Book review: All Joy and No Fun

All Joy and No Fun
By Jennifer Senior
Published by Harper Collins Ecco
ISBN 978-00620722221
Review copy provided by the publisher

Review by Ginger Mayerson

Modern parenting – duty or privilege? Or something else?

Full disclosure: I chose not to have kids.

I don’t have anything against kids or families, mostly I salute them for their bravery and grit when I’m not feeling sorry for them because they seem so stressed out and miserable most of the time. Apparently I’m not the only one who’s noticed this and wondered about it, but I didn’t write a whole book about it. Jennifer Senior’s book, “All Joy and No Fun,” is an entertaining read with the facts and research seamlessly and painlessly integrated into the illuminating anecdotes. It focuses mainly on the middle class family, divorced moms, and one grandmother raising kids in the 21st Century. These people worked hard to have these kids, work hard to raise them, and worry like crazy about the future of these kids. They worry in kindergarten about what kind of job the kid can get in the future job market when the kid graduates from college in fifteen years. They worry that the kid won’t be aggressive/assertive enough of a team player, so they have ’em in sports from soon after the kids starts staggering around on their little feet. In one family, the kid wanted to do sports, music, and a few other things outside of school. It seemed like it would be almost worth it for the mom to get a job just to hire a driver. And, yes, the parents know they’re exhausted, but raising a child is such an important thing that they’re working very hard at, so of course they’re exhausted because it’s a helluva lot of work because it needs to be a helluva lot of work in this tough future world that no one knows what it will be like yet, except that it will tough, maybe tougher than now. And, holy mackerel, it’s a tough world now so it’s more work to shield and prepare their children for it. It’s such a tough, exhausting, dangerous, economically dire, stressed, vicious, cold, insert-your-own-alarming-adjective-here world these wan and pale middle class people are preparing their children for, does it ever occur to the parents in this book to get out of the Suzuki violin class and make the world a better place so they can relax a little about their child’s future? I mean, it’s too late to consider what kind of a world you wanted to bring a kid into, but it’s never too late to do something to make it a better world you brought your kid into. But, oh well, that’s not what the book is about. This book is about how children affect parents, and it seems kids wear their parents out because parents are pouring their lives, souls, marriages, and happiness into raising their kids. And this supreme sacrifice is freaking exhausting!

Well, okay. Near the end of the book Ms. Senior talked to George Vaillant who is an older guy who had kids back in the day because that’s what you did when you got married was have kids. And you raised your family as part of your life. You did not have kids to become to attain enlightenment or something through them. That’s betting the house, job, and retirement fund on a developing brain in a little body that just wants to have a good time. “Perhaps Vaillant is simply a product of his generation. Men of his age don’t associate children with self-actualization. They had children because that’s what they were supposed to do.” (page 250) I got the impression that for Senior’s parent interviewees raising their kids IS their life, and that this leads to many existential crises, the biggest ones being adolescence. (I have a solution for the whole family for adolescence: boarding school, where everyone can endure all the necessary separation things in a safe environment and learn some stuff, too.) The freak out starts when the kid hits puberty and starts to become (oh the horror) their own freaking person. Or at least as much of their own freaking person as they can be. Senior presents research indicating that technology allows kids to extend the parental tether for much farther and much longer than even my silly generation could. Whether texting between child and parent counts as nurturing, it gives both parties a false sense of security and connection. Senior had more than one story of kids off the leash texting reassuring messages to the folks at home while they did wild and crazy teen things.

And the teen years are really the only growing up years these kids can do wild and crazy kid things. None of the kids in Senior’s book were allowed/encouraged/or even motivated to run down the street or to the park by themselves or in an unsupervised pack and play like little maniacs. If I hadn’t been able to run all over the neighborhood with my dog and play with the kids down the street, out of my parent’s sight, I would have fewer happy memories. Maybe it was just where I grew up in moderately safe times (the last big child kidnapping was the Lindberg baby) in an obscure suburb with enough adults around during the day to keep a discreet eye on us kiddos so if we were hit by a car or menaced in some way or tried to kill each other, these unseen adults could intervene. At least I hope they were there; I’ve never actually thought about this until now.

So in the post-Snowden U.S.A., a country where we are all worried and annoyed by surveillance, the upcoming generation (Generation Watched) is under more surveillance than Winston Smith, and like it more because they don’t know anything else. I guess this is okay because it’s been going on for a while and is unlikely to be changed by the statistics that most kidnapping, child abuse, and molestations are perpetrated by family members or people familiar with the family. The tragedies of Samantha Runnion and J.C. Duggard loom too large in society’s nightmares.

Children are wonderful, but they’re also important because they keep the species and whatever stage of civilization they inherit going. They are the future because hopefully they will live on beyond their parents’ generation. However, the future is as unknowable as it is inevitable, and, yes, of course parents should do the very best they can for their offspring, but how much can you really prepare a kid for life you think they should live without brainwashing and sensory deprivation? Eventually that adult person who was your kid is going to stand or fall on their own, no matter how much land and money they wind up with. And this is the worrying thing for me because by the time I’m in the nursing home watching whatever passes for MSNBC, the U.S. will be passing into the hands of adults who might feel somewhat sucker punched that life does not organize itself as neatly for them as mom and dad used to organize it. Whatever 2040 looks like, it’s gonna be interesting.