TED2014

Jennifer Senior: For parents, happiness is a very high bar

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The parenting section of the bookstore is overwhelming—it's "a giant, candy-colored monument to our collective panic," as writer Jennifer Senior puts it. Why is parenthood filled with so much anxiety? Because the goal of modern, middle-class parents—to raise happy children—is so elusive. In this honest talk, she offers some kinder and more achievable aims.

- Writer
In her new book "All Joy and No Fun," Jennifer Senior explores how children reshape their parents' lives -- for better and worse. Full bio

When I was born,
00:12
there was really only one book
00:13
about how to raise your children,
00:15
and it was written by Dr. Spock.
00:17
(Laughter)
00:20
Thank you for indulging me.
00:22
I have always wanted to do that.
00:23
No, it was Benjamin Spock,
00:27
and his book was called "The Common
Sense Book of Baby And Child Care."
00:29
It sold almost 50 million copies
by the time he died.
00:33
Today, I, as the mother of a six-year-old,
00:38
walk into Barnes and Noble,
00:42
and see this.
00:44
And it is amazing
00:46
the variety that one finds
on those shelves.
00:48
There are guides to raising
an eco-friendly kid,
00:52
a gluten-free kid,
00:57
a disease-proof kid,
00:59
which, if you ask me, is a little bit creepy.
01:01
There are guides to raising a bilingual kid
01:05
even if you only speak one language at home.
01:08
There are guides to raising a financially savvy kid
01:10
and a science-minded kid
01:14
and a kid who is a whiz at yoga.
01:17
Short of teaching your toddler how to defuse
01:20
a nuclear bomb,
01:23
there is pretty much a guide to everything.
01:25
All of these books are well-intentioned.
01:31
I am sure that many of them are great.
01:34
But taken together, I am sorry,
01:38
I do not see help
01:42
when I look at that shelf.
01:45
I see anxiety.
01:48
I see a giant candy-colored monument
01:51
to our collective panic,
01:53
and it makes me want to know,
01:56
why is it that raising our children
01:59
is associated with so much anguish
02:01
and so much confusion?
02:03
Why is it that we are at sixes and sevens
02:05
about the one thing human beings
02:08
have been doing successfully for millennia,
02:11
long before parenting message boards
02:13
and peer-reviewed studies came along?
02:16
Why is it that so many mothers and fathers
02:19
experience parenthood as a kind of crisis?
02:21
Crisis might seem like a strong word,
02:28
but there is data suggesting it probably isn't.
02:30
There was, in fact, a paper of just this very name,
02:33
"Parenthood as Crisis," published in 1957,
02:36
and in the 50-plus years since,
02:40
there has been plenty of scholarship
02:42
documenting a pretty clear pattern
02:44
of parental anguish.
02:47
Parents experience more stress than non-parents.
02:49
Their marital satisfaction is lower.
02:52
There have been a number of studies
02:55
looking at how parents feel
02:57
when they are spending time with their kids,
02:58
and the answer often is, not so great.
03:00
Last year, I spoke with a researcher
03:04
named Matthew Killingsworth
03:06
who is doing a very, very imaginative project
03:07
that tracks people's happiness,
03:11
and here is what he told me he found:
03:13
"Interacting with your friends
03:17
is better than interacting with your spouse,
03:18
which is better than interacting with other relatives,
03:21
which is better than interacting with acquaintances,
03:25
which is better than interacting with parents,
03:28
which is better than interacting with children.
03:31
Who are on par with strangers."
03:35
(Laughter)
03:37
But here's the thing.
03:41
I have been looking at what underlies these data
03:43
for three years,
03:47
and children are not the problem.
03:48
Something about parenting right now at this moment
03:52
is the problem.
03:57
Specifically, I don't think we know
03:59
what parenting is supposed to be.
04:01
Parent, as a verb,
04:04
only entered common usage in 1970.
04:06
Our roles as mothers and fathers have changed.
04:10
The roles of our children have changed.
04:14
We are all now furiously improvising
04:16
our way through a situation
04:19
for which there is no script,
04:21
and if you're an amazing jazz musician,
04:24
then improv is great,
04:26
but for the rest of us,
04:28
it can kind of feel like a crisis.
04:31
So how did we get here?
04:35
How is it that we are all now navigating
04:37
a child-rearing universe
04:39
without any norms to guide us?
04:41
Well, for starters, there has been
04:44
a major historical change.
04:46
Until fairly recently,
04:48
kids worked, on our farms primarily,
04:50
but also in factories, mills, mines.
04:54
Kids were considered economic assets.
04:56
Sometime during the Progressive Era,
04:59
we put an end to this arrangement.
05:02
We recognized kids had rights,
05:03
we banned child labor,
05:05
we focused on education instead,
05:07
and school became a child's new work.
05:10
And thank God it did.
05:13
But that only made a parent's role
05:15
more confusing in a way.
05:17
The old arrangement might not have been
05:19
particularly ethical, but it was reciprocal.
05:20
We provided food, clothing, shelter,
05:23
and moral instruction to our kids,
05:26
and they in return provided income.
05:28
Once kids stopped working,
05:34
the economics of parenting changed.
05:35
Kids became, in the words of one
05:39
brilliant if totally ruthless sociologist,
05:41
"economically worthless but emotionally priceless."
05:45
Rather than them working for us,
05:50
we began to work for them,
05:52
because within only a matter of decades
05:54
it became clear:
05:56
if we wanted our kids to succeed,
05:57
school was not enough.
06:00
Today, extracurricular activities are a kid's new work,
06:03
but that's work for us too,
06:07
because we are the ones
driving them to soccer practice.
06:09
Massive piles of homework are a kid's new work,
06:12
but that's also work for us,
06:15
because we have to check it.
06:17
About three years ago, a Texas woman
06:19
told something to me
06:21
that totally broke my heart.
06:22
She said, almost casually,
06:25
"Homework is the new dinner."
06:29
The middle class now pours all of its time
06:34
and energy and resources into its kids,
06:37
even though the middle class
06:40
has less and less of those things to give.
06:41
Mothers now spend more time with their children
06:45
than they did in 1965,
06:48
when most women were not even in the workforce.
06:51
It would probably be easier for parents
06:56
to do their new roles
06:58
if they knew what they were preparing their kids for.
06:59
This is yet another thing that
makes modern parenting
07:03
so very confounding.
07:05
We have no clue what portion our wisdom, if any,
07:08
is of use to our kids.
07:11
The world is changing so rapidly,
07:13
it's impossible to say.
07:14
This was true even when I was young.
07:17
When I was a kid, high school specifically,
07:19
I was told that I would be at sea
07:22
in the new global economy
07:24
if I did not know Japanese.
07:26
And with all due respect to the Japanese,
07:30
it didn't turn out that way.
07:33
Now there is a certain kind of middle-class parent
07:35
that is obsessed with teaching their kids Mandarin,
07:37
and maybe they're onto something,
07:40
but we cannot know for sure.
07:43
So, absent being able to anticipate the future,
07:45
what we all do, as good parents,
07:48
is try and prepare our kids
07:51
for every possible kind of future,
07:52
hoping that just one of our efforts will pay off.
07:56
We teach our kids chess,
08:00
thinking maybe they will need analytical skills.
08:02
We sign them up for team sports,
08:04
thinking maybe they will need collaborative skills,
08:07
you know, for when they go
to Harvard Business School.
08:10
We try and teach them to be financially savvy
08:12
and science-minded and eco-friendly
08:16
and gluten-free,
08:19
though now is probably a good time to tell you
08:22
that I was not eco-friendly and gluten-free as a child.
08:24
I ate jars of pureed macaroni and beef.
08:30
And you know what? I'm doing okay.
08:34
I pay my taxes.
08:37
I hold down a steady job.
08:39
I was even invited to speak at TED.
08:42
But the presumption now is that
08:46
what was good enough for me,
or for my folks for that matter,
08:48
isn't good enough anymore.
08:51
So we all make a mad dash to that bookshelf,
08:53
because we feel like if we aren't trying everything,
08:57
it's as if we're doing nothing
09:00
and we're defaulting on our obligations to our kids.
09:02
So it's hard enough to navigate our new roles
09:08
as mothers and fathers.
09:10
Now add to this problem something else:
09:12
we are also navigating new roles
09:14
as husbands and wives
09:16
because most women today are in the workforce.
09:18
This is another reason, I think,
09:21
that parenthood feels like a crisis.
09:23
We have no rules, no scripts, no norms
09:25
for what to do when a child comes along
09:28
now that both mom and dad are breadwinners.
09:30
The writer Michael Lewis once put this
09:34
very, very well.
09:36
He said that the surest way
09:37
for a couple to start fighting
09:40
is for them to go out to dinner with another couple
09:41
whose division of labor
09:44
is ever so slightly different from theirs,
09:46
because the conversation in
the car on the way home
09:49
goes something like this:
09:53
"So, did you catch that Dave is the one
09:56
who walks them to school every morning?"
10:01
(Laughter)
10:05
Without scripts telling us who does what
10:09
in this brave new world, couples fight,
10:12
and both mothers and fathers each have
10:15
their legitimate gripes.
10:18
Mothers are much more likely
10:20
to be multi-tasking when they are at home,
10:22
and fathers, when they are at home,
10:24
are much more likely to be mono-tasking.
10:26
Find a guy at home, and odds are
10:29
he is doing just one thing at a time.
10:31
In fact, UCLA recently did a study
10:35
looking at the most common configuration
10:38
of family members in middle-class homes.
10:41
Guess what it was?
10:44
Dad in a room by himself.
10:45
According to the American Time Use Survey,
10:48
mothers still do twice as much childcare as fathers,
10:51
which is better than it was in Erma Bombeck's day,
10:54
but I still think that something she wrote
10:57
is highly relevant:
11:00
"I have not been alone in the
bathroom since October."
11:02
(Laughter)
11:06
But here is the thing: Men are doing plenty.
11:11
They spend more time with their kids
11:15
than their fathers ever spent with them.
11:17
They work more paid hours, on average,
11:20
than their wives,
11:22
and they genuinely want to be good,
11:24
involved dads.
11:26
Today, it is fathers, not mothers,
11:28
who report the most work-life conflict.
11:31
Either way, by the way,
11:35
if you think it's hard for traditional families
11:37
to sort out these new roles,
11:40
just imagine what it's like now
11:41
for non-traditional families:
11:43
families with two dads, families with two moms,
11:45
single-parent households.
11:48
They are truly improvising as they go.
11:49
Now, in a more progressive country,
11:54
and forgive me here for capitulating to cliché
11:57
and invoking, yes, Sweden,
12:00
parents could rely on the state
12:03
for support.
12:06
There are countries that acknowledge
12:09
the anxieties and the changing roles
12:11
of mothers and fathers.
12:12
Unfortunately, the United States is not one of them,
12:14
so in case you were wondering what the U.S.
12:18
has in common with Papua New Guinea and Liberia,
12:20
it's this:
12:25
We too have no paid maternity leave policy.
12:28
We are one of eight known countries that does not.
12:32
In this age of intense confusion,
12:39
there is just one goal upon which
12:43
all parents can agree,
12:46
and that is whether they are
12:48
tiger moms or hippie moms, helicopters or drones,
12:49
our kids' happiness is paramount.
12:54
That is what it means
12:58
to raise kids in an age
13:00
when they are economically worthless
13:02
but emotionally priceless.
13:05
We are all the custodians of their self-esteem.
13:07
The one mantra no parent ever questions is,
13:10
"All I want is for my children to be happy."
13:14
And don't get me wrong:
13:20
I think happiness is a wonderful goal for a child.
13:21
But it is a very elusive one.
13:26
Happiness and self-confidence,
13:30
teaching children that is not like teaching them
13:34
how to plow a field.
13:36
It's not like teaching them how to ride a bike.
13:38
There's no curriculum for it.
13:40
Happiness and self-confidence can
be the byproducts of other things,
13:43
but they cannot really be goals unto themselves.
13:46
A child's happiness
13:49
is a very unfair burden to place on a parent.
13:51
And happiness is an even more unfair burden
13:55
to place on a kid.
13:58
And I have to tell you,
14:01
I think it leads to some very strange excesses.
14:03
We are now so anxious
14:06
to protect our kids from the world's ugliness
14:09
that we now shield them from "Sesame Street."
14:12
I wish I could say I was kidding about this,
14:17
but if you go out and you buy
14:19
the first few episodes of "Sesame Street" on DVD,
14:22
as I did out of nostalgia,
14:25
you will find a warning at the beginning
14:28
saying that the content is not suitable
14:31
for children.
14:33
(Laughter)
14:35
Can I just repeat that?
14:37
The content of the original "Sesame Street"
14:39
is not suitable for children.
14:41
When asked about this by The New York Times,
14:45
a producer for the show gave
a variety of explanations.
14:48
One was that Cookie Monster smoked a pipe
14:51
in one skit and then swallowed it.
14:54
Bad modeling. I don't know.
14:56
But the thing that stuck with me
14:57
is she said that she didn't know
15:00
whether Oscar the Grouch could be invented today
15:03
because he was too depressive.
15:07
I cannot tell you how much this distresses me.
15:12
(Laughter)
15:15
You are looking at a woman
15:16
who has a periodic table of the Muppets
15:18
hanging from her cubicle wall.
15:21
The offending muppet, right there.
15:25
That's my son the day he was born.
15:30
I was high as a kite on morphine.
15:34
I had had an unexpected C-section.
15:37
But even in my opiate haze,
15:40
I managed to have one very clear thought
15:44
the first time I held him.
15:47
I whispered it into his ear.
15:50
I said, "I will try so hard not to hurt you."
15:52
It was the Hippocratic Oath,
16:01
and I didn't even know I was saying it.
16:02
But it occurs to me now
16:06
that the Hippocratic Oath
16:08
is a much more realistic aim than happiness.
16:10
In fact, as any parent will tell you,
16:15
it's awfully hard.
16:18
All of us have said or done hurtful things
16:21
that we wish to God we could take back.
16:26
I think in another era
16:32
we did not expect quite so much from ourselves,
16:35
and it is important that we all remember that
16:39
the next time we are staring with our hearts racing
16:42
at those bookshelves.
16:46
I'm not really sure how to create new norms
16:52
for this world,
16:55
but I do think that
16:57
in our desperate quest to create happy kids,
17:00
we may be assuming the wrong moral burden.
17:03
It strikes me as a better goal,
17:06
and, dare I say, a more virtuous one,
17:08
to focus on making productive kids
17:10
and moral kids,
17:13
and to simply hope that happiness will come to them
17:14
by virtue of the good that they do
17:16
and their accomplishments
17:19
and the love that they feel from us.
17:21
That, anyway, is one response to having no script.
17:24
Absent having new scripts,
17:30
we just follow the oldest ones in the book --
17:33
decency, a work ethic, love —
17:37
and let happiness and self-esteem
take care of themselves.
17:42
I think if we all did that,
17:47
the kids would still be all right,
17:49
and so would their parents,
17:52
possibly in both cases even better.
17:55
Thank you.
17:59
(Applause)
18:01

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About the Speaker:

Jennifer Senior - Writer
In her new book "All Joy and No Fun," Jennifer Senior explores how children reshape their parents' lives -- for better and worse.

Why you should listen
Jennifer Senior is a contributing editor at New York Magazine, where she writes profiles and cover stories about politics, social science and mental health. In a groundbreaking 2010 story for the magazine, called "All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting," she examined the social science around modern parenting, looking at happiness research from Dan Gilbert, Danny Kahneman and others, as well as anthropological research (she was an anthro major) around how families behave. Her conclusion: Hey, parents, it's okay not to feel blissfully happy all the time.

She expanded the piece into a book that dives deeper into the research and paradoxes of modern American parenting styles -- including parents' sometimes inflated expectations of constant awesomeness, meaningfulness and bliss. As she says, "I think of this book as a series of mini-ethnographies -- portraits of how American families live now."

 

More profile about the speaker
Jennifer Senior | Speaker | TED.com