I began this odyssey with the simple assertion that Jennifer Senior’s article, All Joy and No Fun, in last summer’s New York Magazine casts a wan pallor over the nature of parenting, and moreover, that Senior’s un-fun version, although not the only version of parenting, is the predominant one today for the not so simple reason that parents continually choose to parent in ways that are absolutely not fun.
Now, let’s look at Senior’s examples again. First, Senior’s description of her own return home and ensuing struggles. What she describes is definitely not fun, and definitely something a lot of parents experience (at least a version of), and definitely not fixed by what Senior describes as her response (however typical and touted her response[s] may be). It’s difficult to pick a precise moment from which I would diverge from Senior’s version, because I wouldn’t be doing anything in this particular scenario. In fact, (and I mean no offense to Senior who is I’m sure acting with love and hope) I think all the choices we see or hear of her making in this example make the situation more difficult for both her and her son.
So let’s start before the beginning. First, I don’t know if it’s a regular event in Senior’s home, but I think when kids are regularly left with others outside the intimate family or village for extended periods of time, it makes things harder. Being away from your child all day strikes me as less fun in general, but it certainly makes parenting him more arduous, especially if it’s occurring a lot. Next, although she says the greeting she got from her son was idyllic, she doesn’t tell us enough about how much they got to reconnect. She then calls it “pair-bonded bliss” but doesn’t say why she tumbled out of it to get so involved in rebuilding the toy for her son. She gives up fun in that moment to focus on this thing that went wrong, and gets involved righting it, instead of choosing to stay in or go back to feeling blissful or having fun.
The way she describes it as the toy she’d “spent about an hour that morning assembling”, I get the sense that she came in, got bummed about the toy being dismantled, put her son down and set about fixing it because she had spent that time putting it together before and was attached to it being together. She didn’t say that her son asked her to fix it or that he needed it fixed to carry on having fun. Then she describes the son getting impatient with her while she was working on the toy. I suspect his impatience was with her being distracted from him (after being gone all day) more than with having to wait for the toy, but let’s assume she didn’t know why he was getting impatient, he just was. The more fun approach at that moment would be to stop, and help him with his feelings, so he can get back to fun, then she could finish fixing the toy more easily and more quickly and they could carry on. Instead, she gravitates toward less fun by not making space for her son’s feelings. My guess is that, while trying to help him (and herself) by fixing the toy, and trying to make him wait for her to fix it, she probably kept telling him he had to wait, and not to throw things, and “that’s not nice”, etc. without giving him a moment to be bummed about it taking so long, or about her being distracted from him after being gone. And while she was trying to help him, she was also trying to talk him out of his feelings — and that’s no fun for anyone. He got madder. Then she got scared about things being thrown, then more controlling, then bossy, and then punitive. Where’s the fun in any of that?
While I feel tons of empathy for Senior, who I can tell is just doing what she’s been told is the most effective way to do this parenting thing, and who I can tell loves her son, I must admit that I think she’s the one that made this scenario lose its fun and bliss. In fact, I’d say she’s generally expecting that it won’t be much fun, and proceeded (in this example) to self-fulfill that prophesy at every step. If I had it to do as Ms. Senior, I’d go this way: First, I’d be with my son as much more as I could financially stand it, so he has as much less time with the baby sitter as possible. Then, upon my return (each time), I would stay as long as possible in that moment of pair-bonded bliss. Just stay and stay, reconnecting with my son and letting him feel the safety of my presence. And when we came in and I noticed the disheveled toy, I might ask about it, I might not. I’d likely wait until it was requested that I fix it, or at least until I noted the son being bummed about it. Then if I was fixing it and my son wanted me to stop, I would, at least long enough to find out why. If I was fixing it for myself, then I’d be more likely to stop and leave it than if I was fixing it for my son. If I was fixing it because my son requested it, etc., then I would explain I was working on it for him, and that I was about ___ minutes from finishing. If he was still, or even more, upset, then I would start openly empathizing with his feelings: “You don’t want me to be doing this right now? Oh, you just want it to be going faster so you can play? Darn that sounds hard, waiting…” If that was enough, I’d be quiet and either continue fixing or continue sitting and waiting. If that wasn’t enough, then I would stop fixing the toy all together (if I hadn’t already) and hold him while either talking more about the feeling(s) or while being quiet while he processed. When he signaled readiness to move on, I would either go back to working on the toy, or ask him what he needed/wanted to do next. Let’s say, I didn’t stop in time originally and address the feelings, and the son threw something at me. I would stop and make sure it was known that I didn’t like that and would prefer something else, and would address the son’s feelings — not start lobbing rules at him while continuing to ignore his feelings. If he grabbed something else to throw, I would not keep working on the toy at all. I would stop everything and reset the tone of the relationship. Something has obviously gone awry when the kid starts looking to injure the parent. So instead of throwing him in time-out, I would want to right the funky feelings, and get back to fun. Time-outs aren’t fun, don’t teach fun, and won’t help you get to more fun. Ever. The bottom line, here, is: if you want more fun, don’t give up the connection in favor of agendas (like fixing a toy, or controlling behaviors).
I’ll leave Ms. Senior alone, now (bless her heart), and move on to the video example she describes a little later in her article. In it, Senior reports seeing the mother go straight to “counting” in order to get her son to stop watching a video so that he can get to his homework. Things continue declining toward a shouting match and then into physical altercation. And completely unnecessarily.
We don’t see what happened right before this scene, but, again, I think it would be important to begin looking for a funner approach for mom and son sooner than we come into the video. For the sake of time, I’ll skip straight to what I would do differently if I were the video mom. First, I’d get rid of the notion that the homework is so important that I am willing to fight with my son about it. We homeschool by choice (and Montessori when forced), and homework is part of the reason, but even if (as this mom) I didn’t homeschool, I would consider homework my son’s responsibility and choice. He can either choose to play the school game and jump through the particular hoops or not. Failing in school is not a reason to upset the relationship. Besides, the son can get his high school equivalency if it really comes to that. But let’s assume that I am concerned about the homework and really want it done. Then I would arrange with the son, before the TV got turned on, just how we were going to handle the rest of the evening. Likely, we would arrange to either stop the video, or the show at a moment that didn’t feel like it was right in the middle of things. If he had to stop before the end of the show (or movie, since we don’t watch regular TV) then I’d announce the switch in 10 and/or 5 and/or 2 minutes just to prepare the son. Then I’d request the TV be turned off. If he wanted to get to a certain part before turning it off (as the son in the example requests), I’d let him — seriously, what’s the big deal? I certainly would not turn the whole thing into a battle from the get-go, as the video mom seems to think she needs to do. If it turns out that the son is, in fact, stalling instead of getting it to a pause point, then I might address that afterward, but likely, I would still just let it go for a minute. Then I would repeat my request and remind him of our agreement. If he refused, or was definitely stalling, I’d keep asking. If it came to it, I’d stand in front of the TV to be sure I was being heard. Then I’d solicit a new agreement. “How much longer do you need? 2 more minutes? You’re sure? Ok. But then can you move on to the homework without us discussing it again? Great…” The bottom line, here, is: it’s more fun to reach mutual agreement than to try to force stuff.
In the video description, I think we see a good example of how kids often just want to negotiate, or work together to reach a mutually fulfilling agreement, and the parent wants to have things go a certain way without having to agree to anything other than what she demands. She’s assuming that she has to maintain a certain level of control in order for things to go ideally. She’s not leaving room for the kid to have his own needs, too — needs that may have nothing to do with homework, or doing well in school, or that may include both and simply be prioritized differently than the mom’s. She’s also assuming that he won’t cooperate if she doesn’t force cooperation. She’s choosing adversarial over cooperative, and is leaving fun completely out of it — on purpose.
Briefly, I want to roll through the other examples from Senior’s article that I noted in the last post, and point out some funner alternatives:
- To “the parents who want desperately to make sure their kids ‘get ahead’ by emphasizing ultra-early education,” I’d say, “Let the kids play more (which is funner in itself), and stress-out less about educating early, because imaginative play is the best possible early-education.”
- To “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,” I’d say, “Stop trying to fill every moment. Let them get bored for a second and they’ll make up their own stuff to do. And that will be just fine. If and when they express an interest, give them opportunities to check it out, casually.”
- To “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,” I’d say, “Relax. You weren’t given enough information up to now, but everything will be all right. Just trust yourself and your kids, honour the feelings you all have, and use your common sense. And then find people who think as you do to be in your village.”
- To “the parents who don’t feel like they get enough time together, because of work schedules, activity schedules, and arduous parenting struggles,” I’d say, “Change the story you are telling yourself about your life and what it means to be a parent. Realize that this is such a short amount of time in the overall story or your life together. Do less, and be (‘together’) more.”
- And to the parents whose “dissatisfaction only grew the more money they had, even though they could buy more childcare”, I’d say, “Childcare doesn’t buy satisfaction. It only buys you a little time, and usually at the risk of greater stress. Buying more childcare isn’t what makes easier, more fun parenting — it’s bonding! Put your self where your money has been going, and the relationship will provide everyone with greater satisfaction.”
Speaking of choices, if you’re so inclined, you can tune in next time for what looks like one more episode of “Choose Your Own Adventure Parenting!”. Until then…
P.S. Should you so choose, I can help you find more fun in your parenting life, too. Contact me today to set up a consultation.