What Ails Modern Parents?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Jan. 26 2014 8:18 PM

What Ails Modern Parents?

Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun, on the fraught state of raising kids.

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Slate: Do you think that part of modern parents not enjoying parenthood is a question of control? As you point out, men and women are single for much longer than they were in previous decades. So we feel like we can really shape our lives, and then we’re shocked and confused when we can’t control our lives after we have kids, and we can’t control their lives either.

Senior: It’s a great point. Like I said in the book, this is the one binding obligation we have. You can change your job, your husband, you can change where you live—we’ve got unprecedented mobility. But you can’t walk away from your child.

But you’re saying something, which is much more nuanced, which is that you also can’t change the outcome. You can’t control who they become—you can, but only a little bit.

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Slate: Exactly. I see this as the mother of a baby—we all seem obsessed with what we eat when we’re pregnant and whether we’re breast-feeding, when it really doesn’t matter as much as we think it does. It’s this feeling we can control outcomes.

Senior: Children are constantly in the business of upending our illusions of control. I think that’s particularly true in the teen years. This SUNY psychologist I spoke to, Joanne Davila, said the parents of kids in their elementary school years can help their children become someone who the parents think their kids should become. But once you hit the teen years, parents have to help their kids become who the kids want to become. And accepting that is so insane for some parents. It’s so hard.

Slate: Your book doesn’t try to give advice, but I did come away with a great tidbit. There’s a father of three in the book, Clint, whose wife, Angie, worries about whether she’s a good enough mother. Clint does not worry about whether he’s a good enough parent, and he doesn’t worry about what other parents do. He says: “I am the standard.” I’ve said that to myself any number of times since I read the book: “I’m not going to care about what the moms in my moms group do. I am the standard!”

Senior: Men really are more inclined to say that to themselves. They just don’t have all that static electricity coming in through those channels. I mean, they don’t have a dads group, probably. They’re not on parenting message boards as mothers might be. If the kid’s having a problem, they’re not the ones running off to the bookshelf for the parenting book, looking in the index to see if they’ve been doing it right or wrong all along, or if there’s a quote “better way.” They don’t know their way around BabyCenter.

And you know, they still get points just for being actively involved. We are still at the point where they are getting points! I look at how easy my husband is on himself  around my son sometimes, and I just think, “I have to take my cues from this guy.” I’m sure it’s what made me look at Clint with the same eye.

Slate: Were there any other experiences you had writing the book that you think changed the way you parented?

Senior: Early on when I was just doing my archival spelunking, I came across a body of studies that talked about the fact that parents who are self-regulating—where it’s one of their core character strengths—are not necessarily happier people, but it’s one of the best predictors for your kid’s happiness. I didn’t put it in the book, for one, because the book is about parents, not about children and their outcomes.

But I also I thought it seemed slightly punitive to put it in, because we know this. We know kids do not do well when they get screamed at. It makes perfect intuitive sense that you should control yourself as well as you can. But I have to say, seeing how well it worked out when someone didn’t lose his shit? Amazing. But I’m not saying I can always do it.

Slate: What was the biggest surprise for you in your research?

Senior: That adolescent girls expressed all those violent wishes toward their mothers. They didn’t enact their violent impulses, but they actually express the wish to hurt their parents more than boys do. I never thought girls were so precious, but I was really surprised by that.

There’s only so much you can learn through structured studies that take place in university labs, but there seems to be a very consistent thread running through them: That about every three minutes a mom had to say something because she needed to redirect the course of her toddler. That’s a lot. I bet if I had timed myself, it would have worked out that way when my kid was 2.

This interview has been condensed and edited.