Regaining the joy of family life
by Naomi Schaefer Riley | October 23, 2018
It is hardly a new observation to say that parenting has become an exercise in martyrdom. From the time a child is born, mothers (mostly but some fathers, too) complain about how little sleep they’ve gotten, how they had no time to shower, how they’ve been wearing the same clothes for three days, how they have been subsisting on a diet of Cheerios and cold pizza. When the kids get older, it becomes a contest among moms to see who had to supervise the most homework projects or drive to the baseball game furthest away or how many months it has been since mom and dad had a date night.
KJ Dell’Antonia, for one, has had enough. In her new book, How to Be a Happier Parent, the former editor of the New York Times' Motherlode blog writes that she doesn’t want to spend the 20-something years of raising her four kids:
in a haze of resigned exhaustion, longing to be or do something else. I want to raise my family, have my life, and love almost every minute of it. I am lucky to have all this, the house and the SUV and the washer-dryer and the healthy loving kids. I want to like it.
Dell’Antonia’s guiding rules for living the dream of happy parenthood are not complicated. She recommends, for instance, getting enough sleep. Not just enough to get by, but enough to remain in a relatively good mood while your kids test your patience. There’s a big difference.
She recommends cooking (or microwaving) one meal each night for your whole family—not a different meal to suit each child’s needs—and ensuring that it is food you enjoy, too.
She suggests that you don’t need to keep up with the Joneses. Just because another family wants to schlepp their kids to four different extracurricular activities a week doesn’t mean you have to. Homework, she says, should be done by children and not their parents.
Frankly, there is almost no advice in this book that my grandmother would not have offered if she were given a glimpse into the homes of most middle-class American families today. And it boils down to this: Adults should be in charge.
Don’t get me wrong. All of my grandparents were devoted to ensuring that their children got a good education, were kind to other people, understood the importance of their religious traditions, and eventually got married and had children of their own. But the idea that they would have given up showers, or unnecessarily subsisted on cold cereal, or completed their children’s school projects for them, or driven them to hockey practice at 5:30 AM several days a week is unfathomable!
To certain parents, Dell’Antonia’s advice will sound selfish—like when she says, “you can be happy when your children aren’t.” She notes that “sympathy and empathy don’t mean that our worlds come crashing down around us when that’s how it feels to our kids. Usually, we have something our children don’t: perspective.”
Like many of Dell’Antonia’s suggestions, this one has the benefit of not only making parents happier but of making kids happier in the long term, too. You need to “give your child the distance she needs to experience her own emotions without a sense of being responsible for yours,” she writes. Helicopter parenting is bad for parents and for children.
Most middle and upper-class parents today have little experience with a kind of older authoritarian model of childrearing. It’s unlikely that their Boomer generation parents were particularly strict with them. But when we lost the discipline—corporal punishment, strict curfews, getting grounded—we also seem to have lost a certain sense of decisiveness. As Dell’Antonia puts it, “Being a parent can mean doing a lot of waffling. TV or no? Candy? Snack? Rabbit? Sleepover? Hoverboard? Scary movie? Concert? We weigh alternatives. We reconsider.”
But all this reconsidering is killing us. Without clear rules laid out for daily questions like how much screen time or how many snacks, we are subject to a constant barrage of begging and whining. And it is making us much less happy as parents.
None of the advice in How to Be Happier Parent is earthshattering, but it is entertaining. And Dell’Antonia is right. We are, for the most part, very lucky to be raising our families in this place and this time, and we should enjoy it.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Republished from the Institute for Family Studies blog with permission.