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According to researchers at Queen’s University in Ontario, sleep deprivation, can in some respects impair our judgment as much as being legally drunk. As a mother of young children, I have spent my fair share of time with impaired judgment in the last few years.

Jennifer Senior’s book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting examines the ways that parenting in the 21st century has affected parents. She characterizes modern parenting as ‘exhaustive parenting,’ but not necessarily because of the sleep deprivation bit. This so-called ‘exhaustive parenting’ has its roots in having fewer children, having children later in life, living in more insular communities, more distance from family and peer groups, and more concerns about safety and violence. But Senior contends the this ‘hyper-parenting’ is most clearly the result of anxiety and confusion about the future.

What are we preparing children for, exactly? Senior writes that it used to be that children were economic necessities – they worked as economic members of a family. They hired out their labor, they took care of siblings, they worked at home or at the family business or family farm. Children were essential to the economic viability of the family. Today, children major in schoolwork, not economic work. Some of this is because of child labor laws, but much of it has to do with children fulfilling emotional roles instead of economic ones. In the world of Viviana Zelizer, author of Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (1985), “children had become economically worthless but emotionally priceless” – an interesting way to describe modern childhood and, by extension, modern parenting. 

In Margaret Mead’s book And Keep Your Powder Dry, published in 1942, she noted that American parents did not know the end game of parenting – what should your child be learning and able to do by the time they are an adult? English aristocrats raised aristocrats, rice farmers trained rice farmers, black smiths raised blacksmiths, regardless of how good a ‘teacher’ you were, the job of a parent was to maintain the tradition. Period. But Americans, according to Mead, did not have these old folkways to draw upon since the idea was that Americans were free to invent and reinvent themselves every generation. I happen to think that is a good thing. But what does it mean for parents? How do you steer your child with no specific goals or endless goals? How do you prepare your kids for a life you know nothing about or a life that is different from your own? Is this why modern parents of the middle class pack their children’s time full of various activities, sports, camps, and music lessons to make them ready for any and every kind of future?

What about happiness? Is that the end goal for kids? Dr. Spock wrote in The Problems of Parents (1962) that American middle class parents “fall back on such general aims as happiness or good adjustment or success. These sound all right as far as they go, but they are quite intangible. There’s little in them that suggests HOW they are to be accomplished. The trouble with happiness is that it can’t be sought directly. It is only a precious by-product of other worthwhile activities.”

Indeed. Happiness is elusive and fleeing and seems quite a shallow goal for such a significant investment as parenting.

While I appreciate Senior’s observations about parenting and find her evidence compelling, I also see the hollowness of parenting with the end goal of ‘happy’ children. I believe that parenting is a worthy calling within a faith tradition. I have found that Deuteronomy 6 nicely sums up the call of parents to teach their children about their faith.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Certainly the teaching of our faith is a worthy goal of parenting. I pray that my children know their identity in Christ and that they belong, body and soul, to their Savior. That seems a much more worthy goal than the elusive and ephemeral ‘happiness.’

Then again, maybe I”ll settle for uninterrupted sleep.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Rebecca, for an interesting take on raising children. I think your article left me grappling some for your take on raising well adjusted children. Of course times and culture have changed from the “Little House on the Prairie” days. Another drastic change from the past is that moms stayed home to care for the family. Children came home to Mom’s open arms. Dad was the authority figure. I’m simply pointing out, as you have, that a lot has changed from the past. We live in a changing culture. You can’t go back to the past, and doubt that most would want to. But we do want well adjusted children.

    A note on your take on happiness. Apparently (in your thinking) happiness is not a good sign of well adjusted children. There used to be a saying, “You can’t buy happiness.” Happiness is that sense of contentment or joy in life. You may be able to buy pleasures, all kinds of pleasures, in fact. But happiness goes deeper than pleasure. So teaching and modeling happiness in life seem to be a good thing to me. I’m not sure if you really mean to downplay happiness or contentment for our children. The beatitudes each begin with “Blessed are the …” which could be (and is in some translations) translated as “Happy are the ….” And I would think the beatitudes point to especially future reward. Happiness in life ( and for our children), sounds like a terrific end-game (as you say) for parenting.

    You suggest that teaching our children the tenets of the Christian faith as a worthy goal of parenting. Does that work the same for the parents of the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and other religions? I guess so.

    I think I get the gist of your sentiment, but it was a little confusing getting there. Thanks, Rebecca.

  • Marge Vander Wagen says:

    As a mother of 4 adult children, I appreciated the pressure faced by parents to expose their children to every activity under the sun to assure success.
    We faced that pressure ,too. We allowed our children to say “No” to piano lessons, cross country, Cub Scouts and other activities we thought important.
    I think I will print this out and give it to each parent when I baptize their baby. Hopefully it will stir them toward being examples of Christ and teaching their children about him.

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