So I’ve been reading this week’s New York cover story on Why Parents Hate Parenting—I can imagine a number of obvious reasons why this might be, based on upon memories of what I was like as a kid, and I was, I emphasize, a very good kid—and every time I’ve gotten to the bottom of a page, the Facebook logo says another half-dozen people have recommended this article. So it’s apparently proving fairly cathartic, this article suggesting that, pace social pressure and preaching from the converted, raising a human being to full autonomy, especially in today’s environment, involves hard, stressful work, pervasive anxiety, and profound unhappiness. Which, I mean, shit, obviously, right? But ok, fine, if it takes a shocking! glossy-mag cover story, then that’s just what it takes.
Here’s two things I thought work interestingly together:
Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity. As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed… Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses.
A few generations ago, people weren’t stopping to contemplate whether having a child would make them happy. Having children was simply what you did. And we are lucky, today, to have choices about these matters. But the abundance of choices—whether to have kids, when, how many—may be one of the reasons parents are less happy.
That was at least partly the conclusion of psychologists W. Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge, who, in 2003, did a meta-analysis of 97 children-and-marital-satisfaction studies stretching back to the seventies. Not only did they find that couples’ overall marital satisfaction went down if they had kids; they found that every successive generation was more put out by having them than the last—our current one most of all. Even more surprisingly, they found that parents’ dissatisfaction only grew the more money they had, even though they had the purchasing power to buy more child care. “And my hypothesis about why this is, in both cases, is the same,” says Twenge. “They become parents later in life. There’s a loss of freedom, a loss of autonomy. It’s totally different from going from your parents’ house to immediately having a baby. Now you know what you’re giving up.”
So… as each generation of children is more coddled than the last, they’re finding it harder and harder, and more and more obligatory, to adjust to role of the one doing the coddling?
This is fairly logical, really. The better childhood gets—the more sources of stimulation, purchasing power and committed support systems kids have access to—the harder it is to adjust to anything that is not childhood. If any new parents are reading this: maybe the best thing you can do for your kid is to make sure she’s not too happy growing up.