I get a little skeptical when someone writes a parenting book based, at least in part, on the premise that there are way too many parenting books out there.
But Jennifer Senior makes a great point when she notes – in her recent best-seller and at the start of a TED Talk filmed in Canada last month – that the parenting portion of the self-help section at Barnes & Noble is getting a little out of control.
There are guides to raising an eco-friendly kid, a science-minded kid, a gluten-free kid and a preschool yoga whiz, she says. You can buy a book on how to raise a bilingual child even if you speak only one language. You can learn how to impart financial skills, creative skills, decision-making skills or 101 things your children ABSOLUTELY MUST KNOW BEFORE THEY TURN 3!
“I do not see help when I look at that shelf,” Senior says. “I see anxiety. I see a giant, candy-colored monument to our collective panic. And it makes me want to know: Why is it that raising our children is associated with so much anguish and so much confusion?”
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Senior, author of “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood” and the mom of a 6-year-old, has several theories, culled from years of research and interviews, about why today’s path through parenthood seems fraught with stress.
The one that promptly widened my eyes, though, was her take on a popular parenting mantra:
“All I want is for my children to be happy.”
I’ve said it. If you have children – or grandchildren, or step-children, or nieces or nephews, or any child who’s important to you – you’ve probably said it: “I just want him to be happy.” Everyone says it, all the time. Why wouldn’t they? Who doesn’t want their children to be happy?
But here’s the thing, Senior says: You can’t teach a child to be happy. And our desperate quest to “create” happy kids – to build for them some crucial foundation of joy, as if we could craft it out of Lego blocks or AP courses – is a fool’s errand.
We want them to be smart, so we teach them chess or Chinese. We want them to learn teamwork, so we sign them up for soccer. We want extra points on their college applications – because college is key to a fulfilling career, which is the key to happiness, right? – so we make sure they’re finishing their homework, getting good grades and volunteering evenings and weekends. But we’ve also learned that family dinners are vital, so all that racing around needs to culminate by 7 p.m., over a collective feast of vegetarian pad thai.
Exhausted yet? We all are.
Those activities can be great. It’s no sin to be busy. But we need to realize, Senior says, that happiness isn’t a goal; it’s a by-product. You can’t enroll your child in a self-confidence class or sign him up for after-school Contentment Club. (No doubt someone will write to tell me those things actually exist, and I will say, “Of course they do.”)
But we can focus on fostering productive children, moral children, kids who are decent, loving and kind, Senior says, “and let happiness and self-esteem take care of themselves.”
What a concept. We can love our children unconditionally, the way parents do, the way they’ve done for generations, and try to give ourselves a break.
You don’t need a shelf full of books to teach you that.