To those of you who missed this Fresh Air interview with Jennifer Senior I highly recommend you check it out. In it, Senior talks about a variety of parenting issues that she covers in her new book All Joy No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. This, however, is not your ordinary parenting book with tips and pointers on how to best raise your child. While she does talk about early childhood neurological and psychological development, she also spends a fair amount of time talking about how the roles of parents have evolved in the United States over the decades. For instance, she touches on how parenting issues have changed in American society due to the passage of child labor laws, language (i.e. being a “house wife” versus a “stay at home mom”), and parenting techniques (i.e. “helicopter” vs. “drone parenting”). Where most scholars and researchers have been focused on the effects that parents have on their kids, Senior chooses to instead focus on how children affect their parents.
“It’s very hard to teach your child to be happy and to be self-confident. It’s not like teaching them how to do math or how to plow a field. Teaching your children happiness is a very vague and elusive idea.”
Senior points out how destructive and complicated certain parenting issues can be for couples as they are trying so hard to do everything they can to provide their kids with at least a halfway decent childhood. In other words, the focus of so many parenting issues today is on making sure that their kids are happy versus actually parenting them in a healthy and balanced way that doesn’t make them the focal point of the home. Some couples will even stay together for their children’s sake even though they do not have a fulfilling relationship. In the process, the couple suffers because rather than focusing on each other and how to work together as a family system or unit, they very easily focus on who is doing what to and for the kids, as if they are somehow adversaries. The children, without even doing anything, have somehow taken the power right out of their parents’ hands. This pattern then perpetuates itself because then the child grows up thinking that the dynamic revolves around him or her. When things are good, the child feels good about him or herself. But when things are bad (i.e. the parents start to fight more regularly and severely), the child can take on profound amounts of shame because he or she thinks that they are somehow to blame.
But why does this happen? Why have parenting issues become marital issues and vice versa? While the answer to this should, of course, be tailored to each individual situation, I believe that at least part of the answer lies in each parents’ own childhoods. How many people do you know (a friend, a partner, a spouse) who, either consciously or unconsciously, want to have kids to give someone else the childhood they never had and always wanted? As a family therapist, whenever I hear or see this the automatic translation in my head is ‘I am using my kids to work out something from my own childhood rather than face and work through those issues on my own.’ Parenting issues can then become marital issues (and vice versa) because of the discrepancies in each parent’s wants or needs for themselves being lived vicariously through their children.
Furthermore, tensions frequently rise between a parent and their child in these circumstances when the kid decides not to play along in this game. For example, when a parent scolds their defiant child with “you think you have all the answers!” what they may really be saying is “I have the answers and you’re not letting me take care of myself through you!” In the process, the child gets upset for feeling unseen and unheard for who they really are and the resentment builds. One reason I stopped working with children individually, opting to turn these individual cases into family ones, is because I found this to be what was really at the heart of the situation.
This is the real nuance that we frequently see in families today: parenting issues become marital issues because each of the parents are somehow trying to work certain aspects of their own childhood out on their kids (i.e. values, unmet needs, etc.). Fighting among care givers escalates because each person feels that their partner isn’t parenting properly, and in the process, reiterating the pain in their own hidden psychological wounds.