Jul 31

Book Review: All Joy and No Fun

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern ParenthoodAll Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior

This book says its aim is to talk about the effect that children have on parents. I don’t know if many people have really dealt with this subject recently, so it’s gotten some good press because of that.. I’ve only read one other book, which dealt exclusively with the first five months after a child is born. This book deals from birth to when the children leave home. Senior follows several families from a parent study group in Minnesota, and interviews them about their lifestyle changes. Senior interspaces this with information drawn from studies and books and reports on the same subjects.
This book has a few weak aspects. Senior relies heavily on secondary and tertiary material. She pulls from a lot of the same studies and books I’ve been reading for the past ten years or so, including Clay Shirkey, Robert Putnam, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, so I felt like I was maybe getting new insights on old information, but not new information.

Secondly, Senior starts out by saying that she’s going to deal primarily with the middle class, which is fine. But the middle class she talks about is so far removed from my experience that it felt surreal. Senior talks a lot about the concept of the useless, cherished child, who is not expected to do anything except be perfect. She also talks about the filiarchy, the child-centric household, where you force the child do do hobbies and then your life revolves around enabling these hobbies, whether or not anyone enjoys them. Sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice, all in service of preparing the child for the future, whatever that means.

This paean of the tiger-mom sets my teeth on edge. By proclaiming that this is the norm of middle-class parenting (and I’m not necessarily saying Senior is the only one who does it) you imply that anyone who isn’t a manic overscheduling overprotective parent is doing it wrong. Mothers who “help” (do) their kids’ homework. Fathers who sit on the bench for every stupid game because everyone knows if the kid does anything without an audience he’ll be whining to his therapist about it in his thirties. These parents run themselves ragged to make the “perfect” children who can “compete” but they have zero evidence that it does anything to help. I’m sick to death of this perverse example being held up as the norm of middle class. I’m a somewhat anxious, neurotic person, but I seem like the big Lebowski compared to these violin-lesson, soccer-mom, helicopter parents. Who are these people? Am I not middle class? Do I not shop at Target? Some middle-class parents make their children do chores. (And some middle-class parents don’t believe that “connection with society” means “church/mosque/synagogue.” The Sunday-afternoon blahs are because you have to go to work the next day, not because of some guilt over not wasting your morning listening to someone talk about God.)

One further thing worth mentioning. I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by the author. Senior has a pleasantly raspy voice, and for the most part, does a good job. In one part of the novel, she used pseudonyms to refer to the teens who didn’t wish to be identified. One girl went by Calliope, but Senior pronounced it kally-OH!-pee. It baffles me that someone who can prounounce Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi could be so wrong about Calliope. I hope this mis-pronunciation was the girl’s specific request. “I want my pseudonym to be ‘Kally-Opy.” I hope so. Either way, it bugged the crap out of me. Seriously, seriously annoying.

All in all, I’d have to say this book is just okay. I’d give it two stars for “just okay” except I did like the stories, and it’s not badly written. It’s not super-exciting and doesn’t really cover anything you couldn’t find out by reading articles on the web, so I hesitate to recommend it, except for overwhelmed parents who want to listen to others and think “well, at least I’m not as bad as those poor saps.” I think parents who don’t often read about social science might find it interesting, but frequent readers of sociology and psychology will find it a little watered-down.

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