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I found this book fascinating, enjoyable and sometimes mildly frustrating. It was fun to read, and I learned a lot.
This is not a book about child-rearing but about the effects of child-rearing on middle-class American parents, and the results are interesting and sometimes sobering. Chapters deal consecutively with the impact of early parenting on parents' sense of autonomy, effects on marriage, some of the joys of having young children, the demands -- especially social demands -- on parents of pre-adolescent children, and the vicissitudes of the adolescent years.
In the chapter on the loss of autonomy, Senior uses interviews with parents as well as a review of the literature to tell her story, a juxtaposition which occurs throughout the book. She writes well and can capture the spirit of parent-child interactions. She writes, for example, of a toddler who was proving recalcitrant to find his underwear but did find it. "'You did find your green underwear," Angie (his mother) exclaims. 'Good job!' She beams and pounces on it, as if it were a bridal bouquet." Babies and toddlers are immensely demanding and require a great deal of parental time. In 2004, a study indicated that women ranked child care sixteenth of nineteen possible pleasurable activities. The author suggests that some of this relates to the fact that babies and toddlers employ primary process thinking: so do psychotic people. Delightful as they can be, very young children do not think as we do, and they often, by our faulty definitions, are mad, which can make them, temporarily, unpleasant to be around. At the same time, in a not unrelated phenomenon, toddlers are asking central and even classically philosophical questions and are fascinating to spend time with. Senior does a marvelous job of addressing these points, with examples and studies . Young children have their own agendas, and it can be difficult for parents to synchronize with them.
The next chapter addresses the effects of children on their parents' marriages. As children grow into and beyond the toddler stage, they like rules but do not always follow them. Depending in part on parental reaction, anarchy can ensue, and if this occurs frequently, it can cause significant marital strain.
But there is more to this strain than children's misbehavior. Senior cites a 2009 study of 132 couples which found that 90 per cent had less satisfaction in their marriage after the birth of a first child. In a 2003 meta-analysis, only 38 per cent of mothers of infants had above-average marital satisfaction. Much of the dissatisfaction has to do with the sheer work of child care. Women work much more in the workplace than they used to do, and men do more housework and child care. Fathers do far more than they used to, but still less than mothers, even when both work full time. And fathers overestimate the amount they do, which can make mothers angry. Fathers also tend to take "short cuts" in both housework and child care. That said, satisfaction with the division of labor seems to be based on a perception that each spouse is helping the other, rather than the exact percentage of work provided.
Another dissatisfier is that, although socializing with other adults in formal activities involving children increases greatly once a couple has a child, informal socializing with close friends decreases enormously, as does socializing related to hobbies and interests.
And parents today tend not to live close to siblings and parents, closing sometimes potentially excellent sources of support and child care.
In the United States, mothers rather than fathers make most of the demands on and commands to children, and there is a toll for this as well.
The third chapter recounts some of the many pleasures of parenting young children and seems a bit out of place at this juncture of the book. Much of it is devoted to the story of and commentary by a grandmother who adopted her dead daughter's young child, and this is poignant. Using examples and studies, Senior demonstrates that immersion into children's worlds allows adults a rare, socially approved opportunity to regress, which is fun. Children "create wormholes in time, transporting their mothers and fathers back to feelings and sensations they haven't had since they themselves were young." And again, "Young children can go a long way toward yanking grown-ups out of their silly preoccupations and cramped little mazes of self-interest -- not just relieving their parents of their egos, but helping them aspire to something better." The author argues persuasively that the immature frontal cortex of young children makes them both frustrating and, at other times, liberating.
The fourth chapter is largely on school-aged children and especially their (and their parents') interaction with society. In this chapter, Senior considers "overscheduled" parents, the role of peer pressure on parents and their selection of childhood activities, the growing expectation that a central parental duty is to entertain their children (and the ubiquitous proxy of electronic entertainment) and the increasing involvement of parents in activities such as homework, which used to be primarily children's responsibility, with some help from parents. ("Homework is the new dinner," Senior writes.)
I found much of this chapter quite sad, especially the frenetic and unremitting (and unnecessary) pace of the parents' (and children's) activities. Senior offers a well-researched historical approach to this phenomenon. Until the ;late nineteenth century, while some children in the United states and Europe attended school beyond the first grades, most worked -- including many of those who were also in school. With the success of the Progressive Era, this situation gradually changed, and children, freed from the workplace, gained increasing free time, much of it used for play. In 1905 there were fewer than 100 public playgrounds in the United States. By 1919 there were just under four thousand. Play was largely unsupervised, a social activity in which children often made the rules. Before the Progressive Era, toys were relatively few and often manufactured at home. As mass-produced toys became available, most were used in social play -- tops, balls, jump-ropes. Today, unsupervised play is much less common, and play is structured and planned by adults. Social toys are being replaced by solitary ones, especially electronic ones. The family's time is consumed by the structured activity of its children. One wonders about the effect of all this on the functioning and cohesiveness of the family as a whole.
The author has several illustrations of and comments about this phenomenon. "Behind every overscheduled child is a mother or father filling out forms, hustling from T-ball to ice-skating to chess lessons, and, in many instances, going through the same paces the child is, from learning the violin Suzuki-style to co-building miniature replicas of Reliant Stadium for school." And again, "After-school baseball isn't just Little League here. It's the right Little League team and a private batting tutor… Some kids start football before they can read." One mother tells the author, "If she doesn't do soccer at four, she'll never do a team sport."
Senior writes in this context about "the rise of the useless child". In discussing how parents now often do their children's homework she asks whether "homework is the new family dinner", concluding that "Maybe dinner should be the new family dinner."
I found this chapter fascinating and sad.
In the next chapter, Senior moves on to adolescence and paints a rather frightening picture of it, with some worst-case examples. We know from the extensive studies of Offer and his colleagues that most adolescents navigate the stage without much difficulty and pose relatively few problems for their parents. Senior cites Steinberg's research on parenting adolescents -- parents of the same gender as the adolescent generally have more difficulty. She cites Adam Phillips on some excesses of adolescence as well as some intriguing work by Galinski whose data demonstrate perceive their parents as unable to control their tempers. She provides a brief but currently accurate description of the adolescent brain, avoiding the exaggeration often found in these accounts.
She analyzes the role of parental identification and projection in adolescent parent-child conflict. This was an area of great interest in the 1950's but has largely been forgotten -- I am pleased that Service raises it again: it is important.
All Joy and No Fun is an impressive book, filled with data which are not widely known. It is realistic and does not preach. Many of the case examples are helpful in describing concepts. It is easy to read, and each chapter makes its points clearly. The author does a wonderful job of describing what is. She also does a wonderful job of describing her interviews with scientists who conducted some of the studies she described. Her account of her conversation with George Vaillant is poignant and compelling.
Any reader will find some negative features even in a fine book. In my view, while the case examples are helpful, they are sometimes much too long. While the synopsis of studies in the book is scientifically rigorous, the selection of case examples is far from random -- nor was it intended to be. But I wonder how typical many of the selected cases are. I do not like the concept of the "useless child" -- children from toddlers on enjoy work -- they are often not given much opportunity to do it. The "notes" at the end of the book are phrases of dubious help to the reader -- for example, "another landmark paper", though the actual index is well done. The acknowledgment section goes on forever. These are rather trivial criticisms.
I found this useful book disturbing and thought-provoking. Senior cites a study that mothers in Rennes, France, are more content than mothers in Columbus, Ohio. Part of this may have to do with free, high quality day-care in France, and part may be related to the fact that French middle-class families are far less child-centered than American middle-class families.
I wish the author had included an initial chapter on parental hopes, aspirations and expectations before the birth of a first (or subsequent) child. I wish she had written about the effects on siblings of some of the parental practices she discussed. I wish she had written more specifically about maternal guilt -- both pervasive and generally undeserved -- which appears to drive some of the excessive behaviors described. Winnicott's concept that mothers need not be perfect, just "good enough", would be helpful to many of the mothers depicted in this book.
The book is compelling and, at times, rather sad. I agree with Senior that dinner should perhaps be the new family dinner.
© 2014 Lloyd A. Wells
Lloyd A. Wells, Ph.D., M.D., Emeritus Consultant, Department of Psychiatry and Psychology. Mayo Clinic