Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting is a fascinating, essay-like dissection of modern parenting, specifically honing in on American parenting as the primary manifestation of “modern parenting.” Within the framework of modern parenting, concepts such as parenting itself and terms such as childhood are relatively new, both in their vernacular existence and their conceptualization, and the author places modern parenting as something that has arisen only within the last seventy years.
In an attempt to explore the ways in which parenting affects parents (differing from the normal reverse examination), Senior examines modern parenting from multiple angles: from psychology (and its many outworkings), anthropology and global parenting perspectives, to sociology, historic manifestations, and even economic reflections.
Research that compares how global parenting stands in comparison with American parenting (as well as subsets of Western parenting) is always a fascinating field to me, both as a global nomad at heart and now as a parent who seems to never completely fit into one specific categorization of parenting. These two foci made this read particularly enchanting for me, and I’m sure it will for many others with similar interests.
For those who have already read some contemporary writing on parenting explored from global parenting perspectives, most will be familiar with some of the resources that comprised Senior’s pool of comparisons, not surprisingly bringing in recognizable terminology and anecdotes from works such as Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé. At points, it seems a bit redundant in this area, but these observations will still provide helpful reference points and interest for both the novice and well-versed readers in this field.
Fans of popular psychology and philosophy will also be cognizant of many of the ways in which Senior cross-pollinates this information into her specific study of modern parenting. One concept that the author frequently returns to is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s study of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The author returns to the fact that it is incredibly difficult for parents to feel they are achieving flow within parenting, and yet parenting can be incredibly fulfilling at times. This is part of the paradox that, according to her, makes modern parentings seem “all joy and no fun.” She also notes that parenting is a notably absent theme in Csikszentmihalyi’s writings on flow, something that Senior and Csikszentmihalyi were able to discuss in person, in a conversation the author relates in the book. (I’ll spare the spoilers!)
Senior also explores how societal norms and expectations of modern life have only very recently shifted to create differences in parenting that are unique to modern parenting, from economics to technology. With many young adults choosing to delay marriage, choosing to delay children (and thus, many having five plus years to focus on marriage), and many seeing children as the fulfillment of their own personal planning, parenting looks very different than it did both one hundred and one thousand years ago, in a way that stands out in the history of marriage and family.
Because (modern) marriage is also seen as a sheltered loop of personal fulfillment (and therefore, in modern parenting), this is why many marriages experience children as a disruption to the marriage, rather than a natural and expected marital result. (Senior even notes this is why many new parents often cling to the concept of “date night” as the necessary preservative for a healthy marriage, an observation I’ve also tended to place within the same natural outworking of how marriage is viewed.) Of course, children also occur outside of marriage and outside of two-parent homes, and Senior does delve into this, as well.
Perhaps personally paradoxically (though probably not surprising if you read here often or know me well in person), my parenting doesn’t fit into the norms of either American or modern parenting, but it is nonetheless something that fascinates me: more from a sociological observation than a field of personal application. We’ve not planned, prevented, or delayed childbearing in the way that many of our counterparts have, and so this starting ground already causes a rather different perspective of a child’s role in the family, as well as the parental expectations. We often educate, nurture, or prepare for our children in the ways that many of our modern-parent counterparts do, as well. Within and beyond these areas, I was reminded of both how very different my parenting looks from modern parenting, as well as the ways in which we’ve clearly identified ourselves as modern American parents, usually without even realizing it. (In both areas, these characterizations aren’t necessarily moral, amoral, or immoral, but span a broad range of explanations and purposes, parenting by necessity in this age and within a certain cultural framework.) So, in many ways, I read this as an outsider looking in; but at the same time, I also read the book as a surprisingly detailed analysis of my own parenting.
Senior repeatedly emphasizes that this book is not written to encapsulate parenting among the upper or upper middle class, yet at times her scope seems to include parenting from within those realms, as well. (Nor is it able to address the specific concerns of many of America’s lower class parents dealing with extreme circumstances.) But as a whole, she does seem to cover many of the challenges, stigmas, triumphs, and trends within middle class modern parenting, as is stated that this is her focus.
Whether you consider yourself a modern parent or you’ve been parenting more like a Tiger Mother or more like a tribal Amazonian, you’ll probably find All Joy and No Fun descriptive of your own parenting at varying points, while remaining societally observational at others. Or, you might just find that you fit precisely the modern parenting stereotype.
Beyond classifications, it’s also helpful to delve into many of the societal constructs that practically affect our parenting. While this is no means an instructive book on parenting, considering the roles of modernity and societal changes will inevitably lead those within the “trenches of parenting” to consider reasons why they parent the way they do, and perhaps in some cases, to also change course or technique. If nothing else, there will be a lot of “aha!” moments along the way.
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