Before I jump into the review, I want to begin by saying that the reason I came across this book is that I heard the author give an interesting TED talk. If you have 20 minutes to spare, you should stop now and watch it before reading on.
You can see why I felt moved to read All Joy and No Fun. Unfortunately, this may be another case of the TED talk being better than the book (someone needs to come up with a catchy name for that phenomenon).
Sociologists have long asked, “How do parents affect their children?” This book flips it to, “How do children affect their parents?” I was hoping this book would use science to answer this central question, but while the author does mention several studies measuring other phenomena surrounding parenting, she largely skirted statistics and focused on “case studies,” which is a fancy-pants way of saying anecdotes. And when it comes to weighing the value of anecdotes, the saying springs to mind, the plural of anecdote is not data. The stories she featured of real parents in the trenches were interesting, but they were not indicative of anything other than an individual’s experience. Certainly, no sweeping conclusions can be drawn from these interviews. I might be more forgiving of the startling lack of statistics had the book been marketed differently.
It’s much easier to make sense of the book if we take it for what it really is: an exercise in journalism, not science. This isn’t a thesis on how parenting has changed in the past hundred years or why parents love their children even if their children decrease their quality of life or how parenting attitudes change as children grow from newborn to toddler to teenager (all very good questions in their own right). In truth, it doesn’t provide any answers at all, only vignettes into the daily lives of six or seven parents across America. But even so, the book redeems itself because it gives validation to parents who are suffering in silence. These small glimpses into the lives of other families send the message that parenting is much harder than it looks, and you are not alone in your struggle. Parenting has become a competition to project Pinterest-worthy perfection at all times, but the truth is that we are a generation more lost than any that came before us, muddling through uncharted territory as best we can. That unifying message is a single ray of hope in a book so dour that it might cause childless couples to get sterilized, should they venture to read it.
Luckily, I know children don’t always have to be the wrecking ball they are portrayed as here. Of course, there is a certain amount of sturm und drang that accompanies parenting, but All Joy and No Fun gives the impression that a mother must choose between her husband and her children, or even her own identity and her children, and the anecdotes do nothing but reinforce that unspoken sacrifice. I think the danger with padding a book like this with anecdotes is selection bias, conscious or unconscious. The author probably thought she did an excellent job interviewing a wide array of parents, but I’m not so convinced. The reader is supposed to see a reflection of themselves in one of her examples, but I found there to be a startling lack of diversity. Sure, one parent was obsessed with academic performance, while another chauffeured her kids to countless sports games. But they all seemed to generally agree on a certain set of opinions, including but not limited to: public school is best, a lack of government-funded daycare is preventing us from finding real happiness, attachment parenting is the only enlightened way to parent, children must be cocooned vis-à-vis helicopter parenting, etc. The author seems determined to look only at households where children are “economically worthless and emotionally priceless.”
We don’t treat our child as if she is emotionally priceless to us. She is not the center of our family, but a member of it. I’m not going to hothouse her in academics and we certainly are not going to immerse her in youth sports. We aren’t going to attend Mommy & Me swim lessons or dance classes. We consciously give her independent play time where we don’t interact with her at all, so that she learns how to entertain herself (in addition to the usual parent-child interaction for which she doesn’t lack). When she touches something she isn’t supposed to, I don’t hesitate to use that as a teachable moment. In a hundred different ways, our daily message to her is that we are the authority figures, and while it’s our job to meet her needs, we do not conflate her needs with wants. My first priority in our household is not my child, but my husband. To some, these sentiments may seem cold and unfeeling, but for us at least, this is the balance that is required to avoid smothering our child with a blind devotion that would ultimately harm both her and us.
It’s telling that not a single family interviewed voiced any of the sentiments I just expressed here. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying we have everything figured out and parenting is a picnic for us. But the quiet desperation so starkly illustrated in the lives of these parents should not be heralded as an inevitable fate to all. Many parents who had it much harder than we do in modern America did not resign themselves to that. This book clearly showed that there is a movement among parents today see their children as emotionally priceless, but it should have also critiqued that mentality instead of accepting it as a matter of course.
Whatever guiding principles you choose as a parent, as long as you and your partner keep each other honest and constantly reassess what you’re doing and why, that introspection is going to see you through the hard times. This book makes an important first step in acknowledging how overwhelmed and conflicted many parents feel today, but its worth is diminished because the author has set her jaw on the conclusion that this is just the reality of all parenting, rather than the natural conclusion of a certain modern trend. You don’t have to send children back to the workhouses to make them feel they are making a valuable contribution to the family unit–there is plenty of middle ground to be had. The real paradox of this book is that the author showcases parents whose lives have clearly taken a wrong turn, and then tries her darndest convincing readers to normalize these outcomes instead of urging them to find something that works better for their family.