A couple of weeks ago, Glenn Reynolds did a great Wall Street Journal op-ed, in which he pointed out that parenting is very little fun nowadays:
Parenting was always hard work, of course. But aside from the economic payoffs, parents used to get a lot of social benefits, too. Yet in recent decades, a collection of parenting "experts" and safety-fascist types have extinguished some of the benefits while raising the costs, to the point where what's amazing isn't that people are having fewer kids, but that people are having kids at all.
This occurred to me recently while reading Caitlin Flanagan's new book, "To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife." Ms. Flanagan's book is mostly a comparison of her own housewifely and maternal life with that of her mother, and one thing that struck me is how much of what counted as acceptable–or even exemplary–parenting a generation ago would now be considered abuse and neglect. Here's an example:
My mother was by no means indifferent about me: I was her pet, the baby of the family. But back then children were not under constant adult supervision, even if their mothers were housewives. By the time I was five, I was allowed to wander away from the house as long as I didn't cross any big streets. I had the run of the neighborhood at six. . . . A nine-year-old could be trusted with a key; a nine-year-old knew how to work a telephone if anything went wrong. Moreover, anxiety as a precondition of the maternal experience had not yet been invented."
Nowadays, of course, children don't get the same treatment. I have heard repeatedly that my state's Department of Children's Services considers it neglect to leave a 9-year-old alone in the house for any time at all. Today's middle-class kids are always under the adult eye. It's not clear that the kids are better off for all this supervision–and they're certainly fatter, perhaps because they get around less outside–but the burden on parents is much, much higher. And it's exacted in a million tiny yet irritating other ways. Some are worthwhile–car seats, for example, are probably a net gain in safety–but even there the cost is high. I heard a radio host in Knoxville, Tenn., making fun of SUVs and minivans: When he was a kid, he boasted, his parents took their five children cross-country in an Impala sedan. Nowadays, you'd never make it without being cited for neglect. And you can't get five kids in a sedan if they all have to have car seats, which these days they seem to require until they're 18.
And on and on.
What I get from my own life and from listening in on my friends' lives is that another aspect of the "it's no fun" side of modern parenting is that getting your kids to do anything is so difficult. When I was a kid, when I spilled my milk for the fourth time in as many days, my Mom whomped me on the bottom. I didn't spill my milk again. With my kids, they have to help me clean up (big whoop), and I roll my eyes and tell them to be more careful. Yeah, sure I could send them to their rooms, but they don't care. I could give them a time out in a boring place, such as a corner, but again, that's not a serious deterrent. I could take away a toy, but they're not really invested in their toys. They get used to everything and slough it off. My friends and I spend inordinate amounts of time trying to devise punishments that won't get us in trouble with Child Protective Services, but that will deter our children. None of us have much luck. It's exhausting — and most of it's ineffective.
Looking around my community, I see from the kids who have already grown up that kids raised in this peaceful, creative-parenting way are nice kids — no doubt about it — which is a good reason to follow this discipline approach. Also, this is the community norm, and there's really no use bucking a norm. So, I'm assuming that, in eight or ten years, I'll have really nice kids too. Indeed, they're really nice now — while they're careless and disrespectful, they don't have a mean bone in their little bodies. It's just that I'm not having any fun….