Parenting advice: 'All Joy and No Fun' author

Feb 20, 2014

Jennifer Senior is a contributing editor at New York Magazine and author of 'All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.'

Jennifer Senior here. So delighted to take your questions this morning! Thank you for tuning in, so to speak. Looks like there are some good ones already in the queue. Amy, are we ready?

Hi all! Welcome to our discussion with Jennifer Senior, author of "All Joy and No Fun." I so enjoyed reading this book and found myself nodding my head endlessly. Here is the Q&A I did with Senior recently.

Hop in with your questions, we'll get to as many as we can.

Do you see future movements in how Internet use will change parenting? It seems children are spending greater amount of time on the computers yet I wonder if this amount has maxed out or not.

This is an excellent question, one that comes up repeatedly when I talk to parents. Let me say this: First of all, one of the reasons children - teens in particular - enjoy their screen time is because it's some of the only non-scheduled time they've got. It was Mimi Ito, an anthropologist at UC Irvine, who first pointed this out to me. So paradoxically (and I'm reluctant to be prescriptive here, because my book certainly isn't; it's DEscriptive), one thing parents might want to consider is creating more free time in their kids' schedules, just for them to much around. (Also, the less tight a leash they put on their kids in the real world, letting them see friends in outside environments, etc, I'm guessing the less time they'll spend on Facebook.)

There's another way to look at this question, though, which is to ask how the Internet has changed our approach to parenting. I think there's a plague of contradictions out there. If you want to find out how to treat a second-degree burn, quickly, the internet's probably ideal (as is calling 911). But for more personal and idiosyncratic questions, it can be a minefield, and a source of real anguish, I find. Also, as a sidenote: I find Facebook family photos singularly tyrannizing. Remember all those perfect pictures of kids sitting in pumpkin patches during Halloween? Remember, a number of them were having meltdowns on the car on the way there.

I have a six month old child. I love him dearly and cherish our time together, but the rest of my life seems dreary in comparison. Will this burn off eventually?

You are reminding me of a very funny line once uttered by the social scientist Roy Baumeister, who once said "kids are a tremendous source of joy; they just turn the rest of your life into ****." (I will leave it to you to fill in the asterisks.) I think that the early months of childrearing are by far the most grueling, and the data clearly says the same thing - the ages of zero to three are especiall hard. Parents are more sleep-deprived than they'll ever be, they have fewer social ties than they'll eventually have (which is to say, they are lonelier.) Your world enlarges considerably once your child goes to classes and/or school - suddenly there's a whole network of other parents around you.

How do you encourage parents to stop the self-inflicted unrealistic expectations of parenting perfection, without making doing that yet another mom project in itself? You can buy parenting books that teach you how often to break the rules, complete with charts!

OMG this is so true. My book is descriptive, as I said before, and not prescriptive, and I think part of the reason it's that way )in addition to the fact that I'm a reporter/enthogrpaher by nature, and I love case studies and data) is because I find that wall of books at Barnes & Noble so daunting, including the ones that claim they're going to simplify your life (who wants to read an ENTIRE BOOK about SIMPLIFYING things?) So, here's what I'd say: Always bear in mind that raising kids is something parents have done long before parenting experts and peer-reviewed studies came along. Your own mother probably had one book on her nghtstand, by Dr. Spock, and I'm guessing you turned out just fine. Also bear in mind that this is a strange, ahistorical time we're living in - the world is changing so fast we don't know what we're preparing our kids FOR anymore, so virtually everyone is improvising, not just you. 

When I was in high school, I was told it was really really important to learn Japanese - that if I didn't, I'd be ill-prepared for the world. With all due respect to the Japanese, that didn't happen. So if you're agonizing about teaching your kid Mandarin right now, please keep that in mind. We can't predict the future. 

Currently I am a middle school principal and mother of 2 teens. My philosophy around parenting teens on social media has become more open over time as i find it hard to filter and manage for my own teens. Some of my own advice to parents has been to really know your teen more, take the time to spend more time with them and their friends. It is very difficult to control their devices when they go over to other teens houses, various cafes and stores, and school. I am curious what advice you share with parents on this matter? The media world is constantly changing and we need to change with it.

Your approach sounds very reasonable. I agree that our teenagers are living in a world in which multiple screens are inevitable. We can wring our hands about it, but I'm not sure what good that does: People were wringing their hands about comic books when they first appeared - the Senate Judiciary Committee had a special hearing on them, even, because people were convinced they were going to turn our teenagers into monsters.

What's confusing about today's technology, I think, is that there's an inverted order in the house: Your kid likely knows more about these devices than you do. They know how to get around controls you place on the Internet; you have to ask THEM to be your friend on facebook. But here's the upside: When kids misbehave, they're now doing it from their own bedrooms. They stay INSIDE and use these devices, often.

And look, you can spend all your time trying to monitor who they're talking to and what they're planning on doing, but the truth is, if you discover that your kid has plans to smoke pot on a Friday evening, you have to ask yourself: Is this any different from what I DID? Maybe it is; maybe it isn't. But I suspect the real thing to manage, when it comes to technology, is our own feelings when we learn these things.

The final thing I'll say about this: It's true that a lot of what our kids do now is more mysterious. I didn't have my own phone as a kid. I had the family phone. My parents always knew who called. I didn't have my own computer, or Facebook. So if you want to know what your kid's up to, you can't monitor them passively anymore. You have to actively snoop. For some parents, that's comfortable. For others, it isn't. I think your solution, of having more face-to-face chats with teens, is a really great solution.

I have two kids, now 7 and 5. I look back on my frazzled early days and wish I could have seen and felt the joy more then. I am SO much more able to enjoy it now, but I wish I had understood then how great some (some!) of it was. It's not regrets I have, exactly, but maybe a little melancholy about not enjoying it more in the moment. Thoughts?

Yes. I feel the same thing. My child is six. Like I've missed the boat - that I was too harried and tired and anxious to enjoy some of the great stuff when he was really little. I think we ALL feel that way. It is exceptionally hard to live in each moment, especially when our kids are young. I write about this in my book:  Young children have very immature prefrontal cortexes - the part of the brain that plans, controls impulses, etc - which means that while they may be joyful in the moment, they also have no sense of time (they tend to live in the permanent present), and you, as a parent, do: There's deadlines to be met. School to go to, chores to be done, a job (possibly, don't know your situ) to go to. It's VERY hard to enjoy the present when you, as the adult, are responsible for steering the ship.

Like so many others, I find the endless competition of parenting both tyrannical and fascinating. There are the obvious competitions -- milestones and whose kid is more of a genius and whatnot, and then the Pinterest competitions to have the best birthday parties and most awesome kid rooms (is anybody actually building those three-story reading nooks?). But then I see the anti-competition (I don't need any of that hippie organic crap, I'm not some kind of anti-television snob, my kid eats chips and doughnuts and I'M PROUD OF IT, etc). Do you think we'll ever hit a critical mass and go back to just letting our kids grow up and assuming that they will most likely be fine?

I, too, am kind of fascinated by competitive parenting in a reality-TV sort of way. But here's my real feeling about it: A few parents distort the picture in a major way. Go through the parents in your kids' class. I'm willing to bet (though maybe I'm wrong) that it's just three or four parents who treat childrearing as an Olympic sport, while the rest are just kinda trying to do what they can. The problem is that those four parents can make it seem like EVERYONE is nuts - in the same way that four cruel people in an office can make the whole environment seem mean. My suspicion is that most parents are in a more sane, average, middle place. That's certainly what I discovered doing book research - tremendous vulnerability on all of our parts, and a real resentment toward the parents who had a kind of arms race attitude toward birthday parties, escalating to the point of silliness.

Oh: And stop looking at Pinterest. I refuse. REFUSE.

While I know some people who take great joy in their children, my impression is that most parents do not, My husband and I are in our late 20's so still have time to decide on children, but we're currently leaning against it for just the reasons you detail. I hope a lot of people wrie in to refute your article, but I really don't expect that to happen.

My book has TONS about joy. If you decide you don't want kids, that's just great. But do remember that there are, in many parents' opinions, unrivaled moments of awe and transcendence one gets from having children; they're just harder to measure. (Or, at any rate, social scientists aren't bother to measure those things.) Parents tend to say they have more meaning in their lives than non-parents. They also talk about having left a legacy. They're often more self-conscious, in a good way, about their own behaviors, knowing a future generation is watching them. That's important. 

Also, I think we should maybe reframe this question. Is happiness and fun ALL that life is about? Or is it about meaning, service, duties, obligations?  In my view (not everyone's, but definitely mine), freedom isn't worth much unless you give it up for something. 

Another way to think about this question, maybe, is this: Do you want your life to be about moment-to-moment pleasure, or what's on your tombstone (ie, what you DID?). My grandfather lost the use of his left arm after he fought in the Pacific. But at the end of his life, he was certainly proud to have fought in WWII, and would have done it all over again.

Having kids may not be for you. Lord knows, there are thousands of ways to lead a meaningful life. But my book spends many, many pages about the kinds of rewards and meaning kids bring.

Hi Jennifer. I LOVED the book. I read passage out loud to my husband. My question is my near obsession with wanting to change the world for my kids. My teen is in 10th grade and the pressures on her are obscene. I don't helicopter, except in my head. I want to encourage her to do so she has choices, but the standards seem impossible for teens today.

First, THANK You. I love nothing more than hearing, "Say, I read aloud parts of your book to my husband!" Total thrill.

I so hear you about wanting to change the world for your kid. Me too. But you know - and I know - that we cannot. The most we can do is create decent atittudes in our own homes. It sounds like you're giving your child the latitude she needs; if you want to tell her that you sympathize with the pressures she faces and wish they'd go away, knock yourself out. Plenty of people have succeeded in this world without fancy college degrees and fluency in seven languages. I suspect, because you're her mom, this girl will be just fine.

Your book appears to contain way too much sensible advice that will make parents' lives easier and reassure them that they don't have to reinvent the wheel in dealing with children. Are early reader reactions characterized by relief more than any other emotion? I suspect so. But have you had to deal with angry readers, too?

Thank you for this question! Yes, the most flattering rxn I get to this book is relief - NEVER underestimate the hedonic power of relief! But yes, I've had to contend with anger too. Less than I would have suspected though. Parenting stirs up all sorts of deep, primal feelings. So, you know. It comes with the turf.

I came home from work on Tuesday after a long day of work and with a weekend tending to snow at my elderly parents house in another state. My son, a 9th grader and musician, told me to sit down. He played me the intro and first solo section of the jazz ballad "Misty" on tenor saxophone. I left the room after he was done so he didn't see me tear up. For the 20-something sitting on the fence...it is the hardest job you will ever do, raising kids. But the good moments are way better than anything you can imagine.

And there you have it, in a nub.

In This Chat
Amy Joyce
Amy Joyce has been at The Post for, well, a long time. Her first reporting stint was in the Business section, writing a workplace column. She moved from writing about work to editing about fun for the Weekend and Going Out Guide sections. Now, she’s sending her attention toward the world of kids and parenting. When not at work, she can be seen dodging wiffle balls in her front yard.
Jennifer Senior
Jennifer Senior is a contributing editor at New York Magazine, where she writes profiles and cover stories about politics and social science. She has been a frequent guest on NPR and numerous television programs, including Charlie Rose, The Chris Matthews Show, Hardball, Morning Joe, Washington Journal with Brian Lamb, CNN/American Morning, and NBC/Today. She is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review. She lives in New York with her husband and young son.
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