By Mary Janevic
Contemporary parenting, with its coddling and hovering ways, irritates just about everybody who is not doing it themselves.
Worse, it may threaten the very future of our society. A couple years ago, a former Stanford dean, Julie Lythcott-Haims wrote a book called How to Raise an Adult, in which she argues that modern overparenting is failing to yield fully-functioning grown-ups. Helicopter parenting, the author argued, prevents even our most talented young people—like the kind that end up at Stanford—from developing the self-reliance and life skills that came more naturally to previous generations.
In our efforts to protect, promote and befriend our offspring, the argument goes, we are inadvertently stunting their development.
Lythcott-Haims may be onto something, along with the many others who have lamented what hothouse parenting appears to be doing to our kids. But as the parent of three post-millenial children—born after 2000—I’ve had ample opportunity to observe our youngest generation at close range. And there’s a lot to like about this newest crop of kids. No doubt, post-millenials are different from their parents and grandparents. But they are also “good-different.”
Post-millenials are kind. Well, not always, of course, but the default setting is higher these days. Name-calling and mean nicknames—remember Four Eyes?—have gone the way of penny candy and kick-the-can. At my kids’ elementary school, playground scuffles are rare, and no one cheers them on, like they did on the blacktop of my own grade school. I recently played Monopoly with several post-millenials, and they refused to let anyone go bankrupt, offering free rent to floundering players. These guys, more than their predecessors, seek to do no harm: from the feelings of the new kid at school to the environment. Maybe it’s something in the water, but it seems that parents these days are raising some awfully nice kids.
Post-millenials are tolerant. They shrug off differences in their peers. This has been a pleasant surprise to those of us raised in a more judgmental era. When choosing names for our unborn son, my husband, who grew up in the rough-and-tumble 70s, rejected one after another of my literary proposals (Tristan, Cyril): “He’ll get beat up for that name,” he would say, shaking his head. As it turns out, kids don’t care about names any more. I’ve never heard a post-millenial bother to comment on anyone else’s name, no matter how exotic or what unfortunate rhymes could be made with it. Let me say that again: kids don’t make fun of each other’s names! This indicator of societal progress is so subtle that its miracle could easily be missed.
Then there was that day when my fourth-grader wore his pants tucked into his black socks all day.
Me (after school, horrified): Did you go around all day like that?
Me: No one said anything to you?
Transgender? Same-sex parents? From another country? Really, really tall? Post-millenials hardly notice. This is a generation that doesn’t have to strain to be accepting of others. Somehow, we are bringing up children who don’t need to pick on superficialities in others to feel good about themselves.
Post-millenials feel secure. Adults are watching over them, keeping tabs. Okay, they’re hovering. But here’s the upside of that: even the misfits and marginalized kids feel safe. A world with minimal adult supervision tends to benefit the children who inhabit comfortably high places in the social pecking order. But it leaves others vulnerable. Running off to play somewhere and only coming home for supper was most fun for the kids who had nothing to fear from other kids. Now, adults are easy to access, and childhood no longer happens in a separate sphere. Sure, back in the day we solved problems on our own, but we didn’t always do it in a equitable or nice way. Certain kids got the short end of the stick, over and over. Is that a valuable lesson for adulthood, as anti-hoverers would claim? These days, adults are often around to teach the fairness that does not always come naturally to their children. And they provide a safety net for kids, which offers its own kind of freedom.
Post-millenials are empowered. They are not cowed by authority. Sure, they’re mouthy compared to our generation. In our circle, children often call adults by their first names, they talk back, they treat adults like peers, which can unnerve those of us who grew up keeping adults at a respectful distance. But this cheekiness has some positive consequences. Adults no longer get to set all the terms. Today’s kids know that they have rights, and they are confident that the good adults around them have their backs.
Post-millenials are close to us. The friendship between today’s young children and their parents lays the foundation for an enduring bond. When I was a teen, we didn’t tell our parents much about what was going on in our social lives, or our inner lives. Now, parents are more likely to be confidantes. Many young people are living at home longer, and the ones that fly the nest are often in contact multiple times a day. It may be economics that compels some of these choices, and technology that enables them, but it is an underlying friendship that makes it all rather nice. Some view these uncut apron strings as the ultimate failure of modern parenting. But, historically speaking, there’s really nothing new about parents and adult children staying close and interdependent. In fact, it’s the uber-independence of family members in late 20th-century America that is the outlier.
The news about the younger generations, then, is not all bad. Not everything modern parents are doing is backfiring. Something good is flowing from today’s parents to their children, and from them out to the world.
Of course, the positive qualities of our youth are also shaped by societal forces larger than parenting—but that’s true of the shortcomings the Stanford dean and others have observed as well. So if modern childrearing gets the blame for what’s wrong with our younger generations, then parents should also take credit for the longer list of things that are right.
Mary Janevic is a health researcher in Michigan and mom of three tweens/teens, through whom she has met a lot of really nice kids.