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PrattTribune - Pratt, KS
  • Dr. Elaine Heffner: The changed goal of parenting

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  • A new book by Jennifer Senior, “All Joy and No Fun,” has provoked a discussion about the impact of children on their parent’s lives. The book rounds up the usual suspects responsible for the pressures and stress parents are under. These come from two sources. One is the changes in the world in which parents now raise children. The other is the nature of children themselves, which itself can be challenging.
    A major change has been that of women’s roles, which has changed both child-rearing and family life. Senior illustrates the difficulties for women working outside the home as well as for those trying to maintain a work life while continuing as stay-at-home mothers. Either situation confronts children’s basic need for physical care and attention.
    Discussing these issues, Senior labels the problem one of autonomy. Beginning with the sleep deprivation of parents of newborns, and moving on to other ways children’s needs interfere with the interests and needs of parents, Senior, while calling it autonomy, is really pointing out the way children do not allow for a focus on parents themselves.
    What stands out is a fundamental change in a society that now puts a premium on self-fulfillment. In an earlier era, self-sacrifice was understood to define a “good mother.” A mother was supposed to put her children’s needs ahead of her own. In a still earlier time, all family members were expected to work and sacrifice for the good of the family or larger community. The value now is personal autonomy, which is unquestionably impinged upon when one has children.
    Senior discusses the impact of children on marriage. Here, too, the realities of a changed world come into play, specifically an economy that may require dual incomes and the changed expectations of fathers now that women are often breadwinners. Issues such as appropriate division of labor and availability of personal time for each parent create tension.
    Attention is given to what Senior calls concerted cultivation. This relates to social and cultural changes which also have brought about changes in the behavior of children. A new view of the nature of childhood as requiring protection and education, ultimately led to child labor and protection laws, which prevented children’s participation in the new industrial society.
    Children were no longer an economic asset and increasingly they became a financial drain. Even more significant than the cost of education is what parents perceive to be required for their children’s success. Declining opportunity and increased competition for good schools and ultimately good jobs has led to the over-scheduled lives of children as parents pursue every possible educational advantage.
    An interesting aspect of Senior’s book is the way in which an explanation of children’s behavior – perhaps with a view toward enlisting parental understanding of their own plight – is offered repeatedly in terms of brain function, neurology and general biological development. This is especially true in the discussion of adolescence and the rewards adolescents find in risk-taking.
    Page 2 of 2 - Perhaps the most striking feature of this picture of children’s impact on their parents is the changed goal of child-rearing in the modern age. The goal has shifted from raising a child to be a contributing member of his family and community to a goal of benefiting the child himself. The child and what benefits him or her has become the focus. It is not surprising that such an arrangement creates stress for parents.
    In an era that values self-fulfillment, finding the balance between one’s own needs and those of one’s children remains the major challenge, not only in raising children but in living with others.
    Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.
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