In the NY Times book review of Feb 2, 2014, a review of Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun had one of those insights that left me gasping: today’s children are “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”
Think about (as Senior has) the language differences between “housewife” and “stay-at-home Mom”. Those are job descriptions, the first from the 1950s, the second used right now. In the olden days (and still in many countries) children were essential employees, supervised (in both senses of the word) by their parents; today in the US, they are employers, using parents to attend to their needs — taking them to day care, after school skating and chess lessons, attendance at soccer games, cooking dinner for them, doing homework with them. Children used to be employees of the parents, now they are employers.
I grew up in the 40s and 50s and was on the cusp of the change. My parents’ families saw men and women as contributors’ to the family’s income, contributor’s to the world’s well-being. My daughter was never seen by us as vital to our family’s economic health and well-being. And she was of the new generation, being a good employee of our grandchild (although I must say, she had good boundaries about that role). She has, also, been an ongoing joy to know and be attached to. And that, says Senior, is the joy of contemporary parenting.
Senior describes what parents no longer do: they no longer teach kids math, give them medical treatment, sew their clothes, grow their food, provide vocational training or essential home maintenance skills. What they do do is nurture the child, constructing a life narrative that includes delighting in the child’s development as human beings, their growth into kindness and generosity.
As a girl, I was lucky. My father didn’t have much faith in the female of the species and he wasn’t in charge of my job skills or my training in car maintenance or sewage repair or basic electricity (he supervised my brothers in those respects). My mother wanted me to be “free”, and one of her mantras, when one of us girls failed to be the proper employee, was “I’d rather do it myself.” And indeed, she made my 8th grade home ec apron.
The change-over of children’s roles in the family has been a hundred years in the making. Sometimes the change has been couched in pejorative terms: coddling children or allowing them to be irresponsible.
But do we want to go back to the days when we were employers, with all the crazy-making scripts that requires? Making sure the jobs are done as necessitated, and the employees (the children) do financially essential jobs before they are allowed to settle into homework or sleep? Do we really want our kids to wake up at 4 AM to muck out the barn before they get ready for school? I didn’t have to do this, but I went to school with a number of kids who did. And the escapes that children used in those days — heading out for the territory, hiking through the wilderness alone — are no longer available to them.
Senior doesn’t dwell on the employer style of parenting. Rather she points out the difficulties and joys of the new style: “Children may complicate our lives, but they also make them simpler — children’s needs are so overwhelming and their dependence on us so absolute that it’s impossible to misread our moral obligation to them… We bind ourselves… and through caring for them, grow to love them, grow to delight in them, grow to marvel at who they are.