There has been a recent explosion in books and articles chronicling the supposedly overwhelming rigors of child-rearing, particularly for the educated middle-class professionals who write and read these articles.
While we might suspect that a lot of this is just the whine-brag as a literary genre—look how put-upon I am combining my successful career with my wonderful children—we’re also concerned that the young and childless might look at it all and conclude, as some do, that parenthood is a disaster best avoided.
That seemed to be the upshot of a perverse Mother’s Day ad last year in which young women were invited for a fake job interview. The “job” turned out to be motherhood, which was portrayed as a form of worker exploitation undreamt of by the most fervent Marxist.
Unfortunately, if you turn to pro-family conservatives, you often get much the same story, with parenthood cast as a personal sacrifice made for the greater good of humanity, while childless bliss is “a symptom of cultural decadence, in which modern comforts crowd out intergenerational obligations.” So if you have children, you’re doing it for the good of society, to ensure the demographic survival of the West.
Both sides agree that there is some ineffable personal value to be gained from parenthood, but the positive side is vague, while the negatives are vivid and specific. As the title of a recent book would have it, being a parent is “all joy and no fun.”
As working parents of two young boys, we can assure you that this is all wrong. If you’re not having fun, you’re not paying attention. Yes, taking care of children is a lot of work and a relentless responsibility, but as with any really difficult job, the rewards can be enormous.
To counteract all the gloom and doom, here are ten amazingly enjoyable things about having kids.
1) The House Is Full of Laughter
Let’s just lead with the fun, shall we? Kids love to laugh and love to have fun.
Were you aware that sneezes are funny? They’re funny when you do it, they’re funny when the kids do it, and they’re really funny when the dog does it. Kids love anything that’s funny and they love to be funny, especially our youngest, who will do anything for a laugh, including running into the wall because he found he can get his older brother to giggle at it. Among the younger crowd, no comedy kills more than slapstick.
They bring cheesy math jokes home from school. (“Why is the six afraid of the seven? Because seven eight nine.” Sound it out and you’ll get it. It’s a knee-slapper for the five-year-old set.) Just last week, we had a backyard baseball game with a unique base layout and a clockwise running direction. It’s not exactly the way they do it in the majors, but nobody cared because we were laughing the whole way through.
Sometimes we seriously wonder what we did for fun before the kids came along.
2) You Get to Play Again
Speaking of baseball, when is the last time you took an afternoon just to play outside—not for exercise, and not as a competition, but just for the sheer fun of it? As adults, our time tends to be filled with deadlines to meet, bills to pay, and chores to do. When we exercise, if we find time to exercise, it’s usually because we feel we need to lose weight. But kids connect you back to the joy of doing things just for fun, and they can find fun in the simplest ways.
As we were writing this, it became very quiet in the house—you know, suspiciously quiet. When we found the boys, they were in the mudroom where they had discovered some boxes from recent deliveries. The packing material looked like it had exploded all over the floor, and it turned out the boys were making a piñata out of an empty plastic milk jug filled with Styrofoam packing peanuts, which they proceeded to hang by a length of old string and whack at with the wooden handles from a defunct croquet set.
Yes, raising kids can be expensive. But a lot of the time, you don’t need to go out and buy toys. Left to their own devices, kids will figure out how to find fun anywhere.
3) The House Is Full of Love
There is no more sincere declaration of love than a four-year-old’s home-made Valentine’s Day card to his mommy, or the hug that daddy gets welcoming him home from a week traveling on business.
Bedtime at our house, often—usually—ends with a round of hugs and kisses and I-love-you’s. The kids come up and ask for hugs and kisses at random times throughout the day, and we occasionally try to steal a hug and kiss, too.
Who else lives like this, other than people with young kids? If you tried to do this in any other context, you would seem like the sappiest, most maudlin person on Earth. You would also probably get slapped with a restraining order. But maybe we should live like this just a little bit more.
4) Children Are Adorable
Caring for children requires a lot of work and effort and responsibility. So millions of years of evolution have compensated by making children unbelievably cute. What makes kids so adorable is the way they are miniature versions of us, discovering for the first time everything we take for granted. And they respond to it fully and genuinely, with no filters or inhibitions, no irony or detachment.
That’s another great thing: being able to see everything fresh and appreciate it all over again as if it were new, because for your kids, it is.
We recently took our kids to an amusement park, and occasionally we would come across a little bubble machine that spewed bubbles into the walkway. Our youngest would take off after them with wild abandon, as if mesmerized, ignoring everything around him and running into people. When was the last time you saw something as simple as bubbles with this kind of enthusiasm and pure joy?
Similarly, neither of us were ever serious fans of “Star Wars.” (Rob is more of a “Star Trek” loyalist, while Sherri has, shall we say, a somewhat lower tolerance for science fiction.) But we’ve been sucked into it as our boys, led by big brother, devour everything related to Star Wars, from Star Wars LEGO sets to the latest spinoff animated TV series. Our oldest is rapidly acquiring an encyclopedic knowledge of the Star Wars universe, and we can’t exactly complain because we bought him the encyclopedia. But talking with him about it has given us a new appreciation for the franchise.
It’s not just that the kids really respond to the plots and characters and the straightforward tales of good versus evil. It’s also the way it gives them a whole universe of spaceships and aliens and strange new worlds to explore—which eventually translates to them asking a lot of questions about real space exploration and astronomy. It broadens their horizons and encourages them to explore a lot of new knowledge and ideas. So it has also broadened our understanding of a little cultural treasure we hadn’t appreciated enough.
All of this is day-to-day life with kids: their work is play, and they draw us into it and remind us that life is supposed to be fun. So all the Grumpy Guses complaining about the hardships of parenthood just aren’t listening to the message their kids are trying to tell them.
Your kids are having fun. Why aren’t you?
5) It Will Make You a Better Person
This can be one of the hardest things about having kids, but it’s one that you will eventually appreciate. Being a parent requires you to work on some of the basic skills of being a good person, and to do it under pressure. It teaches you to remember your manners because whatever you do or say is going to be mirrored back to you by small people who copy everything. (It really teaches you to watch your language, unless you’re not disturbed hearing four-letter words coming out of a four-year-old mouth.) It teaches you how to hold your temper, and it teaches you how to concentrate on important things when everything around you is chaos.
6) It Teaches You to Focus on What Really Matters
How do you continue to have a job and raise kids? It helps to have a good support system—we don’t know what we would do without grandmas and grandpas—but the real answer is: you realize what’s important, and you cut out everything that isn’t.
It’s easy to let your life get filled with a lot of makework projects, lame televisions shows, and all the flotsam and jetsam of popular culture. You cut most of that out, and you know what? You don’t really miss it.
There’s a Japanese organizing guru who has become popular lately, and her basic message is one that you will hear from every apostle of tidying up: decide what things are really important and providing a lot of value to your life, and get rid of everything else. Having children may clutter up your home with the debris of childhood, but it requires you to declutter your life in a much broader way, removing the things that aren’t really that important.
7) It Brings You Closer to the People You Love
Most of us find that we never appreciate our parents more than when we come by with the kids. We appreciate all over again what they had to do to raise us, and we’re even more grateful that they’re willing to do it again, part-time, with our kids.
Having kids can also bring a couple closer to each other. Yes, we know some people who get divorced when they have young children, and we understand the things that can drive them apart: the stress, the constant work, the sleep-deprivation. But there’s also a lot that can bring you together: there may be less time for romance, but there is more of a sense of working together in a common enterprise, building a family and a life together.
It can also bring you closer to your friends, even the single ones—we have a succession of favorite uncles who come to visit—and it helps you make new friends among the other parents who are going through exactly the same experiences and stepping on the same Star Wars LEGOs in the middle of the night.
Something parents don’t talk about enough is this sense of camaraderie. Maybe it’s just where we live, but when the kids have a meltdown at the hardware story, instead of angry glares from the other patrons, we’ve found that you tend to get knowing smiles. The kind of smiles that say, “been there, done that”—but also, “and I kind of miss it.”
Strangely, there’s a whole world out here of people with kids, which might explain the continued existence of the species. And we’re happy to welcome you.
8) You Get to Create an Amazing Learning Machine
There are guys sitting around in cramped little labs in Silicon Valley who will bang their heads against the wall for the rest of their lives trying to build what anyone can make with a lot less work and a lot more fun: a new intelligence.
Certain people will try to tell you that “babies are boring” because all they do is eat, sleep, and fill diapers. Sure, that and learning how to see, to move, to walk, to understand language—two languages, if necessary—to recognize shapes, proportions, three-dimensionality, object permanence, and so on. No wonder babies need to sleep 14 hours a day. They’re programming the basic functions of an entire human brain from scratch.
As neuroscientist Lise Eliot put it:
Imagine that you bought a PC, but instead of loading any software, you plugged it in and the computer did the rest: it assembled its own operating system, and built its own drivers for the CD-ROM, the sound system, the printer, the modem, and whatever other hardware it happened to be equipped with. A little later it decided a word-processing program would be useful, so it made one, in English, Spanish, German, Hebrew—whatever would allow it to best communicate with the outer world. Eventually, it needed to read and calculate, so it set up character-recognition and spreadsheet programs. Children’s brains are like this, accessing neural circuits as they’re needed, wiring them up and honing them to the task at hand—to walk, talk, read, forage for tubers, play the piano, and so on.
Google Guys, eat your hearts out.
That is what is so fun for a parent to watch. If you know what to look for, they’re constantly changing from one day to the next, sometime from one nap to the next. It’s an amazing journey of growth, learning, and developing new skills.
That’s even easier to appreciate as they get older. As a parent, you don’t just get to play again, you also get to learn again. We’ve had hours of fun revisiting areas of science that we hadn’t given much attention for twenty years. We’re amazed that our kids already know much more about dinosaurs, for example, than we ever did—which is partly because there’s so much more to know, so many new things paleontologists have discovered. (The only downside: it can be hard to get the “Dinosaur Train” theme song out of your head.)
In writing this, we’re realizing that most of our examples are already old. The boys have already moved onto something else, relentlessly exploring everything in the world that catches their interest.
9) You Get to Make a New Person
You never know how your kids are going to turn out, and it’s important to realize that it’s not all under your control. But chances are, your child will become someone you like and enjoy spending time with.
No, you don’t have any direct control over this outcome, and it’s not a good idea to live vicariously through your children. If you do it right, you’re trying to create an independent person who will make his or her own choices. But you can give them a good start, and your children can be a kind of legacy. The ideas and values you teach them are your way of making the world a better place, a way of affirming life and the future. And who knows, it might even contribute to the demographic survival of the West.
More personally, your children will become people with a shared history and memories—including many very happy ones. The other day, when we were getting ready to put the kids to bed, our oldest pulled one of us aside and described a day he suddenly remembered from a few years ago, “when I was little.” It was nothing very unusual, just a funny way we were sitting next to each other and talking. But he recalled it with what was clearly a lot of fondness. Here was a seven-year-old waxing nostalgic about the good old days when he was four, and we thought how much more of this he has to look forward to, how many more years he has to pile up good memories before he leaves the nest for good. And all of us will have this to draw on for the rest of our lives.
That’s especially true once the children have children of their own. Which leads us to the last amazing thing about having kids.
10) You Get to Do It All Again
Eventually, if all goes well, your children will have children, and the second time around you get all of the fun with a lot less responsibility. Or so we hear from the grandparents when we drop the kids off with them.
Yes, this isn’t the whole story about having kids. Like any big adventure, it requires a lot of work, some big tradeoffs, and a few unpleasant tasks. But we also need to remember the huge rewards. Parenthood is not a punishment, nor is it a sacrifice. Quite the opposite: we think it would be a sacrifice to miss any of this.