A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to NPR on the way home from work and heard a piece that has been lodged firmly in my brain since then. In the segment, Melissa Block interviewed Jennifer Senior, a contributing editor for New York magazine, about her new book about parenting entitled All Joy and No Fun. According to Ms. Senior, the book set out to investigate parental well being in general and, in particular, the effects that children have on their parents’ lives. The interview left me stunned.
The title of the book developed from a question the author posed to a friend of hers who had just recently become a father. When she asked him what his impressions of parenthood were so far, his response was “All joy and no fun,” suggesting that there’s no shortage of beaming pride and fulfillment that comes from his child’s accomplishments and day to day experiences but also that that same day to day experience is lacking in basic adult enjoyment and fun.
To examine this claim, the author looked at studies of parental attitudes conducted over a 50 year span. According to Senior:
“We assume that children will improve our happiness. That’s why babies are called bundles of joy. But what’s so interesting is that one of the most robust findings in the social services….is that children do not improve their parents’ happiness.”
In fact, the studies indicated that having children either had no effect or “slightly compromised their parents’ happiness.”
By this time in the piece, I was pretty surprised, but as I kept listening, I heard the kicker. Ms. Senior cites a study by behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman that asked mothers to rate a variety of typical daily activities and the enjoyment they provide. According to Ms. Senior:
“What’s truly amazing about Danny Kahneman’s study is that when the women were answering this question, they didn’t even realize they were ranking childcare so low… And only at the end when everything was all added up did he discover that parents would have preferred — yeah, napping, answering emails, shopping, watching TV … housework, vacuuming clocked in higher which is amazing.”
Vacuuming?!?! Vacuuming is more enjoyable than childcare?!?! As I write this, it’s been two weeks since I heard this interview and I’m still dumbfounded!
I fully understand what a slog parenting can be. My daughter is 7 now and, believe me, I’m very thankful she’s outgrown Dora and Caillou. I don’t miss changing diapers and I’m happy that the daily battles we had during the terrible two’s are (mostly) a thing of the past. I’m also not so blind as to say that parenting a 7 year old is always a party. My wife and I are blessed to have an easy-going, low maintenance kid but, as with all kids, we still have days in which drama and drudgery vastly outweigh delight. One day about two years ago, the three of us were about to leave the house to go to a screening of Sing Along With Mary Poppins. Before we got in the car, I just stopped and screamed to the heavens “My life is so boring!!!” I actually wound up enjoying the show but, clearly, it is not what I would have chosen to do had I not had a child in tow. Some of the fun things I used to do all the time before my daughter came along are much smaller parts of my life now. Some day, when my wife and I are thinking about going out to eat, we’ll be able to consider factors other than “Do you think they have grilled cheese on the menu?” But for now, going out for ethnic food doesn’t happen all that often.
Learning that so many parents don’t have fun being with their kids left me feeling bad for them. They’re missing out. I can accept the fact that I enjoy playing with kids more than most adults do. It’s what I’ve been doing for a living for about 25 years. Along with the fact that I get to wear jeans and a t-shirt to work most days, the best part of my job is that I’m a mental health professional who spends more time chasing kids around pretending I’m a dinosaur than I do being Sigmund Freud. So I get it. If I didn’t like playing with kids, I wouldn’t still be doing what I do.
But what we’re talking about here is vacuuming, people. Vacuuming, to use a pun so obvious it’s painful, sucks!
In our work at Academy MetroWest, we strive to run our groups in ways that enable us to be ourselves and have fun. Aside from the obvious point that having fun is an intrinsically good thing, there’s a method to the madness as well. Adults need to be aware that in everything they do with kids, they are role models. In our groups, one of our points of emphasis with kids is the need to adjust their behavior based on their circumstances and surroundings. We try to do that in our interactions with them as well. When the situation warrants, we set limits, provide social feedback, stay on top of group dynamics, provide support and a whole host of interventions that constitute decidedly “grown up tasks.” On the other hand, we spend a lot of time having fun with them too. When there’s no immediate reason to be serious, the message we try to convey through our behavior is that it’s okay to relax, be yourself, and have fun.
My good friend Steve Gross is the founder and Executive Director of Life is Good Playmakers and one of the most capable and empathic human service professionals I’ve met. The Playmakers provide training and support all over the world to day care workers, teachers, social workers, and other human service providers. Their work is aimed at helping young children overcome experiences with poverty, violence, and illness, through the enriching experience of play. Steve defines playfulness as:
“The motivation to freely and joyfully engage with, connect with, and explore the surrounding world.”
He describes social connection as one of the key elements of playfulness. Parents begin fostering a sense of joyful connectedness in their children from the time their kids are babies. When even the youngest children have a chance to engage with their parents, seeing the changes in their facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language, they learn to associate all those good things with social interaction.
I suppose you can fake that for awhile but my guess is that it starts to fall flat after awhile if you’re not really enjoying yourself.
I don’t have a magic solution for those parents who don’t have fun interacting with their kids. I just know that finding a way to do so can be immensely rewarding for parents and valuable for kids. Keep trying. The vacuum cleaner will still be there when you’re done.