From pregnancy to raising children, there are many things that need to be faced and done. But when happiness around you, you will be thankfully.
It’s no surprise that Jennifer Senior’s insightful, provocative magazine cover story, “I love My Children, I Hate My Life,” is arousing much chatter – nothing gets people talking like the suggestion that child rearing is anything less than a completely fulfilling, life-enriching experience. Rather than concluding that children make parents either happy or miserable, Senior suggests we need to redefine happiness: instead of thinking of it as something that can be measured by moment-to-moment joy, we should consider being happy as a past-tense condition. Even though the day-to-day experience of raising kids can be soul-crushingly hard, Senior writes that “the very things that in the moment dampen our moods can later be sources of intense gratification and delight.”
The magazine cover showing an attractive mother holding a cute baby is hardly the only Madonna-and-child image on newsstands this week. There are also stories about newly adoptive – and newly single – mom Sandra Bullock, as well as the usual “Jennifer Aniston is pregnant” news. Practically every week features at least one celebrity mom, or mom-to-be, smiling on the newsstands.
In a society that so persistently celebrates procreation, is it any wonder that admitting you regret having children is equivalent to admitting you support kitten-killing ? It doesn’t seem quite fair, then, to compare the regrets of parents to the regrets of the children. Unhappy parents rarely are provoked to wonder if they shouldn’t have had kids, but unhappy childless folks are bothered with the message that children are the single most important thing in the world: obviously their misery must be a direct result of the gaping baby-size holes in their lives.
Of course, the image of parenthood that celebrity magazines like Us Weekly and People present is hugely unrealistic, especially when the parents are single mothers like Bullock. According to several studies concluding that parents are less happy than childless couples, single parents are the least happy of all. No shock there, considering how much work it is to raise a kid without a partner to lean on; yet to hear Sandra and Britney tell it, raising a kid on their “own” (read: with round-the-clock help) is a piece of cake.
It’s hard to imagine that many people are dumb enough to want children just because Reese and Angelina make it look so glamorous: most adults understand that a baby is not a haircut. But it’s interesting to wonder if the images we see every week of stress-free, happiness-enhancing parenthood aren’t in some small, subconscious way contributing to our own dissatisfactions with the actual experience, in the same way that a small part of us hoped getting “ the Rachel” might make us look just a little bit like Jennifer Aniston.
With so much focus on children’s use of screens, it’s easy for parents to forget about their own screen use. “Tech is designed to really suck on you in,” says Jenny Radesky in her study of digital play, “and digital products are there to promote maximal engagement. It makes it hard to disengage, and leads to a lot of bleed-over into the family routine.”
Radesky has studied the use of mobile phones and tablets at mealtimes by giving mother-child pairs a food-testing exercise. She found that mothers who sued devices during the exercise started 20 percent fewer verbal and 39 percent fewer nonverbal interactions with their children. During a separate observation, she saw that phones became a source of tension in the family. Parents would be looking at their emails while the children would be making excited bids for their attention.
Infants are wired to look at parents’ faces to try to understand their world, and if those faces are blank and unresponsive — as they often are when absorbed in a device — it can be extremely disconcerting foe the children. Radesky cites the “still face experiment” devised by developmental psychologist Ed Tronick in the 1970s. In it, a mother is asked to interact with her child in a normal way before putting on a blank expression and not giving them any visual social feedback; The child becomes increasingly distressed as she tries to capture her mother’s attention. “Parents don’t have to be exquisitely parents at all times, but there needs to be a balance and parents need to be responsive and sensitive to a child’s verbal or nonverbal expressions of an emotional need,” says Radesky.
On the other hand, Tronick himself is concerned that the worries about kids’ use of screens are born out of an “oppressive ideology that demands that parents should always be interacting” with their children: “It’s based on a somewhat fantasized, very white, very upper-middle-class ideology that says if you’re failing to expose your child to 30,000 words you are neglecting them.” Tronick believes that just because a child isn’t learning from the screen doesn’t mean there’s no value to it—particularly if it gives parents time to have a shower, do housework or simply have a break from their child. Parents, he says, can get a lot out of using their devices to speak to a friend or get some work out of the way. This can make them feel happier, which lets then be more available to their child the rest of the time.
If you were to examine the birth certificates of every soccer player in 2006’s World Cup tournament, you would most likely find a noteworthy quirk: elite soccer players are more likely to have been born in the earlier months of the year than in the late months. If you then examined the European national youth teams that feed the World Cup and professional ranks, you would find this strange phenomenon to be ever more pronounced.
What might account for this strange phenomenon? Here are a few guesses: a) certain astrological signs confer superior soccer skills; b) winter born babies tend to have higher oxygen capacity, which increases soccer stamina; c) soccer-mad parents are more likely to conceive children in springtime, at the annual peak of soccer mania; d) none of the above.
Anders Ericsson, a 58-year-old psychology professor at Florida State University, says he believes strongly in “none of the above.” Ericsson grew up in Sweden, and studied nuclear engineering until he realized he would have more opportunity to conduct his own research if he switched to psychology. His first experiment, nearly 30 years ago, involved memory: training a person to hear and then repeat a random series of numbers. “With the first subject, after about 20 hours of training, his digit span had risen from 7 to 20,” Ericsson recalls. “He kept improving, and after about 200 hours of training he had risen to over 80 numbers.”
This success, coupled with later research showing that memory itself is not genetically determined, led Ericsson to conclude that the act of memorizing is more of a cognitive exercise than an intuitive one. In other words, whatever inborn differences two people may exhibit in their abilities to memorize, those differences are swamped by how well each person “encodes” the information. And the best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process known as deliberate practice. Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.
Ericsson and his colleagues have thus taken to studying expert performers in a wide range of pursuits, including soccer. They gather all the data they can, not just performance statistics and biographical details but also the results of their own laboratory experiments with high achievers. Their work makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers – whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming–are nearly always made, not born.