“You’re more fun than me,” my husband asserted as part of a conversation on our respective parenting virtues.

“But that’s not saying much,” I replied. And it’s true. As parents and people, we’re creative and curious, disciplined and (mostly) patient, gentle and honest. We’re not perfect by any stretch, but we’re not without our merits so far as human beings so. Yet when my husband chafes at the line “These things are fun, and fun is good” in Dr. Seuss’ One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, I get it—because neither one of us sees fun as something we ought to be striving for.

In her new book All Joy and No Fun, Jennifer Senior explains, “[u]ntil fairly recently, what parents wanted was utterly beside the point. But we now live in an age when the map of our desires has gotten considerably larger, and we’ve been told it’s our right (obligation, in fact) to try to fulfill them.” While I can see the limitations of my own non-funster perspective, it’s also easy for me to understand how chasing after one’s own desire can lead to a fruitless and shallow life; and that paradox shows up in Senior’s title as well, where parents seem to understand that joy and fun are not at all the same thing even as the world reminds us how much fun we should be having these days.

Many parents simply aren’t having fun, and instead of recognizing that ambivalence or drudgery as the essence (at least in part) of parenting itself, we lament our lack of autonomy, the ties that bind us to the children we’ve brought into the world. Senior reminds us “that no life—no life worth living anyway—is free of constraints.” It’s our obligations to others, whether our offspring or our spouses or our churches or our communities at large that make us feel both less free and joyful. The contrast reminds me of Christ being jostled by the crowd and recognizing that someone touched him and drew away some of His power; the same touch drains and heals. Children impose on parental freedom and expose us to unbridled joy.

Fun, though, is an historically new concept for families, whose dependence on children as labor meant offspring were an economic incentive—not an financial lodestone. Our new, post-industrial families changed the roles and meaning of every member of the family. As Senior points out, “we sometimes mistakenly assume that things were always this way. They weren’t. The modern family is just that—modern—and all of our places in it are quite new. Unless we keep in mind how new our lives as parents are, and how unusual and ahistorical, we won’t see that the world we live in, as mothers and fathers, is still under construction.” In practical terms, this point suggests that parents today don’t have the same clarity of purpose in childrearing as many of our forebears. We’re not raising up children to participate in our careers or contribute to our household economies; children have shifted to the center of middle-class families while parents carpool frenetically to prepare kids for a future we can’t even imagine.

Senior writes, “[i]t’s as if parents, uncertain about what future to prepare their kids for, are trying to prepare them for any and every possible future.” That process churns out what Senior describes as “useless adolescents” – over-scheduled and over-sheltered by middle-class parents jockeying for place in an unstable and increasingly-globalized economy. Much of Senior’s analysis focuses on the historical and the economic, and indeed there’s a grim reality for parents wondering about our children’s future prospects for self-sufficiency. Still, the insecurity of the world can be countered by the stability of an unchanging God. No matter the market fluctuations or historical periods, children of God still bear spiritual gifts, still reflect the divine image, and still serve as part of the body of Christ. Parents can look, not to career but to vocation, to God’s calling and God’s character for guidance in raising children whose purpose is crystal clear: to glorify God.

1 Comment

  1. Erin, Those are wise words. Switching our emphasis from career to calling/vocation (not only for our children and grandchildren), but also for ourselves, is a big step toward real joy.

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