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Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Review: All Joy and No Fun

One of the most useful tools in your problem-solving tool-set is "inversion." You take a problem an invert it, and sometimes that yields unusually interesting and creative solutions. Jennifer Senior has taken the normal parenting book and inverted it, and the result is All Joy and No Fun. Not only is it a rolicking fun read, it also provides insight and viewpoints that no other parenting book has provided. If you're reading this and a busy parent, just skip the rest of the review and buy it and read it. It is that good.

The usual parenting book focuses on what you, the parent, can do to best optimize your child's growth. All Joy and No Fun instead looks at the impact children have on their parents. The resulting insight is not only interesting, it is useful. For instance, in Chapter 2, Senior describes a couple where the man secretly sleep trains his youngest child without telling his wife. She accuses him of not doing the parenting work, but rather than admit that he's sleep training his child on the side, he'd rather let her think he's lazy. That kind of dynamic happen frequently, but this was the first parenting book I've seen to acknowledge and recognize it. Being that Senior is a woman, you'd expect her to take the woman's side in this, but instead, she points out that the French also enforce strict boundaries on their children, which makes the parents happier, less conflict prone and as a result is also better for the children:
since few American women have French mothers sitting around their homes, ready to show them the way, they may do better to take their cues from a model that's more readily available: the good fathers they know. Who may in fact be their own husbands. Because odds are, these men have something valuable to teach. (pg. 92)
The book acknowledges that parenting is not liable to bring you happiness. She talks to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who wrote Flow)  who points out that you can only enter Flow when you have autonomy and control. Well, when parenting, you definitely don't have autonomy, and anyone attempting to control a toddler soon discovers the futility of that measure. (Senior quotes a study where psychologically healthy kindergarteners only listen to their mothers 55% of the time --- not a good recipe for happiness pg. 69) Since Flow is the most enduring form of happiness, parenting is a good way of eliminating the major source of happiness from your life. No wonder my mom was so cranky when I was growing up.

Senior doesn't end her book when kids start elementary school. She covers the overscheduled elementary and junior high students and the uncertainty their parents feel as to how to go about educating their kids now that vocational training is no longer part of the vernacular of an upper middle-income household. Implicit in her chapter on this is what I consider one of the strongest criticism of current American culture as it is practiced in the suburbs: the disappearance of free time to practice and discover autonomy with friends, usually neighbors. As a result of this over-scheduling, there's no one in the neighborhood for children to spend free time with. Because every hour of their days are scheduled, school-age children have little control over their lives. Ironically, the easiest place to rediscover autonomy, creativity, socialization, and get positive feedback is in the virtual spaces like Minecraft, leading parents who hate video games to complain about how much time gets wasted in those virtual spaces. Of course, rather than ban video games, it rarely occurs to the American parent that granting kids outdoor time would be a better approach. Unfortunately, of course, this approach couldn't work unless everyone did it all at once, and in the age of super-competitive college admissions, good luck!

No book on parenting would be complete without discussing the dreaded teenage years. I enjoyed this chapter of the book, as more than anything else, it's a good guide to what to expect. In particular, Senior quotes studies reflecting that parents of the same gendered child gets hit the hardest at adolescence. Basically, everything that embarrassed you, caused you grief or regrets will surface when your child hits adolescence because via proxy, you get to relive all the problems you had when you were younger. This explains why parents want to control their teenagers: they wish them to avoid the mistakes they made, but of course, parents are usually out of touch with the state of the teen world by the time their kids become teenagers, which leads to a massive disconnect. The book provides an anecdote where one parent actively disparages Beyonce, but after a longer conversation with her daughter discovered that she thought that Beyonce was someone else, and was much mortified.

The book closes with a chapter on the meaning of being a parent. If parenting makes people so unhappy, why do they do it? Are people really that bound to tradition or peer pressure? Senior makes a point that meaning, purpose, and joy are separate from happiness. Happiness is a moment to moment thing, while purpose and joy take place over long periods of time. The research on happiness discusses the "Remembering Self" versus the "Present Self": the "Remembering Self" is what you feel upon reflection, as to whether all that hard work is worth it, and that's what people think of when they decide to become parents. This seems rather pat to me, since there must be parents who do regret raising children. I'm not sure it can be summed up that easily. In any case, I'd never tell people to have children: it's too deeply personal a choice for one person to be able to say much about another person's circumstances.

The biggest weakness of the book is that it frequently performs argument by anecdote. While the author provides plenty of references at the end of the book, it's hard to distinguish when she's quoting real research and when she's just providing opinions.

Nevertheless, this is a great book and I enjoyed reading it. Highly recommended.

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