In my last post here I reflected on Jennifer Senior’s book on parenting, All Joy and No Fun: the Paradox of Modern Parenting. I touched on the differences between happiness and joy and the ways to nurture our children in our faith. Apparently Senior’s book hit home, because I am still thinking about many of the points she raised in her book.
I was particularly struck with Senior’s observations about BOREDOM. Many middle class parents are concerned that if their children aren’t enrolled in lots of activities, they will have no one to play with outside of school. But if kids live such tightly scheduled lives, they will seldom experience boredom and thus not learn how to tolerate or solve boredom, which means they expect their parents to alleviate boredom. Are we diminishing our kids’ ability to be creative and resourceful? Or raising kids that feel entitled to adult attention and intervention in their play? Many of today’s children are no longer critical economic members of the family that will bring in a certain amount of income to support their family. But Senior thinks parents might be less anxious if their kids had more concrete roles within the family. Without those concrete roles or tasks in the family structure, children become overly dependent on praise and repeated declarations of love to build confidence.
Now certainly concerns over safety influence parental ideas about playing outside and living outside in the community. This is a legitimate concern. How much ‘real world’ life experiences will my children be exposed to as they freely explore their neighborhood? How much risk is safe? And how much risk is healthy? It is good to give kids a chance to work on solving problems, making choices, and understanding the consequences of their actions in community. But safety is a real concern. According to Senior, our culture gives older children “too few chances to take constructive and tangibly relevant risk.” The sheltered lives of adolescents robs them of the ‘as if’ improvisational period when they can safely experiment with what they would become.
I don’t know that I have the solutions to these struggles of modern parenting. In fact, I know I don’t. But I do agree with Senior’s larger observation about parenting: we need to stop being self-absorbed adults and embrace the joy of childhood. Senior writes, “all of us crave liberation from those ruts. More to the point, all of us crave liberation from our adult selves, at least from time to time…I’m talking about the selves who live too much in their heads rather than their bodies; who are burdened with too much knowledge about how the world works rather than excited by how it could work or should; who are afraid of being judged and not being loved. Most adults do not live in a world of forgiveness and unconditional love. Unless, that is, they have small children.
“The most shameful part of adult life is how blinkered it makes us, how brittle and ungenerous in our judgments. It often take a much bigger project to make adults look outward, to make them ‘boundless and unwearied in giving,’ C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves. Young children can go a long way toward yanking grown-ups out of their silly preoccupations and cramped little mazes of self-interest—not just relieving their parents of their egos, but helping them aspire to something better.”
Senior has identified something significant here: when you invest in relationships with youth, as a parent, a teacher, a family member, a coach, or a mentor, or anyone who risks investing in relationships with the next generation, you open up yourself to pain, but also to such joy and richness. It’s not the rules and regulations, the schedules and the accomplishments or failures, but the relationships that matter most.