorney, and Sean, a private equity adviser, say they are fortunate to have resources to make it easier. But they are still trying to figure out the right balance.

TERESA MASON: Most of the days, I feel like I’m getting it wrong. I mean, there’s always one that gets more attention, you know, whether it’s the kids, whether it’s work, whether it’s Sean. Like, I just always feel like I’m pulled in three different directions, and I’m never enough for every single segment. There’s no magic answer. I think it’s different for every couple and the demands on each other’s work and the demands at home depending upon what they are.

SEAN EPSTEIN: I think the daily challenges start very practically with the fact that it’s almost impossible to get all three dressed. But then the challenge just becomes even more practical, getting them to school on time, getting yourself to work on time, figuring out which of the two of us is actually going to get the children, and then getting them all the way through bed, getting a few minutes to enjoy being married, and getting some rest, and doing the whole thing over and over again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sean also notes that the role of a parent has shifted.

SEAN EPSTEIN: It seems like this generation is more concerned, from a parent’s perspective, making their children happy on a constant basis, whereas I feel like generations previously, your goal was to try to make sure your kid had food, had shelter, had a relatively safe community, and let them out, go play, see you at dinner time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ayanna Smith, who most recently worked for a nonprofit, believes a kind of competitive parenting has taken over, making it difficult to dial back. That mentality, she says, combined with careers that dominate people’s lives is a bad combination.

With 4-year-old Raven and another baby on the way, Ayanna, who wants to return to work, says she and her husband have tried to refocus their family’s priorities.

AYANNA SMITH: I was definitely stretched too thin, just not turning down any opportunity to volunteer in my community, and with friends and family.

Part of me got a rush out of just being overwhelmed with things to do. There’s a lot of pressure on parents to feel that they’re raising these perfectly well-rounded children. That can happen organically. They don’t have to have every minute and moment of their day scheduled for them. And I’m not sure we’re teaching them the best lessons by doing that.

WOMAN: You might need to work on yourself this week. We ask a lot of our kids to be independent, healthy, balanced.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Many of the moms and dads we spoke to say they want to gain a new outlook on parenting.

KAREN MAZIE: We take it on as another thing to understand and to conquer somehow. And so, yes, I’m here because I want to be insightful and sort of contemplative and being thoughtful about my parenting.

SEAN EPSTEIN: You do look at Facebook and you do see that their kid is reading. He’s 4. Why isn’t my kid reading the exact same book that he’s reading? And so you put those pressures on. You have got to remind yourself that you’re unique.

Author Jennifer Senior joins me now to talk about the challenges of modern parenting and the way it is evolving.

Thank you for being with us.

JENNIFER SENIOR, Author, “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood”: Thank you for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the premise of the book is that modern parenting, modern families have undergone huge changes over the last, what, half-a-century.


JUDY WOODRUFF: So, talk about how — what has happened. What has changed?

JENNIFER SENIOR: Three things. I will be brief about them, but, first, choice.

I know it seems very obvious to say. But we can now organize how many — we can plan how many kids we have. We can space them apart according to our desires, if we want to. Back in Plymouth Colony, there were eight kids. In 1950, there were five kids per family. Now there are two.

So, imagine how much value we assign to each kid and what kind of value we assign to parenthood generally that we didn’t before. Also, average age — let’s see — if you are middle-class woman, you have had a college education, you are, odds are, going to have your first kid at 30.3 years old. So just imagine how much free time you had before that, and how used to your autonomy you got. So that’s a big change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the economy has done much better. Many people are living better than they used to.

JENNIFER SENIOR: They’re living — yes, they’re living better than they used to.

So, of course, like, one hopes for happiness for one’s kids and one hopes for a certain level of comfort for one’s kids that one never did. I mean, your kids now survive into — yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in the middle of all this, the child — the role of the child and the way parents view their children has undergone a transformation.

JENNIFER SENIOR: You’re under — right.

You are now isolating what I think is the biggest change. The biggest change is the role of the child. Right until — right through the progressive era, so let’s say right through like 1920, kids worked. And this is not a particularly ethical thing, but it’s what — it’s how things are were.


JENNIFER SENIOR: Which means that, effectively, they were kicking money into the family till, and the more money — and the more children you had, the better off your family was.

They were economic assets. Once we banned child labor, it sort of — everything inverted, and we basically started working for our kids, because we now live in this world where it is very economically competitive, where incomes inequality is expanding. So if we want our kids to be viable and have the same chance at a middle-class life, what do we do?

We drive them to tennis. We check their homework. We drive them to Suzuki violin. We do all these things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We want their lives to be even better, as better than they can be from what their parents’ lives were. At the same time, moms are working.

And you just — you write, Jennifer, in traveling around the country about how much stress this is putting on the average middle-income American family.

JENNIFER SENIOR: Yes. Now you have named the third thing that I think is the biggest change.

We work different. And, namely, mothers are — the vast majority of moms are now in the paid work force. So you would think we would have rules and scripts and norms for how to handle this between husbands and wives. And we don’t. And so the number one thing that husbands and wives fight about, it’s not money, it’s not sex. It’s chores. I mean, think about how…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Chores around the house.

JENNIFER SENIOR: Around the house.

So just — it’s the domestic division of labor. So, just think about how much pressure is on this tiny couple when they’re both working, odds are, right? They want to do as good a job as they can and cultivate their children as much as they can, and spend — women now spend more time with their kids than they did in the 1960s. There is a fun fact for you.

Cultivate their kids.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But feel guilty about not spending even more time.

JENNIFER SENIOR: This is the great misconception.

Women all think that — working women in particular think that they are neglecting their children. Their mothers who were not working were spending all of their time cleaning the house and making meals and stuff, keeping an impeccable house, whereas now our houses are filthy, according to the American…


JENNIFER SENIOR: … survey, but we spend time with our kids.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But — which gets to the title, “All Joy and No Fun.”


JENNIFER SENIOR: There is a lot of drudgery involved in this. I think, moment to moment, there has been lots of convincing evidence that shows that our well-being is compromised by these strains.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And which gets to the deeper point here, Jennifer Senior, that somehow it’s gotten out of whack for many of us in terms of the emphasis that we place on what we need to do for our kids.


And I think actually one of the more peculiar outcomes in this situation is that we don’t only feel like we need to cultivate our children and prepare them, you know — we don’t know what the world is going to look like, so we drive them all over creation and do what we can.

But I think we also feel like we should be custodians of their happiness. That is a very recent development. And no less than Benjamin Spock warned that American parents were going to try and do this. In the 1960s, he saw this coming. And he said, this isn’t a good idea. There is no curriculum for this. How do you make a kid happy?  You should teach them how to do things and how to be good people, but, I mean, happy? That’s a very hard thing to teach.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so as I ask you what is the golden mean…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … let me also ask you, as you say very candidly, this is a book mainly about middle-income, middle-class Americans…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … working-class Americans in a different situation?


I mean, you know, in some ways, these are high-class problems. If you are going two-and-a-half-hours each way to your minimum wage job and trying to figure out where to put your child while you’re working, is that a problem — is that a poverty problem or a parenting problem? If you are working-class, if you actually have a steady wage, you are slightly above, I met working-class parents — and there is a couple in here who I profiled pretty extensively — who feel the exact same immense pressures, and who will spend every last nickel on cultivating their kids.

And, also, they don’t have great child care options. Where do you put your kid? In after-school programs that cost you money. That’s what you do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That is something for all of us to think about.

All right, the book is “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.”

Jennifer Senior, thank you.

JENNIFER SENIOR: Thank you. Thanks.

GWEN IFILL: Online, we have posted an excerpt from “All Joy and No Fun.”  Also, read about where the U.S. ranks in Save the Children’s latest annual report on the well-being of mothers and children around the world.