Notions: Children — Employees/ Employers

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.

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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.

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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.


The book is All Joy and No Fun, The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, by Jennifer Senior.

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5 Responses to Notions: Children — Employees/ Employers

  1. Lia says:

    Thanks for this post and the discussion in the comments, June! I heard a snippet of Senior’s interview on Fresh Air and will probably read her book (though my co-worker, who also has young children, tells me it’s depressing). We have representatives of all these generations in our nuclear and extended family (employer, employee, and the in-between), so it will be interesting (if scary and frustrating at times) to see how things will go with Maya.
    I know. You’d think that when you wait until age 42 to have your first child, you’d have the child-raising stuff figured out, but Bo and I are just muddling along!


    • june says:

      Hi Lia,

      As far as I can tell, nobody has the child-raising stuff figured out. Some think they do, until they have a child or two. So you are in the company of billions.

      And certainly we don’t want to go back to the days when we sent the child out to the sewing factory or to be chimney sweeps at age 10. There must have been heartbreak beyond belief then.

      So take heart and muddle along. I really liked the last sentence I quoted from the review: “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.” I think we also grow to understand and marvel more at ourselves and our capacities:-)


  2. june says:

    Hi Sheila, Your last concern struck me as one too. Although I can see that my daughter was just lightened as her child took on his own life. So it might work out well.

    As for the mucking out the barn — it might sound OK if there are good clothes and a shower to erase the smell, but the kids I’m thinking of lived in a house where water was heated on the stove on Saturday for baths. So mucking out the barn didn’t just have a kind of stigma, it had a definitive smell. And of course, their clothes were hand-me-downs and what-not. They did oK in the first four grades in the country school, but immediately as they went to the “town” school they were singled out, by both teachers and students, bullied and laughed at. The one in my grade, who was my chief rival for four grades, simply disappeared and last I heard was hauling garbage with his truck. I don’t know if he lasted through high school.

    So I’m not talking about making your bed to teach you responsibility but making you take on, as a child, the real duties of employees, without regard for whether that status interferes with social existence or exhaustion while doing math etc. It was, I think, a very different world, one which I wouldn’t have liked, but perhaps wasn’t so bad so long as everyone was involved in it. But as soon as the classes of those who worked before school because they had to and those who did so because it “helped out” became obvious (along with the problems of running water, etc) then the employee status became a whole ‘nother thing.

    My mother despised teachers (in spite of what I became) because they were hoity-toity. That wasn’t the phrase she used — her phrase was far more vulgar — but she meant that they felt themselves to be better than the farm kids they taught. She grew up on a farm, where she and her brothers were essential to keeping it a subsistence operation.

    So while I’m not sure what can replace the old style, and while I have a good appreciation for your feelings about how other people deal with their children (been there, often), I sure don’t want to go back if we don’t have to:-)

    Thanks for checking in and letting me blather on.


    • Sheila says:

      Good points all. That little school I worked at – the majority of the kids were in the same boat regarding before and after chores to keep those farms afloat, so not so much the singling out, although there were a few. And not the dismal living conditions you describe. But it was hard for those kids to keep up with the homework.

      Funny – my father too had a poor opinion of teachers, even though he married one. I can’t tell you how many times I had to sit there listening to his degrading remarks as mom sat quietly and hurtfully by. He wasn’t directing the comments specifically to her. Somehow, I don’t think he made the connection until after he spewed forth. But because his mother died when he was 15 and his dad deserted the family, he did not get the education he would have liked, so always felt inferior. But truthfully, he was one of the smartest men I knew. And also one who literally got farmed out to another couple at a young age to earn his keep. Yeah, we need not go back to that model.


  3. Sheila says:

    I never had kids so only know this subject from one perspective. I admit, as “child rearing” changed among my younger friends, I found myself biting my tongue time after time to keep from criticizing or at least registering my doubts about the way they were raising their kids. I’ve definitely leaned towards accusations of coddling and irresponsibility.

    I never felt in the employ of my parents, but understood there was time for play and time for helping with various chores as a part of the family unit. I was aghast when I discovered my friends got allowances that were tied to what I’d been raised to see as expected, just part of the daily routine. The only time I was remotely paid for anything was when my mother and I struck a bargain over long distance calls – she’d allow me to make some in return for doing sewing for her like hemming a dress. I think this sort of upbringing taught me good life lessons that have served me well. And I felt well loved. I’m sure I was coddled, but of course, I never thought so.

    Would I have altered this style with my own children? No way to know. Perhaps because of the years I worked in a little farming community where that reality still existed, I do find the idea of the kid shoveling out the barn before school highly satisfying!

    I keep re-reading what you’ve written here and can feel my conflicted feelings rising once more, as if in the presence of one of those good friends struggling to raise her boys as described by Senior and wondering why it wasn’t working well. Yet those boys aren’t hooligans. But in her case, she really could stand to have them contributing to the financial well-being of the family as well as helping around the house more. Maybe there’s an in-between ground we should be searching for, a model that falls somewhere in between the 19th century model and the 21st century model.

    At any rate, thanks for the link to the review. It gave me a lot to think about and also gave me a bit of a shudder. If previous generations struggled with empty nest syndrome, what must this latest generation have waiting for them?


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