Sunday Snippet: Jennifer Senior on Modern Parenting

“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.”

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 was not enough. Today, extracurricular activities are a kid’s new work, but that’s work for us too, because we are the ones driving them to soccer practice. Massive piles of homework are a kid’s 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.” The middle class now pours all of its time and energy and resources into its kids, even though the middle class has less and less of those things to give. Mothers now spend more time with their children than they did in 1965, when most women were not even in the workforce.”

Historically, agriculture took a lot of manpower and the majority of the human population was dedicated to the task of growing crops and raising livestock. In this way, children were seen as assets, because they’d be able to help work the family farm from a very young age. Parenting meant teaching the kids how to milk the cows and sow the fields. The path for parenting was better defined, because you fully expected the children to take over the farm completely at some point.

Today, in a very real albeit heartless way, children really are “economically worthless,” because we’re not sending them out to work the fields at the age of five. And even though they might set up a lemonade stand or pick up a paper route, they’re not exactly a source of income for the family either. Indeed, running that lemonade stand is probably just as much work for mom and dad as it is for little Susie or Billy.

The quote at the top comes from New York Magazine contributing editor Jennifer Senior. In her recent TED talk (video embedded below), she discussed just how overwhelming modern parenting has become. It’s obvious enough that my daughter is my priority now and my goal is for her to be happy. The challenge is that we are now preparing our children for an uncertain future.

It’s unlikely that Adalynn will end up working on a farm, milking cows and plowing fields, but even that I can’t say with complete certainty. We want our children to succeed in life, so parents feel obligated to take their children to swim lessons, piano lessons, and Mandarin lessons. But that’s a lot of work, both for the kid and for parents. And even though it may not necessarily be about the specific knowledge or skills they gain through all this homework and extra-curricular activity, we want to teach them how to learn and how to figure things out for themselves.

It’s easy to assume that this burden of responsibility, the burden of parenting a developing child, falls on the shoulders of mothers alone, but that’s not true either. Gender roles are changing too.

“But here is the thing: Men are doing plenty. They spend more time with their kids than their fathers ever spent with them. They work more paid hours, on average, than their wives, and they genuinely want to be good, involved dads. Today, it is fathers, not mothers, who report the most work-life conflict.”

Parenting in the modern age is certainly not an easy job and it becomes even more difficult when you are struggling to juggle a full-time career at the same time. Even in these early weeks, I can tell you that it’s tough trying to nurture and develop my own small business while simultaneously spending as much time with my daughter as possible. I can’t imagine it gets much easier when we have to start dealing with school, puberty, career preparation and the rest of it.

The challenges of parenting are undeniable, but the rewards are positively invaluable. We just want our kids to be happy and healthy, right?