Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, #SOL15

Our twenty-year old college student texted his dad this afternoon with the unfortunate news his car needed new tires. The declaration hung in the air for a few moments, and eventually my bonus son asked if we could split the cost of the automobile expenditure with his mother. Hunter's parents divorced over ten years ago, and the complex journey of co-parenting continues to present unique challenges long after child support and court orders ended.

We are incredibly proud of the young man Hunter has become, and we couldn't ask for a more well-rounded, thoughtful child. He's respectful, gracious, and responsive. During high school he worked long hours as a lifeguard, saving up money so he could spend his freshmen year at college foot-lose and care-free. He joined a Christian fraternity, found his tribe, and managed to make descent grades. He returned to Texas Tech this year, and after some gentle nudging throughout the fall semester, he secured a job at an on-campus bagel shop. The food service industry didn't suit his fancy, so he hustled and found alternative employment at a local bank. Although most of his peer group does not work, I believe Hunter sees the value and importance of self-sufficiency. We expect him to pay his own car payment, and with the help of student loans, he's making his way in the word. While his dad and I cover his health insurance, car insurance, and cell phone bill, we also believe our children must learn to stand on their own two feet. 

Last year during spring break, Chris and I listened to the audiobook, All Joy No Fun, by the New York Times journalist, Jennifer Senior. This thought-provoking, paradigm-shifting book provided hours of rich discussion and left a lasting impact on my own ideals and attitudes about modern parenting. I have since quoted, referenced, and paraphrased her work on numerous occasions, and I've recommended the book to several friends and colleagues. 

In her book, Senior writes. 
Today, we work hard to shield children from life’s hardships. But throughout most of our country’s history, we did not. Rather, kids worked. In the earliest days of our nation, they 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. Over time, reformers managed to outlaw child labor practices. Yet change was slow. It wasn’t until our soldiers returned from World War II that childhood, as we now know it, began. The family economy was no longer built on a system of reciprocity, with parents sheltering and feeding their children, and children, in return, kicking something back into the family till. The relationship became asymmetrical. Children stopped working, and parents worked twice as hard. Children went from being our employees to our bosses. The way most historians describe this transformation is to say that the child went from “useful” to “protected.” But the sociologist Viviana Zelizer came up with a far more pungent phrase. She characterized the modern child as “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.” Today parents pour more capital—both emotional and literal—into their children than ever before, and they’re spending longer, more concentrated hours with their children than they did when the workday ended at five o’clock and the majority of women still stayed home. Yet parents don’t know what it is they’re supposed to do, precisely, in their new jobs. “Parenting” may have become its own activity (its own profession, so to speak), but its goals are far from clear.” 
Transitioning from parenting an adolescent to an emerging adult has proved to be both rewarding and difficult. Allowing Hunter to make his own choices and suffer the consequences is tough. At times, his dad and I desperately want to interfere, call the shots, and control the outcome. However, our job as parents has shifted, and our highest aim is to send a self-regulating, prepared adult into the world. 

The daunting task of creating capable, independent human beings seems to get harder every day. Society has shifted, and the majority of young people believe their parents owe them all the amenities and conveniences of modern living. Twenty-somethings battle a pervasive sense of entitlement, and the majority of them think they deserve all things it took us years to acquire. From value vacations, to fashionable furniture, to entertaining electronics, our kids demand to have what we have. Our culture's unreasonable expectations of parenting become a yoke around our necks, and our own insecurities keep us hustling for worthiness and fearing the withdrawal of love. 

Ultimately, we must stand firm in our convictions and clearly define our values. Chris and I are more than willing to help our son grapple with growing up. We are financially secure enough to pay for busted tires, but we believe in building agency and teaching him to solve his own problems. By constantly covering unexpected expenses, we are inadvertently telling him he is ill-equipped for adulthood. Maybe that makes us bad parents, and perhaps people in our own circles view us as selfish and unsupportive. At end of the day we have to live with our own parenting decisions. Our background and upbringing alter the paths we take, and whether we are over-correcting or repeating patterns passed down through generations, I believe we are all doing the best we can. As Senior so eloquently explains, "No matter how perfect our circumstances, most of us learn to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like. The hard part is to make peace with that misty zone and to recognize that no life—no life worth living anyway—is free of constraints."


  1. I hear in your post all of the worry and fear that parents have. Raising good self-reliant citizens should be all of our goal. We may not all get there the same way, that's what makes it a diverse world! Keep on keeping on my friend!

  2. Wowie, this hits home with me tonight. My son is about to take finals this week and because we are taking a spring break on our schedule and he has a different schedule I'm feeling some guilt. So, I'm sending him on a trip to see his cousin. But, I did talk to him about getting a job when he gets back. I'll have to pick up this book.

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  4. Tara, you make a great point! It takes all kinds of kinds to make the world go round. The mantra, "Different, not less" must be my anchor. Our children, our friends, our relatives . . . they will all have an opinion, but in the end, it's our own conscious we must live with. Parenting is such vulnerable work, and I appreciate your encouragement!

  5. I love that you called him your bonus son. That is so much nicer than step-son. It makes your relationship sound so much more positive. And I'm glad it is.