Like most parents, my husband and I want our kids to be happy, confident and prepared for the future. These are, however, fairly new ideas about how to parent. 

A few generations ago, children were expected to pull their weight and contribute to the family’s finances. The economic and social roles that children played in society were dramatically different. In her book, “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” Jennifer Senior draws upon a variety of studies in economics and social science to show how middle-class parenting and the expectations we have for children have radically changed.

When parents today are asked why they decided to have kids, responses usually include something about the joy, meaning and purpose they bring to life. Before the 19th century, however, parents were “distinctly unsentimental” about their children, Senior states. According to the historian Steven Mintz, they seldom referred to them with “nostalgia or fondness.” Newborns were often called “the little stranger” and it was not considered worthwhile to take precautions to protect children from harm or “the more brutal emotional realities of life.”

Kids were expected to work. Senior states, “In the earliest days of our nation, children cared for their siblings or spent time in the fields; as the country industrialized, they worked in mines and textile mills, in factories and canneries, in street trades.” It wasn’t until after 1920, when child labor laws started to be enforced, that children transformed from being “useful” to being “protected.” After World War II, childhood was completely redefined and for the first time in history children “became vulnerable, priceless creatures rather than economic assets.”

The role of parents has also undergone a dramatic change. Before the industrial revolution, parental responsibilities were extensive. Parents were in charge of their children’s academic and religious education, grew their food, made their clothes, and cared for them when they were sick or injured. Senior jokes that they “didn’t have time to agonize about whether oboe or cello would look better on a college application.”

It’s much less clear today what a parent’s role is. Schools are responsible for children’s education, pediatricians handle their medical care, food is convenient and plentiful, and thanks to Old Navy, parents no longer have to make their clothes.

Most middle-class parents are committed to ensuring their kids have high self-esteem and are prepared for a future they can’t possibly envision. These are fairly vague and elusive goals, compared to teaching a kid how to read or plow a field. According to Senior, childhood has become “devoted almost entirely to education and emotional growth. Today parents pour more capital — both emotional and literal — into their children than ever before.”

Senior introduces her readers to a handful of middle-class parents in Houston who all want their sons and daughters to have every advantage in life. This means they will often “run themselves ragged” to get their kids to soccer practice, violin lessons, and Scouts. Like many parents, they feel obligated to do these things because studies suggest how important they are. Children who participate in extracurricular activities tend to have “higher self esteem and enhanced status among peers,” while those who participate in organized sports are less likely to do drugs and more likely to have a higher annual income as adults.

Parents spend about five hours per week on their kids’ organized activities and several more hours on “concerted cultivation.” This term was coined by sociologist Annette Lareau to describe the “aggressive nurturing” of many advantaged children.

Senior’s book is a thought-provoking look at how the roles of children have changed, along with the expectations that parents have for them. Sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes children of the 21st century as “economically worthless, but emotionally priceless.”

Instead of contributing to the family, children are “protected, and assumed to be ‘future assets,’ requiring much upfront investment.” We no longer expect kids to milk cows, watch after their siblings, or put in long hours at the textile mill. But the expectations placed on children haven’t lessened; they have simply shifted from financial to emotional.

Senior suggests that in exchange for their investment of time and money, parents expect children to bring them joy, transcendence and possibly “existential fulfillment.” When considered in this light, many kids may find that milking cows and babysitting might not be such a bad deal.

 

Melissa Brown is an associate professor of Applied Business at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Community and Technical College. She can be reached at mcbrown@alaska.edu. This column is provided as a public service of the UAF Applied Business Department.