Monday, March 3, 2014

The Psychology and Philosophy of Parenting - Book Review of All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior

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Not Your Usual Parenting Book

I knew I had to read this book because the title is exactly how I describe parenting to my friends - my kids bring me a lot of happiness, but not a lot of fun. I don't say this out of resentment, just acceptance - fun to me is snowboarding or getting drunk with friends; I love playing with my kids but it's just not the same. And in five words, the title captures this very well.

And unlike other parenting books I've read, this one is not by a pediatrician, a pastor or a nanny. It doesn't tell you how to be a better parent. Jennifer Senior is a contributing editor at New York magazine. She is first a writer, and she writes well. The book is an expertly woven tapestry of snapshots into the family lives of her interviewees, cross-referenced with meticulous research from psychology, sociology and other related disciplines, put together in a very readable way.

She is also a parent, and her son is just slightly older than mine. This is a book on the effects of children on their parents. Depending on what stage you are at, it can tell you what to expect, or why you feel certain types of stress and how you can start to deal with them, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Who Should Read This?

Parents of all ages, because this book will give you greater insights into why you are struggling to adjust to parenting, and you will know you are not alone. You may even start to find some answers.

Expecting couples, because now that there is no turning back, at least you can start to be mentally prepared.

And of course, those in a relationship who want to convince their significant others never to have kids.


What's In It?

Although she sequences her book chronologically according to stages of family life — from autonomy to adolescence — there are three key themes that run through the whole book: three recent developments that have made modern parenting rather different from past experience.

The first is choice - the choice of when each child should come, and how large each family should be. In the past, having children was viewed as a family obligation or an economic necessity, but today the couples who choose to have children see them as a product of marriage, “approach child-rearing with the same bold sense of independence and individuality that they would any other ambitious life project, spacing children apart according to their own needs and raising them according to their individual child-rearing philosophies”. And on top of having choices, suddenly "we've been told it's our right (obligation, in fact) to try to fulfill them." Talk about pressure.

The second development is the increasing complications of work. Modern technology has allowed most people to be on call for work long after they reach home. There has also been a major trend toward working mothers. This means that at home in the evenings, both parents will be juggling their kids and their email.

But the biggest change is the "wholesale transformation of the child's role, both in the home and in society." Up till very recently (Senior sees WWII as the turning point), children had to work. School was a luxury for most. In the last few decades, "children stopped working, and parents worked twice as hard. Children went from being our employees to our bosses." Or in the words of sociologist Viviana Zelizer, the modern child is "economically worthless but emotionally priceless".

Every so often, conversations with other parents will turn to wondering how our grandparents could raise 5 to 9 kids, whereas we struggle with just 1 or 2. These three observations, which are developed in great detail, help explain why.

Some Thoughts

Although the book is written in the American context, it definitely rings a chord in Asia as well. In the latter parts of the book, there are discussions on overscheduled kids and Tiger moms, juggling extra curricular activies, extra classes and becoming extra artistic. On top of the traditional obsession with sports and the outdoors, the Americans now find themselves under pressure from Asian immigrants to level up on their academics as well.

And although this book is written by a woman, and definitely sympathises with women on an issue that could be quite divisive between the genders, I found that she also represented the fathers and the dilemmas they faced very fairly as well.

One thing I definitely enjoyed, nerd that I am, is the extensive research. 25% of the book is made up of the notes and index! And among some of the books cited most are some of my personal favourite psychologists, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Flow and Daniel Kahneman of Thinking, Fast and Slow. It is very interesting how she has interpreted their theories, and others, in the context of parenting.

One theme I would have been interested to have seen developed more was why people choose to have kids, at all. But that would probably have been an even bigger undertaking.

Overall, I highly recommend this book, especially to those three groups of people I listed above.


Quotable Quotes

The book is also filled with very clever phrases, some her own and some cited from others. Here are a few of my favourites:

“parents are no happier than non parents, and in certain cases considerably less happy”

"Children strain our everyday lives, in other words, but also deepen them."

"Many women can't tell whether they're supposed to be grateful for the help that they're getting or enraged by the help they're failing to receive"

"But we can never choose or change our children. They are the last binding obligation in a culture that asks for almost no other permanent commitments at all."