Stop Trying to Make Your Kid Happy (and Other Radical Insights)

6 minute read

Jennifer Senior’s new book, “All Joy and No Fun,” examines being a parent through a most unusual lens: the many ways in which children impact their parents’ lives—not the other way around.

I recently got a chance to chat with Senior, a contributing editor at New York magazine, about why the book (which is out this week) focuses on parents versus parenting. We also talked about a whole lot more: why happiness is a “false god,” why making children the center of our lives is a bad idea, and an essential parenting lesson that moms can learn from dads.

Where did the title “All Joy and No Fun” come from?

It was an aside uttered by a friend who had recently had a kid—I just had the good sense to steal it. It was just five words, but it was most economical way I had every heard of describing the paradox of parenting: the idea that moment-to-moment happiness might be compromised, but that in the overall scheme of things you are ecstatically happy about this one large, meaningful project you have undertaken.

Speaking of “no fun,” you cite a 2004 study that found working women ranked time with their children lower than doing laundry. Why do they feel that way?

It’s not surprising that after a long day at work, women felt stressed when they came home to a long “to do” list: dinner, homework, bedtime. Even in households where dads help with housework, women tend to do more childcare, and childcare is more stressful. One woman summed it up best when she said she’d rather do the dishes because “the dishes don’t talk back to you.”

You also suggest that the many studies showing nonparents are happier than parents are flawed. That, you say, is because it’s relatively easy to measure the drudgery of parenting and harder to measure the grander sense of meaning and fulfillment that comes from being a mom or dad. Is it really all that grand?

I am not a religious person, but raising kids might be as close as you get to those feelings of transcendence. But it’s hard to measure because there are not as many moments of transcendence during the day as there are boring ones, and they should be assigned a higher rating. My kid said something to me six months ago that I walk around with in my heart. He said: “I wouldn’t want any one besides you to be my mom. When I was born I was so glad it was you.” That stopped me dead in my tracks. If a social scientist asked me to rate that on a scale of 1 to 5, I’d give it a 5. At the same time, if you ask me to rate the lovely dinner I had out with friends the night before, I’d give that a 5, too. But it’s not the same 5.

In another part of the book, you highlight research in which moms and dads were asked to devise pie charts depicting what percentage of themselves they saw as spouse, parent, worker, hobbyist, etc. The moms consistently saw their parental role as a bigger part of their identity than the dads did. Why is that?

Women are much more alive to the emotional undercurrents in the house. How do you measure the psychological anguish and energy that goes into thinking about your kids? What will they do next summer? Did their stomachache go away when they got to school? Do they have enough friends? This is an underrated strain that women carry.

You maintain that moms can learn a lot about parenting from dads. Like what?

There is a couple in my book that I spent a lot of time with, Clint and Angie. When I asked Angie if she was a good mom, she said, “Sometimes,” and she’s a really great mom. When I asked Clint, he said, “I am the standard.” Good fathers tend to judge themselves less harshly. They don’t walk around with all the gruesome cultural baggage that moms do, so they are able to think of themselves as good parents. This generation of dads has had the privilege of inventing the standard and not being tyrannized by the previous unattainable ideal. Women have a lot they have to live up to, so it’s harder for them to see themselves as being good moms.

You say adolescence is harder on parents than it is on teenagers. How come?

This generation of parents has made parenting central to their lives. So when their children become older and tell them to piss off, which is what adolescents are supposed to do, it can unmask existing problems about career, marriage, lifestyle and unmet goals.

Parents always say, “I just want my kid to be happy.” You say happiness is an unfair expectation of children—arguably, even a burden. Can you explain?

It’s a lot to ask of a parent and a lot to ask of a kid. And I’m not sure that it’s even realistic. I think happiness is a false god to be worshiping. It’s more important—and easier to do—to create a moral kid, a productive kid, a compassionate kid, a kid with a strong work ethic. I’ll be damned if any parent knows how to make a kid happy.

You’re more than just a journalist, of course. You’re also a mom. So, what did you take away personally from researching and writing this book?

That reasoning with a small child is futile; that hashing out the division of labor with your spouse ahead of time works out better; and that it’s important to tend to yourself, your hobbies, your friends and your your marriage because you are going to need them in place when your child leaves.

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