Despite what people say about the spoils of the current generation of kids, Telaina Eriksen says they’ve had their share of struggles. And so has every generation before it.
The conventional wisdom today is that our current generation of children are all wimps. The media collectively wrings their hands and bespectacled professors on cable news nod in sage seriousness and testify that these children are all spoiled and over-parented. Children receive trophies “just for participating,” have never been spanked, and have parents who email their professors at college. These articles get posted and reposted on Facebook, often with comments from the people posting them about “how they see this all the time” and “kids have to learn to fail!”
I am suspicious of any truism standing in for an entire generation. I remember being called a “slacker” as a part of Generation X. I really didn’t appreciate it as I was working two jobs to put myself through college at the time. I also think the bemoaning of helicopter parenting has a sexist tint to it. Instead of the word mothering, authors who think they are hilarious call it smothering. One of the books that increased the volume of the media frenzy is Gary Cross’s “Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity” where he argues that women working outside the home have given men no reason to mature (since they no longer control the office OR the home). I also think these helicopter parenting claims are rooted in economic privilege—exactly what percentage of today’s parents can afford tutors and clinics and test prep and the gas for travel teams and the resources to buy a house in the town where their kid is going to college? The final problem I have with the me me me argument is I just don’t see lived evidence of its truth.
I have two children, ages 17 and 13. I consider myself to be a middle-of-the-road parent. I sleep-trained both of my children. I used disposable diapers. I let them watch an hour or two of TV a day. I read to them every night. I volunteered at their schools, but not obsessively. I didn’t spank, but I also didn’t “wear” them. I held them a lot, but they slept in their own crib. Their every waking moment wasn’t scheduled, but they had two activities a week. As teens they are busier, but they both still enjoy reading and hanging out. They don’t have televisions in their rooms. They both have cell phones, but we don’t own an Xbox. They do their own laundry and are responsible for their own homework. If they ask me, I will proofread papers and longer projects for them. I try to attend most of their sporting and musical events, but with working and the two of them swimming and playing water polo competitively, it’s not always possible. I don’t pay them for A’s. I didn’t put every doodle on the fridge. But I still pack their lunches every day. They shovel snow. They can make simple things for dinner. They both know how to load and unload the dishwasher.
My kids have a lot of advantages—two employed, educated parents, a good school district, and in general, very good health. But my kids have failed. And my kids have suffered. Neither of my children ever received a trophy just for participating in anything. They’ve received certificates (but then again, so did I). My kids have failed to make the goal and block the shot. They have tried out for things and not been chosen (my daughter was cut from the 7th grade volleyball team because her serve was weak. She was 12 years old). Three of my children’s grandparents have died (and in two of those cases, they helped take care of the ill grandparent before they died), their aunt died, and we, their parents, have work, and at times financial, stress. No generation owns suffering and sacrifice. What I see instead of narcissistic self-absorption is a lot of competition. And a lot of stress.
I see kids taking five and six AP classes their junior and senior years while doing sports and band or orchestra. I see a lot of kids whose parents are divorced and the kids are stressed because they left their homework at the wrong house and now they are going to be in serious trouble. To be competitive in a sport at larger high schools, teenagers have to train year-round and start their sports in early elementary school.
This generation has seen every major institution in the United States fail. They’ve watched the Catholic Church implode, the government grind to a bickering, ludicrous standstill, our corporations fleece their shareholders (their grandparents, and in some cases parents, gave us “greed is good.” How is that for self-involved and narcissistic?), the United States has been at war for over half their lives, and this generation has watched Lance Armstrong and their baseball heroes juice their way to victories.
I am an adjunct college professor and guess what? I’ve never had a parent email me or call me regarding a grade. Most of my students are interesting and fun young adults. Do they play video games and procrastinate? Yes. Did I play euchre with my roommates and procrastinate? Yes.
I liked this excerpt from the New Yorker. It put a lot of things in perspective. From “The Child Trap: The Rise Of Overparenting” by Joan Acocella:
To get some perspective, look at “Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood” (2004), by Steven Mintz, a professor of history at Columbia. Mintz’s story begins with the beginning of the United States, and therefore he describes children with troubles greater than overparenting: boys dispatched to coal mines, and girls to textile mills, at age 9 or 10. As for the current outbreak of worry over the young, Mintz reminds us that America has seen such panics before—for example, in the 1950’s, with the outcry over hot rods, teen sex, and rock and roll. The ’50s even had its own campaign against overparenting, or overmothering—Momism, as it was called. This was thought to turn boys into homosexuals. For the past three decades, Mintz writes, discussions of child-rearing in the United States have been dominated by a “discourse of crisis,” and yet America’s youth are now, on average, “bigger, richer, better educated, and healthier than at any other time in history.” There have been some losses. Middle-class white boys from the suburbs have fallen behind their predecessors, but middle-class girls and minority children are far better off. Mintz thinks that we worry too much, or about the wrong things. Despite general prosperity…the percentage of poor children in America is greater today than it was 30 years ago. One in six children lives below the poverty line. If you want an emergency, Mintz says, there’s one.
Of course every generation has entitled, selfish people. And every generation has good people who want to make the world a better place.
Telaina Eriksen is an essayist, poet, and assistant professor in creative writing for the Department of English at Michigan State University. She lives in East Lansing, Michigan, with her husband, her two teenage children, and her Shetland Sheepdog Sprite.