So what, precisely, is going on here? Why is this finding duplicated over and over again despite the fact that most parents believe it to be wrong?
One answer could simply be that parents are deluded, in the grip of some false consciousness that’s good for mankind but not for men and women in particular. Gilbert, a proud father and grandfather, would argue as much. He’s made a name for himself showing that we humans are pretty sorry predictors of what will make us happy, and to his mind, the yearning for children, the literal mother of all aspirations for so many, is a very good case in point—what children really do, he suspects, is offer moments of transcendence, not an overall improvement in well-being.
Perhaps. But there are less fatalistic explanations, too. And high among them is the possibility that parents don’t much enjoy parenting because the experience of raising children has fundamentally changed.
“I’m going to count to three.”
It’s a weekday evening, and the mother in this videotape, a trim brunette with her hair in a bun and glasses propped up on her head, has already worked a full day and made dinner. Now she is approaching her 8-year-old son, the oldest of two, who’s seated at the computer in the den, absorbed in a movie. At issue is his homework, which he still hasn’t done.
“One. Two …”
This clip is from a study conducted by UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families, which earned a front-page story in the Sunday Times this May and generated plenty of discussion among parents. In it, researchers collected 1,540 hours of footage of 32 middle-class, dual-earner families with at least two children, all of them going about their regular business in their Los Angeles homes. The intention of this study was in no way to make the case that parents were unhappy. But one of the postdoctoral fellows who worked on it, himself a father of two, nevertheless described the video data to the Times as “the very purest form of birth control ever devised. Ever.”
“I have to get it to the part and then pause it,” says the boy.
“No,” says his mother. “You do that after you do your homework.”
Tamar Kremer-Sadlik, the director of research in this study, has watched this scene many times. The reason she believes it’s so powerful is because it shows how painfully parents experience the pressure of making their children do their schoolwork. They seem to feel this pressure even more acutely than their children feel it themselves.
The boy starts to shout. “It’s not going to take that long!”
His mother stops the movie. “I’m telling you no,” she says. “You’re not hearing me. I will not let you watch this now.”
He starts up the movie again.
“No,” she repeats, her voice rising. She places her hand firmly under her son’s arm and starts to yank. “I will not have this— ”
Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity. As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed. (The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child’s value in five ruthless words: “Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”) Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses.
“Did you see Babies?” asks Lois Nachamie, a couples counselor who for years has run parenting workshops and support groups on the Upper West Side. She’s referring to the recent documentary that compares the lives of four newborns—one in Japan, one in Namibia, one in Mongolia, and one in the United States (San Francisco). “I don’t mean to idealize the lives of the Namibian women,” she says. “But it was hard not to notice how calm they were. They were beading their children’s ankles and decorating them with sienna, clearly enjoying just sitting and playing with them, and we’re here often thinking of all of this stuff as labor.”
This is especially true in middle- and upper-income families, which are far more apt than their working-class counterparts to see their children as projects to be perfected. (Children of women with bachelor degrees spend almost five hours on “organized activities” per week, as opposed to children of high-school dropouts, who spend two.) Annette Lareau, the sociologist who coined the term “concerted cultivation” to describe the aggressive nurturing of economically advantaged children, puts it this way: “Middle-class parents spend much more time talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution. And this is very tiring work.” Yet it’s work few parents feel that they can in good conscience neglect, says Lareau, “lest they put their children at risk by not giving them every advantage.”