Jennifer Senior’s best-selling book All Joy and No Fun: the Paradox of Modern Parenthood asked a jarring but relatable question: why is parenting so unpleasant? Through research studies and anecdotes, she made two main points: 1) parents are miserable and 2) their misery requires large expenditures of time, money, and effort.
I don’t claim to have answers to this problem and, since my kids are all under the age of ten, I can offer no guarantee that my own parenting philosophy is either wise or effective. However, I will offer a few suggestions for how I’ve managed to homeschool four children who all appear to be happy, successful, and well-adjusted (so far). My central thesis is that maximizing your children’s happiness is a recipe for disaster. If you try to squeeze every last drop of joy out of every second of their existence, you’ll experience rapidly diminishing returns. If you try to make every day more fun-filled than the last, you’ll create an arms race that can only end in boredom and dissatisfaction. If you shelter them from all the vicissitudes and frustrations of life, they’ll be completely unprepared to enter the real world. And in the process, you’ll burn yourself out.
So what are some practical ways that I’ve dialed back some of the ‘standard practices’ of parenting?
My oldest daughter loves art and I have no objection to it. I buy her colored pencils, crayons, and coloring books. I let her watch hours of YouTube drawing tutorials. I clean up the pipe-cleaners, felt squares, and pieces of tape that litter her desk. But I don’t do crafts. Why? Because I don’t enjoy crafts. I have saved the lives of dozens of trees that would otherwise have been turned into construction paper. I don’t spend my nights trawling Pinterest for DIY mailbox cozies. I do not have a Michael’s Rewards Card.
Is my daughter missing out? Maybe. I’m sure she’d prefer it if we swapped math for cross-stitch. I could argue that she’s learning that the world doesn’t revolve around her, that she doesn’t need my constant supervision to have a great time, that she can improve her skills without my guidance. But I don’t have to make that argument. It is permissible for parents to say ‘no’ to their children just like we say ‘no’ to our spouse or our friends or other people we love, without a lot of deep-seated guilt and hand-wringing. My time is limited and I have a lot of tasks to balance. I don’t like doing crafts with my daughter, but I like doing other things with her. So those are the things that we’re going to do together.
My wife and I celebrated our 16th anniversary by ourselves in Cancun. While there, my wife remarked how much our kids would love the huge swimming pools, water slides, all-you-can-eat buffets, and 24-hour room service. They would indeed. But do you know what else they would love? The neighborhood pool with a Supersoaker from Target. Should we spend thousands of dollars to drag four kids thousands of miles so that they can have slightly more fun than they would have walking down the block with a towel and a pool noodle?
My own happiest childhood memories rarely had anything to do with vacations. And when they did, the trip’s location was almost entirely incidental. I went to Europe in 3rd grade. My fondest memories? Playing imaginary video games in my head as we walked the streets of Paris. So, while they’re young, we limit our vacations to the beach, a local water park, the zoo, and trips to see family. I promise, our kids will have plenty of happy memories. And so will we.
When our kids were 5, 3, and 1, we enrolled them in gym classes. The closest one that offered simultaneous classes was 20 minutes from our house, 30 minutes during rush hour. But it gave them some exercise and they enjoyed it. Then my daughter began to show some modest talent and she moved up to the “prep team”: two-hour lessons twice a week, while her siblings played iPad waiting for her to finish. At 7, the coaches suggested that she join the real team. It would only require two-hour practices three times a week, plus interstate travel to competitions. I pulled the plug. She was extremely sad for two weeks and then she more or less forgot about it.
Kids’ athletics are out-of-control. I have four children. I will not force them to endure hours of mindless travel time to and from events so that each of them can engage in the sport that happens to interest them most this month. They are all on the swim team. All four run laps in the morning (up and down the street outside our house). Once they get to high school, we’ll let them play the sport of their choice, unless it’s football. I accept the fact that, because of their intense childhood deprivation, they may never be as good at basketball as the child who spent his summers at The LeBron James Lil’ Dribblers Basketball Camp. And that’s ok.
Board games are the worst, followed closely by dolls, and then stuffed animals. Yes, it’s adorable when the kids have a “museum party” and take out every toy they own, spread them across the floor, and serve them tea. But I’m beginning to wonder exactly how many Princess Ariels we need, because our toy box resembles a Disney reboot of The Boys from Brazil.
To restrain the madness, I buy my children no toys. I’m quite serious. I don’t think I’ve purchased any of my children a toy for approximately 5 years. We also have a secret Santa list so that each person in our family supposedly receives exactly two gifts from relatives at Christmas. We ask the grandparents to limit their presents to ‘usables’ or ‘perishables’ like tickets or food items. Despite our Draconian efforts, my children can still swim in their box of Hotwheels like Scrooge McDuck in his Money Bin. I shudder to think what our house would look like if we were more permissive.
I also encourage video games. We screen titles carefully and try to select games with puzzle-like or problem-solving features (it goes without saying that we also restrict access to entertainment via screens: 30 minutes, three times a week). The big upside is not the educational value, but the reduction in clutter. We have more than enough stuff to engage our kids’ imagination. It’s important for them to learn that toys should be saved for and appreciated, not shoved under the couch as soon as the next upgrade arrives. Teach your kids now, or you’ll find them camping out in front of the Apple store for the iPhone 9S5 Plus/3D.
Finally, many people will offer you advice. That’s a good thing. None of us is perfect and we can all benefit from encouragement and admonition. Be humble enough to reconsider your approach and learn from other people. But at the end of the day, make the call based on what you think is best for your children.
“Best for your children?” I can hear people gasp. “I thought this essay was about ‘parent-centered parenting!'” No, alas, that was only the click-bait title.
In reality, your children’s long-term good should be your goal in parenting. That does often mean sacrificing your comfort. But it means sacrificing your comfort for their long-term good, not for their instant gratification, or for cultural idols like material possessions, or for the desire to keep up with neighbors. My worry is that what is often presented as “child-centered parenting” is just cultural momentum. Don’t be afraid to buck the trend. Your kids will thank you for it. Hopefully.