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  • When I was born,

  • there was really only one book

  • about how to raise your children,

  • and it was written by Dr. Spock.

  • (Laughter)

  • Thank you for indulging me.

  • I have always wanted to do that.

  • No, it was Benjamin Spock,

  • and his book was called "The Common Sense Book of Baby And Child Care."

  • It sold almost 50 million copies by the time he died.

  • Today, I, as the mother of a six-year-old,

  • walk into Barnes and Noble,

  • and see this.

  • And it is amazing

  • the variety that one finds on those shelves.

  • There are guides to raising an eco-friendly kid,

  • a gluten-free kid,

  • a disease-proof kid,

  • which, if you ask me, is a little bit creepy.

  • There are guides to raising a bilingual kid

  • even if you only speak one language at home.

  • There are guides to raising a financially savvy kid

  • and a science-minded kid

  • and a kid who is a whiz at yoga.

  • Short of teaching your toddler how to defuse

  • a nuclear bomb,

  • there is pretty much a guide to everything.

  • All of these books are well-intentioned.

  • I am sure that many of them are great.

  • But taken together, I am sorry,

  • I do not see help

  • when I look at that shelf.

  • I see anxiety.

  • I see a giant candy-colored monument

  • to our collective panic,

  • and it makes me want to know,

  • why is it that raising our children

  • is associated with so much anguish

  • and so much confusion?

  • Why is it that we are at sixes and sevens

  • about the one thing human beings

  • have been doing successfully for millennia,

  • long before parenting message boards

  • and peer-reviewed studies came along?

  • Why is it that so many mothers and fathers

  • experience parenthood as a kind of crisis?

  • Crisis might seem like a strong word,

  • but there is data suggesting it probably isn't.

  • There was, in fact, a paper of just this very name,

  • "Parenthood as Crisis," published in 1957,

  • and in the 50-plus years since,

  • there has been plenty of scholarship

  • documenting a pretty clear pattern

  • of parental anguish.

  • Parents experience more stress than non-parents.

  • Their marital satisfaction is lower.

  • There have been a number of studies

  • looking at how parents feel

  • when they are spending time with their kids,

  • and the answer often is, not so great.

  • Last year, I spoke with a researcher

  • named Matthew Killingsworth

  • who is doing a very, very imaginative project

  • that tracks people's happiness,

  • and here is what he told me he found:

  • "Interacting with your friends

  • is better than interacting with your spouse,

  • which is better than interacting with other relatives,

  • which is better than interacting with acquaintances,

  • which is better than interacting with parents,

  • which is better than interacting with children.

  • Who are on par with strangers."

  • (Laughter)

  • But here's the thing.

  • I have been looking at what underlies these data

  • for three years,

  • and children are not the problem.

  • Something about parenting right now at this moment

  • is the problem.

  • Specifically, I don't think we know

  • what parenting is supposed to be.

  • Parent, as a verb,

  • only entered common usage in 1970.

  • Our roles as mothers and fathers have changed.

  • The roles of our children have changed.

  • We are all now furiously improvising

  • our way through a situation

  • for which there is no script,

  • and if you're an amazing jazz musician,

  • then improv is great,

  • but for the rest of us,

  • it can kind of feel like a crisis.

  • So how did we get here?

  • How is it that we are all now navigating

  • a child-rearing universe

  • without any norms to guide us?

  • Well, for starters, there has been

  • a major historical change.

  • Until fairly recently,

  • kids worked, on our farms primarily,

  • but also in factories, mills, mines.

  • Kids were considered economic assets.

  • Sometime during the Progressive Era,

  • we put an end to this arrangement.

  • We recognized kids had rights,

  • we banned child labor,

  • we focused on education instead,

  • and school became a child's new work.

  • And thank God it did.

  • But that only made a parent's role

  • more confusing in a way.

  • The old arrangement might not have been

  • particularly ethical, but it was reciprocal.

  • We provided food, clothing, shelter,

  • and moral instruction to our kids,

  • and they in return provided income.

  • Once kids stopped working,

  • the economics of parenting changed.

  • Kids became, in the words of one

  • brilliant if totally ruthless sociologist,

  • "economically worthless but emotionally priceless."

  • Rather than them working for us,

  • we began to work for them,

  • because within only a matter of decades

  • it became clear:

  • if we wanted our kids to succeed,

  • school was not enough.

  • Today, extracurricular activities are a kid's new work,

  • but that's work for us too,

  • because we are the ones driving them to soccer practice.

  • Massive piles of homework are a kid's new work,

  • but that's also work for us,

  • because we have to check it.

  • About three years ago, a Texas woman

  • told something to me

  • that totally broke my heart.

  • She said, almost casually,

  • "Homework is the new dinner."

  • The middle class now pours all of its time

  • and energy and resources into its kids,

  • even though the middle class

  • has less and less of those things to give.

  • Mothers now spend more time with their children

  • than they did in 1965,

  • when most women were not even in the workforce.

  • It would probably be easier for parents

  • to do their new roles

  • if they knew what they were preparing their kids for.

  • This is yet another thing that makes modern parenting

  • so very confounding.

  • We have no clue what portion our wisdom, if any,

  • is of use to our kids.

  • The world is changing so rapidly,

  • it's impossible to say.

  • This was true even when I was young.

  • When I was a kid, high school specifically,

  • I was told that I would be at sea

  • in the new global economy

  • if I did not know Japanese.

  • And with all due respect to the Japanese,

  • it didn't turn out that way.

  • Now there is a certain kind of middle-class parent

  • that is obsessed with teaching their kids Mandarin,

  • and maybe they're onto something,

  • but we cannot know for sure.

  • So, absent being able to anticipate the future,

  • what we all do, as good parents,

  • is try and prepare our kids

  • for every possible kind of future,

  • hoping that just one of our efforts will pay off.

  • We teach our kids chess,

  • thinking maybe they will need analytical skills.

  • We sign them up for team sports,

  • thinking maybe they will need collaborative skills,

  • you know, for when they go to Harvard Business School.

  • We try and teach them to be financially savvy

  • and science-minded and eco-friendly

  • and gluten-free,

  • though now is probably a good time to tell you

  • that I was not eco-friendly and gluten-free as a child.

  • I ate jars of pureed macaroni and beef.

  • And you know what? I'm doing okay.

  • I pay my taxes.

  • I hold down a steady job.

  • I was even invited to speak at TED.

  • But the presumption now is that

  • what was good enough for me, or for my folks for that matter,

  • isn't good enough anymore.

  • So we all make a mad dash to that bookshelf,

  • because we feel like if we aren't trying everything,

  • it's as if we're doing nothing

  • and we're defaulting on our obligations to our kids.

  • So it's hard enough to navigate our new roles

  • as mothers and fathers.

  • Now add to this problem something else:

  • we are also navigating new roles

  • as husbands and wives

  • because most women today are in the workforce.

  • This is another reason, I think,

  • that parenthood feels like a crisis.

  • We have no rules, no scripts, no norms

  • for what to do when a child comes along

  • now that both mom and dad are breadwinners.

  • The writer Michael Lewis once put this

  • very, very well.

  • He said that the surest way

  • for a couple to start fighting

  • is for them to go out to dinner with another couple

  • whose division of labor

  • is ever so slightly different from theirs,

  • because the conversation in the car on the way home

  • goes something like this:

  • "So, did you catch that Dave is the one

  • who walks them to school every morning?"

  • (Laughter)

  • Without scripts telling us who does what

  • in this brave new world, couples fight,

  • and both mothers and fathers each have

  • their legitimate gripes.

  • Mothers are much more likely

  • to be multi-tasking when they are at home,

  • and fathers, when they are at home,

  • are much more likely to be mono-tasking.

  • Find a guy at home, and odds are

  • he is doing just one thing at a time.

  • In fact, UCLA recently did a study

  • looking at the most common configuration

  • of family members in middle-class homes.

  • Guess what it was?

  • Dad in a room by himself.

  • According to the American Time Use Survey,

  • mothers still do twice as much childcare as fathers,

  • which is better than it was in Erma Bombeck's day,

  • but I still think that something she wrote

  • is highly relevant:

  • "I have not been alone in the bathroom since October."

  • (Laughter)

  • But here is the thing: Men are doing plenty.

  • They spend more time with their kids

  • than their fathers ever spent with them.

  • They work more paid hours, on average,

  • than their wives,

  • and they genuinely want to be good,

  • involved dads.

  • Today, it is fathers, not mothers,

  • who report the most work-life conflict.

  • Either way, by the way,

  • if you think it's hard for traditional families

  • to sort out these new roles,

  • just imagine what it's like now

  • for non-traditional families:

  • families with two dads, families with two moms,

  • single-parent households.

  • They are truly improvising as they go.

  • Now, in a more progressive country,

  • and forgive me here for capitulating to cliché

  • and invoking, yes, Sweden,

  • parents could rely on the state

  • for support.

  • There are countries that acknowledge

  • the anxieties and the changing roles

  • of mothers and fathers.

  • Unfortunately, the United States is not one of them,