Choose Your Own Adventure Parenting

I almost wrote a post about it last summer, when I read the New York Magazine article, All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior, but I didn’t. I was already writing something else, and then something else, and then something else… As it turns out, though, the thing that stuck out most for me about the article (at the time) has continued to itch around in the back of my thoughts. I even began the “Things that make you go, ‘D’OH!’” series in an attempt to address some of the exemplary issue(s). And yet the central theme has continued to bother me until now I do, in fact, find myself linking you here so you can see what I am referring to when I say that as I read the article, I couldn’t help mentally shouting, “So many parents think of parenting as ‘not fun’ because they parent in really not-fun ways!“.

On the one hand, I’d really like to just leave that basic assertion to percolate through your thoughts on its own, and let you make of it what you will. But then, of course, there’s this other hand, which is a fistful of examples, reasons why I think this is the case, and ideas about what to do about it. So let’s consider this the “Choose your own Adventure Post” wherein you get to decide for yourself… Is it enough for you to ruminate on the notion that parenting can be more fun if you parent toward having fun, and/or that parenting is generally considered “not fun” because the predominant parenting strategies we use are not geared toward fun, and in fact, really exclude fun and promote adversarial interactions between parents and kids? If so, stop here.

Or do you want to proceed to the examples:

In the very first paragraph, Ms. Senior, briefly describes a moment of her own home life in both idyllic and nightmarish terms. She explains that she’d just come home from work, gotten a couple minutes of re-connect with her son, before going inside to discover that he has broken part of a toy that she’d spent time putting together for him that morning. Then while trying to fix it for him, she experienced a barrage of anger and other emotion from her son, combined with some furious actions. Her response to all of this was to tell him he was breaking the rules, and when he got angrier, she put him in time out. Sound familiar at all? 

Well, maybe you don’t live this example, but like us, you probably know plenty of parents who do. And I think the situation is the same for most of them. Choice after choice gets made without thinking about anything outside of the moment, without thinking about the larger goal(s) of parenting, and without stopping to consider the needs of the human (child) being parented. More on this shortly (if you so choose…).

Ms. Senior also describes another scene, this one from a video made during a study of (just) “32 middle-class, duel-earner families, with at least two children, all of them going about their regular business in their Los Angeles homes” (though little about this sounds evolutionarily “regular” to me…). This scene involves a mother basically forcing her son to quit watching a video so that he can then be forced to do his homework. We see the scene opening with the mother already counting off (“1, 2…”) until she is either going to make him turn off the video or punish him for his reputed insolence in defying her unwavering and unquestionable authority over every aspect of his existence. Recognize this scene?

Again, it may not be “how you roll” in your own home, but like us, you’ve probably seen it a lot. The parent is so concerned about maintaining a (fairly empty) sense of authoritative control, and/or making certain that her kid is behaving in ways that are generally (though somewhat arbitrarily) considered indicative of more “effective parenting” that she incites and even forces adversarial interactions all over the place, and particularly in places where it isn’t necessary and where it makes things more difficult. Again, you’ll get to choose if you want to read more about this or not…

Throughout the article, Senior continues to note versions of parenting in modernity that are all not fun, adversarial, hyper-anxious, competitive, expensive, isolated, and frankly, generally ignorant of human nature, developmental psychology, and child rearing. She notes the parents who want desperately to make sure their kids “get ahead” by emphasizing ultra-early education. She tells about the parents who struggle to deal with getting their kids to and from the umpteen different organized activities to which they’re dedicated — with all the various necessary accoutrements. She describes the parents who suffer over whether they’re doing it right or not, and who have no one but other anxious parents with whom to compare themselves. She makes careful mention of the parents who don’t feel like they get enough time together, because of work schedules, activity schedules, and arduous parenting struggles. She even emphasizes (with a big print excerpt…) that “Studies have found that parents’ dissatisfaction only grew the more money they had, even though they could buy more childcare.”.

I believe as her audience of overwrought, underpaid and even more under-appreciated parents, we’re supposed to agree with Senior’s version of what parenting is inherently like today. And many of us may. I simply think we’re making it harder than it has to be. And Senior’s examples all belie the choices the parents are making that increase the dissonance and intensify the adversarial nature of the parenting/child-developing environment. That is, if the parenting isn’t fun, it’s because of the parents, not because of the kids, the needs of the kids, or the nature of parenting.

I hope that doesn’t sting too much, particularly if you’re currently having less fun parenting than you want. And if you prefer to stop and mull this notion over for awhile, you may, of course, choose to end your adventure here for today. And certainly, just thinking about your own parenting from the perspective of how you might have been (tricked into) making it less fun for all parties would be enough to create at least some shift, and get you gravitating toward more of what you want in your parenting experience.

But for those of you who want a little more about what (else) to do in order to have more fun being a parent…

I think we need to burn Senior’s article. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not that into censorship at all, and I do think there is merit to what Senior is attempting to communicate by the end of her exploration. The problem is that she miscasts the current predominant version(s) of parenting as normal, and that, I think is actually damaging to most of us parents. And in a larger sense, I think this idea is the problem.

The kind of parenting Senior describes, and that most of us have come to take as the normal version of being a parent, is from an evolutionary stand point, anything but normal. In fact, if we got a decent time machine and could do a decent longitudinal study of human parenting, say for the last 50,000 years, it would quickly become apparent that the modern, scientifically-justified and informed parents are guilty of some truly ridiculous bullsh*t which makes and has made doing the job of raising our children exponentially more arduous and less pleasurable. Senior, herself, inadvertently makes this point clear when she quotes a couples’ counselor, Lois Nachamie,  briefly comparing modern western parenting to the more evolutionarily-traditional Namibian version featured in the film “Babies”:

“I don’t mean to idealize the lives of the Namibian women, but it was hard not to notice how calm they were. They were beading their children’s ankles and decorating them with sienna, clearly enjoying just sitting there and playing with them, and we’re here often thinking of all of this stuff as labor.”

Not only does such an example underscore the differences between what we’re doing and what “more natural” parents do and have done; but it also highlights the fact that our thinking about parenting is also different from (and more problematic than) the “more natural” version(s). We think parenting inherently and automatically includes things like: regular recurrent struggle, giving up ourselves and our lives, fighting to get kids to do what we want, bossing them around, being the bad guy, having to deal with all manner of insubordination and deviancy, adversarial love, controlling little devils, training tiny savages, balancing and orchestrating and executing organized activity schedules, ensuring prosperous futures for our children via particular kinds of education, and making sure we look good to the other parents and grown-ups while doing all of the above. We think being a parent has to include a lot of stuff that it doesn’t, and we simultaneously are “parenting ignorant” to what really is necessary for the most natural (calm and easy) parenting.

Although, this may seem like a terrible place to pause, particularly if you’re interested in the alternatives, I’m thinking that 1500 words is enough for you to chew on for today… So, if you’re inclined, tune in next time for the exciting conclusion to this adventure, I mean, post.


Be well, adventurers.

About Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

I am a full-time parent of three, Writer, Life Coach, Lecturer, Parenting Mentor, and Shamanic Practitioner. In all of the above, I am seeking to assist my fellow humans in their processes of claiming and unleashing their highest potentials.
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6 Responses to Choose Your Own Adventure Parenting

  1. Narelle says:

    Hi Nathan

    Thanks for the link to the negative parenting article.

    I’ve been presenting lots of parenting workshops in the past few months, and parents do enjoy hearing that things can be different. It is certainly true that the more you focus on a child’s positive behaviours (catch them being good), the more positive behaviours will result.

    I’ve just been trained in Parent-Child Interaction Therapy. You would love the Child-Directed Interaction component of it.

    • “Child-Directed Interaction” does sound like my cup of parenting tea, Narelle, you’re right!

      And I totally agree that when we “focus on a child’s positive behaviours” that we then perceive that “more positive behaviours result.” I get nervous, though, around the idea of “catch[ing] them being good”. I want us to be saying to parents, “Look, kids are good. Given a healthy gestation and birth, most humans are born with more goodness than the average adult. We are innately capable of far more civility and far greater compassion than the majority of us ever develop because of how mistrusted, and mishandled we are as children. Children ARE good. Treat them as such and they will become all that they were born to be.” And rather than having parents focus on how to affect/manipulate/instill/reproduce certain behaviours (e.g. praising them or otherwise rewarding them for good actions), I want us to help them to trust in children’s goodness and parent them from the perspective of encouraging that by virtue of giving them good examples of both our (the parents’) and their (the kids’) “goodness”. I hope that we can eventually do away with this notion that we have to teach kids how to be good and instead live from the perspective of helping children apply their innate goodness.

      And of course this all comes back to relationship, relationship, relationship, right? Get kids and parents to relate more (and/or kids with their other family members or like-minded “villagers”), focusing on relating, and relating only, and kids learn ALL they need. It’s almost automatic. That is, unless we monkey up the system by not trusting in it or our children…

      If I remember correctly, you work with families that are already struggling quite a bit, right? I know that in such cases it is helpful for everyone involved if the parents have some tactics on which they can rely to help get things moving in a different direction quickly and steadily. But I think we risk prolonging issues or trading them for other just as troubling ones later on if we teach parents that children are only good in snatches and at random and in particular moments or actions…

      I may have run on a tangent that bares little relation to your initial intent, Narelle. Sorry to run away with the discussion… 😉 Can you tell I feel passionate about this particular point?

      Thanks, as always, for joining in!

      Be well.

      • Narelle says:

        Yes, it’s a nice premise you put forward. Some parents like portraying their kids being difficult, awful, unmanageable, etc. It’s frequently used as a mask to hide their own inadequacies (Freud’s defences).

        I think the article by Senior reflects how many parents feel about parenting, and as such it is an important document. It can be used as a point of departure, a wake-up call!

        I would never advise a parent to use counting in the homework scenario presented by Senior. So much better for the parent to communicate expectations to the child, and negotiate a time and place for the homework to be completed. The parent apparently cares for the child because she wants him to do well at school, so how can that care be translated into more positive parenting behaviours? Parents get caught up in external pressures and forget to focus on relationship.

        The Namibian example of the parent playing with the child (possibly despite the need to forage for/prepare food, fetch water, etc) and the study of Danish parents, link into your recent post about simplicity parenting.

        There is a suburb in the local government area where I work, the homes are massive and so are the mortgages. The schools are huge, and so are the behavioural problems of children and youth. When the mortgage rate goes up, the police put extra resources into the area because the frequency of domestic violence rises. What a disaster. Is having a McMansion worth the stress of three or four jobs, and handing over all of the care of your kids to formal childcare?

  2. frank jude says:

    RIght on, Nathan! I am fathering a 9-month old girl and I cannot begin to put into words how much fun my wife and I are having! And I totally agree with your thesis.

    I think you are right that people choose to create their little dramas and seem to wallow in their woe! The first things people said or asked about when our baby was born, often in a smarmy, know-it-all voice was something to do with “Getting any sleep yet?” Their jaws dropped when we explained that if you sleep with your child, you get plenty of sleep: baby stirs, mom rolls over and offers the breast, both never fully having to wake up. No having to get out of bed and really disturb your sleep; no need for baby to have to fully awaken to get mom’s attention!

    And on and on it goes. People always seem to think about and want to commiserate with the difficulty of childrearing, and never seem to see that it is their own perspective that makes it seem like it has to be that way! YES, having a child changes one’s life. But to hear most people talk, you’d think it ENDED their life!

    Anyway, great post!

    • Thanks a lot, Frank. I appreciate your encouragement.

      I can also totally identify with your experience of people acting like you’ve gotten the plague just because you’ve procreated! It’s a little sad to me that we have so lost touch with our own natural processes that something as normal and profound as raising our children has become such a foreign, misjudged, and fearful enterprise. Honestly, other than live and die, there isn’t anything more natural to us than having babies… And further, because there’s been so much nonsense added into the mythology of parenting, that we now think of normal parenting things as really scary, difficult, and/or unpleasant necessities, and at them same time think of really unnatural parenting choices and kid behavior as part and parcel of “normal child-rearing”.

      Too, I think (though I refrained from making it part of the posts) that, if we are open to it, parenting is perhaps the most potent form of Zen training on the planet. Where and when else are we so constantly and naturally reminded to be present, to savor the now, and to surrender to the perfect flow of the universe? I sometimes jokingly pretend that we are monks of the Order of Natural Parents. And in all seriousness, I think kids are sort of naive gurus, able to teach us deep truths if we are open to such.

      Anyway, thanks again, Frank, for your comments. I always appreciate people joining in the discussion.

      Be well.


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