GUY RAZ, HOST:
If you think about it, like, the one thing that makes us who we are, almost more than anything else, is how we were parented, right?
JENNIFER SENIOR: Oh, yeah.
RAZ: This is writer Jennifer Senior.
SENIOR: And it's very funny; I don't know when you came of age - I mean, I was parented at a time when the basic theory was, get on your bike, ride around the neighborhood and at 6 o'clock, I will bang a gong and you will come back inside.
RAZ: Jennifer's a mom and the author of a book on what she calls the crisis of modern parenting. And the title - "All Joy And No Fun." And it's about the effect that children have on their mom's and dads.
SENIOR: There was a pair of people in my book, Angie and Clint, these really relatable, wonderful parents. And I asked each of them what was harder, being a mother and father or, you know, doing their day job? And when I asked Angie, she said, oh, I find it much more confusing to be at home, whereas I feel very competent in my paid work. And her paid work was - she was a psychiatric nurse. She got screamed at; she had to deal with people who were having psychotic breaks. People would bite; they would yell; they would kick. But she felt more competent and in control and confident there than she did at home. And I said, why is that? And she said because, you know, I know what I'm doing there, and I'm not quite sure what I'm doing here.
RAZ: And in the course of writing her book, Jennifer found that a lot of parents are really stressed out about how their kids will turn out. Here's Jennifer Senior on the TED stage.
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SENIOR: Why is it that raising our children is associated with so much anguish and so much confusion? Why is it that we are at sixes and sevens about the one thing human beings have been doing successfully for millennia, long before parenting message boards and peer-reviewed studies came along? Why is it that so many mothers and fathers experience parenthood as a kind of crisis? There has been plenty of scholarship documenting a pretty clear pattern of parental anguish. Parents experience more stress than nonparents; their marital satisfaction is lower. There have been a number of studies looking at how parents feel when they're spending time with their kids. And the answer often is not so great.
RAZ: So that's really the word you'd use for parenthood, a crisis?
SENIOR: People experience it as one. I mean, actually, there is in fact no crisis. Our kids are born with lots of privileges that kids everywhere else in the world don't have. But we experience parenthood as a crisis for sure. And I think it's because modern parenthood - the way that we parent now is pretty new. And that's because childhood as we know it is really only about 70 years old. And nobody really realizes this, but until fairly recently, kids worked, which is not ethical, but it's how it was. What that meant is that we didn't give a whole lot of thought to parenting.
RAZ: In a moment, Jennifer Senior explores the question - can parents produce happy kids? I'm Guy Raz, stay with us. This is the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR, I'm Guy Raz. And today on the show, we're asking the impossible question - what's harder, growing up or being a parent? We pick up with writer Jennifer Senior, who thinks it was probably easier to raise kids in the old days and harder in some ways to be a kid.
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SENIOR: Until fairly recently, kids worked - on our farms primarily, but also in factories, mills, mines - kids were considered economic assets. Sometime during the Progressive Era, we recognized kids had rights. We banned child labor, and school became a child's new work. And thank God it did. But that only made a parent's role more confusing in a way. Once kids stopped working, the economics of parenting changed. Kids became, in the words of one brilliant, if totally ruthless sociologist, economically worthless but emotionally priceless.
SENIOR: Rather than them working for us, we began to work for them because within only a matter of decades, it became clear - if we wanted our kids to succeed, school is not enough. Extracurricular activities are a kid's new work. That's work for us, too, because we're the ones driving them to soccer practice. Massive piles of homework are a kids new work. But that's also work for us because we have to check it. About three years ago, a Texas woman told something to me that totally broke my heart. She said, almost casually, homework is the new dinner.
RAZ: But, I mean, it's not just homework - right? - that's stressing parents out.
SENIOR: Well, the world is changing very, very, very, very rapidly. We don't have any clue what we're training our kids for. We just know that we have to make them prepared for some future. So we send them to violin lessons, or we teach them how to code because the world is going to be written in HTML, or we teach them another language because the world going forward is going to be multilingual. Oh, and above all, though, we know that we have to shore up their self-esteem. By the way, no matter what we do, we have to make them feel good.
RAZ: Yeah, you're really good at violin.
SENIOR: Yeah (laughing).
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RAZ: He's getting better?
SENIOR: Yeah, exactly (laughing).
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SENIOR: And this is all new. No one used to - you know, in 1850, no one was freaking out about sleep training. No one was flipping out about whether or not their kid had enough self-esteem and whether they got a soccer trophy. You know, in 1850, this looked really different.
RAZ: But, I mean, another reason we do all these things is because we love our kids. I mean, like you said in your talk - they're priceless to us, more priceless to us than they were in 1850.
SENIOR: Right. We now assign a very high value to our kids. We have very few of them. I mean, we don't have our kids now until we're 30 years old. So - God, so much is riding on that. I mean, we now look forward to having kids the way that Jane Austin heroines looked forward to marriage. It's this great thing that we are working toward and it's like the capstone to our lives now essentially. And so we have all those expectations of parenthood and what kind of happiness it's going to bring us, but we also have this enormous expectation for our children. We want them so much to be happy.
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SENIOR: Our kids' happiness is paramount. That is what it means to raise kids in an age when they are economically worthless, but emotionally priceless. The one mantra no parent ever questions is, all I want is for my children to be happy. And don't get me wrong, I think happiness is a wonderful goal, but it is a very elusive one. Happiness and self-confidence, teaching children that is not like teaching them how to plow a field. It's not like teaching them how to ride a bike. Happiness and self-confidence can be the byproducts of other things, but they cannot be goals on to themselves. A child's happiness is a very unfair burden to place on a parent. And happiness is an even more unfair burden to place on a kid.
RAZ: But that's like natural and normal, right? I mean, we all want our kids to be happy.
SENIOR: It is. It is the one thing we all agree on. I mean, I tie myself up in knots about wanting my kid to be happy. But here's the thing, some kids aren't going to be happy, it doesn't matter what you do. You know, maybe constitutionally that's not who they are, right? The most you can do is create kind of circumstances that would enable them to feel productive or feel like they were helpful to others. But to actually single-handedly take responsibility for their happiness is super tough.
RAZ: Do you think that parents now are just - I don't know - I mean, they're trying to do it right. They're trying to improve on everything that came before them.
RAZ: And so is it possible that they're doing it right?
SENIOR: I think everybody gets so balled up thinking that there is a right way, I think it's really anxiety provoking. And, you know, what is orthodoxy for one generation, or even a half generation, or even for three years, is overturned three years later. And so when I was out in Stanford reading it from my book, you know, a dean came running up to me afterwards and said all of our freshmen are showing up under constructed - that was her word. It was a great word. You know, they've been over parented. And I thought, oh, God, good Lord. But we all thought we were under parented, what's - what's medium parented? Can we do this medium rare, medium well? I don't know. I mean, I just - it's very, very, very hard on people I think to figure out where this middle ground is.
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SENIOR: In our desperate quest to create happy kids, we may be assuming the wrong moral burden. It's strikes me as a better goal, and dare I say a more virtuous one, to focus on making productive kids and moral kids and to simply hope that happiness will come to them by virtue of the good that they do and they're accomplishments and the love that they feel from us. That is one response to having no script. Absent of having new scripts, we just follow the oldest ones in the book. Decency, a work ethic, love - I think if we all did that, the kids would still be all right, and so would their parents - possibly in both cases even better.
RAZ: Jennifer Senior, her book is called "All Joy And No Fun: The Paradox Of Modern Parenthood." Check out her entire TED talk at ted.com.