Welcome to the third and final (?!) portion of this post considering Jennifer Senior’s article in last summer’s New York Magazine, All Joy and No Fun (Why Parents Hate Parenting), which describes modern parenting as almost if not totally lacking in what most of us would consider “fun”. In the first installment, I spent some time discussing the terrain of Senior’s argument, and asserting the basic premise of my counterargument, namely, that so many parents don’t experience parenting as fun because they think it won’t or can’t be fun, and then they parent in ways that are not only lacking in fun, but also actually anti-fun. In the second section, I took a critical look at some of Senior’s examples and the ways in which the parents in each example made choices that sucked the fun out of the interaction(s) and replaced it with disconnection and an adversarial atmosphere; and further, I explored how those parents (including Senior, in her own example) might choose other, more fun options instead. Today, I’d like to spend some time translating this idea of choosing to see and experience parenting as fun into a general theory of parenting action.
Before I get too far into that, though, I’d like to give Senior her due. She does put forth her disheartening premise, and she does stick to it throughout and slather it with convincing scientific evidence, and testimonial, but near the end of her stalwart, well-crafted essay she makes a daring play that sets the entire discourse on end — she defines her terms. The whole rest of the time, she poker-facedly presents the idea that parenting is “not fun” (due in part to the social climate of parenting in modernity among other things), and has gotten less and less fun through the generations, judging by the reports of its participants (excluding, apparently, some Europeans); then in the last seconds of her finalé, she folds up the big top she’s been constructing all along by claiming that we parents are just going for “joy” over “fun”… That because we are less likely to regret having kids than not having kids, and because we are less likely to remember the difficult moments when we cast our nostalgic gaze in retrospect over our parenting lives than we are to remember the sense of purpose, connection, and “intense gratification” we glean from surviving the internment of our children’s childhood, we can go forth merrily along without “fun”.
In all honesty, when I got to the end of Senior’s beautiful descent into transcendent acceptance, I was no longer on my soapbox. I was back in the place of empathy where I met her, while she was struggling with her 2 1/2 year-old son and making things harder than they needed to be. I recognized that while she is a brilliant writer and published in the New York Magazine, and while she has remarkable prowess in collecting and distilling data related to what she wants to discuss, she is also a mother writing her way out of a situation she did not foresee and which she does not find fun. She, too, is just a parent finding her own unique route toward feeling as good as she can about this important, incredible, astoundingly intense, soul-shaking endeavor before her, which, for many reasons (and for all the reasons), is mysterious and mystifying, and to many of us, scary as hell. And for that, I have both so much respect and so much compassion for Ms. Senior, and for all of us parents, as super-human as we are, stumbling along in pursuit of our bliss(es).
We all could do with the reminder, as Senior finally delivers us, that we are here for the joy of it. That’s the sublime truth. But I think we could all, also, do with a bit more fun. That’s the nitty-gritty truth of it. The difficulty, if there is one, lies with us. It’s our thoughts, our ideas, our notions, our stories, and our conceptions of being a parent that are responsible for what we perceive, experience, and live in this game. So if we want to experience more fun while raising our children, it stands to reason that we have to start thinking of it as fun. Right? That’s the real trick. But if we as parents can switch from lamenting the loss of fun in our lives (because we chose to procreate) and instead begin assuming that fun will be had, begin looking for fun, begin expecting fun, and putting our energy into creating opportunities for fun — well, then we’ll have just started a parenting revolution, won’t we?
So the choice is up to you (you knew it would be, didn’t you?) — do you believe in having fun (or more fun) raising your children. If not, then stop reading now, and get up, and go do something else… But if you choose to believe, then read on, adventurer…
“So — ‘Parenting is Fun’ — now, what do I do?”
Well, here’s the current version of my ongoing list of ideas for making parenting (more!) fun:
- First and foremost, relaaaxxxxx… You don’t have to have all the answers. In fact, you don’t even have access to all of the questions, so there’s no need to bother trying to figure it all out and write it in stone. You, your kids, and your fun, will all be best served if you spend more time in a mellow mood. If it takes you some special activity, or routine to get relaxed, then make it happen; but don’t make yourself wait until you are without your kids. It’s fine to save up for those opportunities to wiz off to the gym or wherever you might go without your children, but escapism, however healthy you might make it for you, is no good for your parenting fun. You will get further in this endeavor if you focus on ways to relax while with your children. That is, after all, where you are wanting to experience being relaxed…
- Secondly, get flexible. Your rigidity, when it shows up, does nothing but diminish your opportunities for fun. Having to play border-patrol-security-guard-prison-warden-detective-ass-whooper is the opposite of having a good time, so don’t even set yourself up to be the authoritarian dictator parent in the first place. Don’t make the mistake of letting the hardness and fastness of your rule(s) supplant your power to lead and drain all the enjoyment out of your family life. Get flexible and be willing to bend, to reconsider, and to let go of your agenda(s) from time to time.
- Also, and this goes (aptly) right along with the previous edicts, practice going with the flow. If you’re used to being one of those people who controls every aspect of your life every moment of everyday, I would have suggested you get a goldfish instead, but since you’re reading this, it’s probably too late for that, so I’ll just say, you’ve got little use for notions of control in this game. Think of it this way: every time you step into the child raising zone to “control” something, you muddy the waters. The more thrashing about, attempting to hold everything in place that you do, the murkier you make things. The more muddy the waters get, the more trouble you and your little fishes will have in navigating the rapids of growing up. If, instead, you make a point of going along with as much as you can, and as often as you can, in as many situations as you can, and just let the flow flow, then you leave the clear, sure rivulet of your family’s way unclouded.
- For those of you who are now just sure that I am preaching permissiveness, let me reassure you with his next one… Another practical skill to develop in order to have more fun in your parenting is allowance. No, I’m not talking about giving the kids more money. I’m talking about giving them more lee way, more space, and more autonomy to experience life as it comes to them, as they are inspired to receive and understand it. Get into the habit of allowing your kids to have their own version of their experiences, their own preferences, and their own beliefs about — well, everything. You may still want them to go your way, but let them have theirs; at least in as much as you can, and in as much as it applies to the specifics of the situation.
- Parents who want to find more fun in their experience raising their children should also look for it. As one of the commenters on “CYOAP pt II” suggested, “Changing the parenting question to ‘How can this be more fun?’ would get lots of parents back on track to the joy of parenting.” It’s a question I often ask my clients in Life Coaching sessions — “Where’s the fun?” or “What’s the funnest version?” — and it’s certainly apropos for recalibrating your thinking toward the fun version of parenting. Look for the fun that is already being made available to you right now in this (and every) moment. And look toward the horizon for the fun that could be coming your way any second now. It’s there. Can you find it?
- Also — and this is my personal favorite — don’t just wait for the fun to show up on your proverbial doorstep like a baby in basket — create it. Get up, and get down with your fun self. Make it a hoot to get everyone’s shoes and coats on and get to the car and into car-seats for the 14th time of the day. Make it a blast to brush teeth. Make it a game to clean up the toys. Make it an adventure to take a bath. Pretend stuff. Make believe. Make all the so called drudgery into a magical celebration of play — not because it will make you a better parent (though, it will), and not because it will get your kids to do more of what you want them to do (though, it will) — but simply because it is more fun to have fun. The more you make, the more you get to have. It’s that simple.
- There’s also my most common answer for all that ails the modern parent, which is no less suitable for this moment — bond, bond, bond. Start before your babies are born, and keep doing it through their birth, and throughout their growth and development, until you die. There is no more important endeavor in parenting, for either the fun or anything else that you would want to accomplish while parenting, than to nourish and nurture the parent-child bond. It is the end and the means of all that you do or wish to do as a parent guiding and raising your child(ren). If you give proper attention to this one facet of your occupation as a parent, then you simultaneously make every single other thing that you and your child(ren) encounter in your lives together exponentially easier. There’s no more basic and necessary part of what you do, what you will do, and what you must do as a parent than to make sure you create, take, and give thanks for every opportunity, in whatever guise it comes, to bond with your child. Over and over and over, more and more and more. It’s not only the gateway endeavor for experiencing more fun, it’s also the single best thing you can do to ensure your child’s lifelong success and happiness. But, hey, no pressure…
- One of my other standbys for all things parenting is — use empathy. While I normally espouse its use in order to help children process feelings, and move through difficult emotions and/or troubling moments — in terms of having more fun while being a parent — the empathy is mostly for your own sake. Use it toward your kids, to help you understand where they are coming from, what they need, and what is happening/happened for them, and to make space for them to process life’s events. But use it (also) for the purpose of giving yourself some peace. There is often no better way to feel more at ease with what is happening, and/or what your kid is doing than to make the effort of seeing it from their point of view. Try it, often — I guarantee, you’ll be amazed at what empathy affords you the fortitude to do, and you’ll be impressed by how quickly employing it can help you get back to the fun.
- Another thing I suggest — and here we’re getting further and further “out there” in terms of parenting norms — forget the use of coercion. That means cease all intimidation, manipulation, bribery, or mind control with your kids. Just leave it right out. You may be able to force your child(ren) into submission, and you may succeed in getting compliance (while you’re near enough to enforce it…), but the cost such methods have on fun is prohibitive, to say the least. And to paraphrase Alfie Kohn’s apt expression of this sentiment in Unconditional Parenting, “What is the value of having consistently compliant children, if they flinch every time you walk into the room?” In the end, nothing that can be gained from consistently coercing children is really worth its deleterious effects on them, on the parent-child bond, or on the fun that could otherwise be filling the room.
- Additionally — and this has been a general theme for Natalie and I more and more as of late — as Joseph Cambell used to say, “follow your bliss“. Do what feels “good” and “right” to you. I put those words in quotes because I am fully aware and fully intending that they be considered in a utterly subjective sense. As the parent of your child(ren), you get to say what is “good” and “right” for your family, and in fact, that is your duty, regardless of the subjectiveness of your opinion about what fits into those categories. It’s your job to do what feels most in line with your understanding of those words, and that is your legacy to your progeny. So trust your sense of what feels “good” and “right” and follow that trust right along the way to your own version of “bliss”. For your life, there is nothing more important than this, and for your parenting, there is nothing more effective. If you honour your and your child(ren)’s journeys to “follow your bliss”, you can not fail to find more fun along the way.
- Finally (for the moment), and this is as new-agey as I will get, I promise, do whatever it takes to press pause on your personal goal-setting, life-plotting, and summit-climbing, in favor of getting yourself to the point where you can be present for the experience of parenting. Don’t miss it, don’t work it away, don’t squander it in front of the TV, or waste it thinking of something else, or blow it by not being tuned in. Be there, right there, soaking it in, loving every stinkingly beautiful moment of it, and enjoying the fullness of your experience every step of the way. Be there with it while it’s happening, remembering Ms. Senior’s warning — you will regret what you didn’t do (or see, or hear, or get stained with, or up-to-your-chin deep in) a whole lot more than what you did. So be there for it, and enjoy it, and forget about all that crap you had in mind before you were blessed with the opportunity to be really present for (at least) once in your life. This is your chance, you’ve got no business missing how fun it can be.
The bottom line is this, folks, (as you already know) it’s up to you. You can have a good time at this parenting thing — despite the writing prowess of people like Jennifer Senior, and despite the virtual mountain of scientific data that says other parents aren’t doing it — it can be done. If nothing else, let me assure you that, if you want it, there is plenty of fun to be had in parenting, and I can say that while fathering three daughters. We have an awesome time, the majority of the time, because that’s what we’re here to do. And to us, there really isn’t anything more important than that we feel good and have fun while we grow and learn and create here. That’s what we choose, as often as we’re capable of it. Hands down.
What’ll you choose?
Be well, my fellow adventurers. And “follow your bliss”.
And don’t forget, if you want further assistance in following that bliss of yours (whether it’s directly related to parenting or not), I’m your man. Get in touch with me through the contact page and let’s start that bliss-trailing immediately!