Listen To Article
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.