Thursday, May 08, 2014

Parenting, Cheap Energy, Work, and Jennifer Senior

I went to hear the author Jennifer Senior talk at our local middle school about her book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, because I'd caught part of a radio interview in which she was speaking considerable sense. In particular, she had said that kids used to be put to work, but now the roles have reversed and parents mostly work for the kids. Sure, there's schoolwork, and a sport or two, but generationally speaking I stand between ancestral farmers and carpenters (people who made and grew stuff), and descendents preoccupied with consuming the never ending cascade of snapchat and netflix. Senior, having delved deep into sociological research, points to this lack of work as one of the big changes parenting has gone through in recent decades.

What I came away with, though, was an unexpected confirmation of another conclusion I've reached in recent years, that cheap energy, while proving to be a boon for us in so many ways, is also, to bend a phrase, the primary root of a whole lot of evil. Senior wouldn't make such a judgement. She repeatedly emphasized that her approach is descriptive, not prescriptive. But that conclusion is implied in her repeated references to the downside of spread out communities and kids who are, in the words of Viviana Zelizer, "economically useless and emotionally priceless".

I would describe it this way: Because of the one-time boon of cheap energy from underground, our communities have been scaled not to people but to automobiles, leaving most kids helpless to get around on their own, and machines do most of the work that teenagers might once have been expected to help with. Now that kids aren't needed to do any work, and can't just run out the door and find friends to play with, both parents and machines are put to work for them, chauffeuring them far and wide to soccer games, music lessons, and other enrichment activities meant to optimize what Senior calls "superkids", so they can reach their full potential and compete in a global marketplace. The spread out community not only isolates families and turns parents into chauffeurs, but also perpetuates dependence on fuels that speed climate change, thereby diminishing prospects for the kids whose opportunities we labor to maximize.

As if to drive this point home about the hidden oppression caused by the machines that serve us, halfway through her talk the air handler in the ceiling of the auditorium shut off, bringing a realization that we had been fighting background white noise for the past ten or twenty minutes to hear her speak. The tension, caused by the subconscious effort to filter out the noise, fell away as soon as the air handler shut off. Walking next to a busy road can cause the same tension, and I recently experienced a remarkable relaxation bicycling down the centerline of one of Princeton's roads that was closed one recent afternoon to all car traffic as part of a bike/ped event called "Ciclovia". What a pleasure and relief, fresh breeze blowing, to be on a road that at least for one afternoon wasn't serving as a climate change factory or producing that traffic noise we all subconsciously labor to ignore.

After the talk, the soundman expressed to me his frustration with the noise generated by the auditorium's air handler. It was a cool evening, there was no need for air conditioning, yet he was helpless to turn it off. A computer controls the school's heating and cooling, sometimes for the better, but in this case for the worse.

When I later asked Ms. Senior about the link of cheap energy to the parenthood dilemmas she had described, she said yes, of course, the industrial revolution, and it's all more developed in her book, as friends whisked her away in the obligate automobile to catch a train back to Brooklyn. 

Here are some more notes from the talk, including the three ways in which Senior sees parenthood as having changed in recent decades:
  1. Choice: Family size has dropped from 8 in colonial times to 5 in the 19th century, to 2 today. Each kid is more highly valued.
  2. We work differently: The only job back in the 50s where one could expect a phone call at night was that of a doctor. Now, we can work all the time, which means we can feel guilty all the time. Also, women are part of the workforce.
  3. Kids used to work: Though child labor laws were passed in the 1920s, kids still worked during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the war years of the 1940s. Only in the postwar years did we start working for the kids, rather than the other way around.
  • The transition from the 50s to now involved a shift in the perceived primary role of the mother, and can be seen in the terminology. The HOUSEwife became the "stay at home MOM". The 1960s mother kept an impeccable home. Now, time is spent with the kids while the housekeeping is neglected.
  • We think it's our job to keep our kids happy.
  • Benjamin Spock foresaw this shift, and warned of its implications.
  • The overprotection of kids can lead to what one professor described as kids entering college "underconstructed".
  • In reference to our distorted memory of the 50s, she mentioned the book The Way We Never Were.
  • People are unaware that the public school system didn't really get into full swing until the 50s. Only 50% of boys graduated from highschool in the 1940s.
  • Scandinavian countries are the prime example of how parents tend to be happier in countries with expanded social safety nets.
  • She mentioned Maslow's Hierarchy, which people live higher or lower on, depending.

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