The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Nov 302009

Great piece in the NY Times about behavioral parenting. Generation X (born 1961-1981) are really getting into this. Here’s a good line:

“It’s finite, and it’s what they crave,” Ms. Hope explained. “Children love structure, the same as animals love structure.”

2009-11-25_1259There were plenty of “authoritative” childcare guides back in the 80s that Boomer (born 1943-1960) parents gobbled up. Bill and I looked at a lot of them. They were, to be sure, very different from what Xers are reading today. The Boomer guides tended to be very attitudinal, even counter-cultural, stressing the need for a whole new way of looking at relationships, at society, at gender roles and at your own life. It was really an extension of the Lamaze Movement-very spiritual and full of the power of suggestion-that hit full on in the 1980s. Bill Cosby influenced a lot of young adult Boomers, but because he was Silent (born 1925-1942), Boomers wanted to take his value-free-let’s-discuss-everything point of view and move it in a more normative direction. A lot of Boomers really wanted to change society with the way they raised their kids. And in trying to do that, they believed all that mattered was the intensity and quality of their relationship with their child and the correctness of the values they taught them.

With Xer guides, everything has changed. Xer guides are much more prescriptive, full of do’s and don’t’s, and much less attitudinal. Many of the Boomer guides looked a bit like the Whole Earth Catalogue: It showed how raising children was part of a whole world view. To Xers, hey, child rearing is just like any other technique or business-there must be a good way and a bad way to get the job done. I want to do it the good way.

Xer guides are much more scientific in the sense that the authors need to show that there’s empirical evidence favoring one way over another. Skeptical Xers don’t take advice on pure faith. Amazingly, Boomer guides rarely talked about evidence: We just “knew” e.g. that Lamaze just *must* be a vastly superior way to give birth. Just look at those Hopi designs on the book cover! (btw, I’m a big supporter of Lamaze; I just acknowledge that it was never sold to us as an evidence-based practice.)

As I’ve mentioned, Xer guides are putting a lot more stress on behavioral techniques. Dog whispering is, admittedly, an extreme example. But apt. As in so many other things, Gen-Xers know how to take their own ego out of the equation, which is what behavioral parenting requires. The whole behavioral point of view is very Xer in that it looks at the human condition as a matter of external conditioning and adaptation-a useful antidote to the endless Boomer fixation on interior motives and values.

In the end, one must say that there’s a real bottom-line pragmatism about Xer child raising that wasn’t there for Boomers. Raising children isn’t about saving the world or making a perfect child or self-actualizing the parent. It’s just a set of tangible practices that will keep your child safe, reasonably happy, well behaved, and ready to take on life’s challenges when they’re good and ready but not until then. Forget the “supermom,” striving to correct her shortcomings. Now it’s the “good enough mom,” humorously self-deprecating about her shortcomings. What else would you expect from someone who’s read The Idiot’s Guide to Parenting. Good parenting for Boomers depended on being a good person. Hence the anxiety. Now it just means knowing a bag of tricks and being there at the right time. So now you can joke about it.

Xer pragmatism means today’s parents are much less interested in trying to make their kids perfect in situations where it really doesn’t matter that much. Xer parents, for example, are notoriously careless about how their kids in public places. (OK, civic comity is not very high on their priorities in any case.) But if they don’t care how other adults see their kids, they are extremely wary about other adults approaching or interacting with their kids. That’s “hands-on” parenting.

Here’s another example. Boomer parents often didn’t think very hard about exactly *where* they raised their kids. As long as the emotional bond was high quality, the place really didn’t matter. So Boomers trekked with their small tots out to wildness outposts, or to communes, or to inner-city neighborhoods as urban homesteaders, and so on. So long as you lived your own authentic dreams, your kids would be fine. Xer parents are much less likely to think that way. To them, place really matters. Lots of Xers are moving into very pricey suburban or exurban communities whose lifestyle they loathe (god, do I really have to feed and mow all that grass!), just so their kids will be able to attend the best schools and be around other kids with like-minded parents.

According to Judith Harris, whose influential though admittedly controversial book “The Nurture Assumption” appeared in 1998, Xers may be making the smarter choice. She argues that the only important influence that parents actually have over their own kids is the genes they pass on. The environmental influence of parents is practically nil-much less important than the influence of the youth peer group that surrounds the child as it grows up. Thus, according to Harris, Xers are indeed focusing on the one variable which turns out to make a difference.

btw, the Harris book is excellent. She supports her conclusion with reams of academic evidence (she’s practically a walking library on twin and adoptee and child development studies), and in any case she writes very well. Her thesis also has very important implications for any theory of generational formation-which is why I find her work especially interesting. But that’s a discussion for another time.

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  • Matthew

    I'm sure Mr. Howe and I wouldn't agree on much politically but I still find his theories interesting nonetheless. What I'm worried about is growing influence religious conservatives have had on child nuture and education. I'm concerned that with the new Artists entering school we'll see more abstinence-only education that doesn't teach real facts about sex but instead relies on scare tactics and shame. Abstinence is in my view basically an attempt to impose certain people's religious beliefs regarding sex on all youth. I'm a Millenniel and I know Hero genrations are supposed to be conservative prudes when it comes to sex. I guess that sets me apart from the rest of my generation since I have pretty liberal views on sexuality.

    • dsohigian

      @Matthew – I am not sure if you are so alone in your view of sexuality among
      Millennials. Although Millennials are thought to be relatively
      “conventional” in comparison to Gen X'ers or Boomers, they tend to be much
      more open-minded about sexuality than previous generations. The sexual
      revolution created new standards for conduct that have stuck with the
      Millennials. This is where some of the mis-beliefs about young people spring
      up from: when older generations see a tattoo on a young woman's lower back,
      or hear young people talking openly about sex, they jump to the conclusion
      that they lack morals. But the reality is that Millennials have different
      standards, much of which were created during the sexual revolution.

      • Matthew

        Thanks for the thoughtful reply dsohigan. I've heard similar views on the T4T forum. I've been a college student for awhile and I can tell you that ankle-length dresses and 1950s mores have definately not come back into fashion with Millenniel women. I generally get the sense from reading Neil's writings that Millenniels are supposed to be more conservative than their predecessors regarding sex. Reading books like Millennials Rising gives the impression that people my age want to impose abstinence-only education, ban all swearing and provocative dress, and basically return us to a puritanical 1950s society. I would be relieved to discover this is a false impression.

  • Shelly

    You made a blog awhile back about how a lot of boomers made their homes in places called exurbs-I’ve also heard these places called Edge cities. In the 80s and 90s crime was rampant in these places due to the Xers coming of age. Globalization in the 90s allowed these places to become dying and decaying “factory towns” as major forms of business were carried off to India, Mexico, and other such places. This also allowed for crime and drug use to rise. People seem to assume that all Yers grew up in the wealthy suburbs like Boomers grew up in the suburbs. This is not the case in my opinion, Boomers grew up in a community-like environment that does not currently exist. They grew up with parks, churches, stores, and schools nearby, Yers grew up in an exurb with no sidewalks and everything at least 10 miles away. There are urban areas between these places, which makes walking riskier. To Yers, the suburbs the Boomers grew up in looked like a haven away from the world we lived in. To Xers, we look spoiled, coddled, suffocated, but in reality we were in need of some protection.

    As someone who grew up in an Edge City, I can honestly say that I’m glad my parents didn’t allow me to go wandering around. The deserted and hollowed out factories served as drug dens and homeless shelters, my neighbors’ relative was shot right in front of my school, houses constantly burnt down, dead bodies were found, children hit by cars. The Boomers were right to over shelter their kids because they created an environment that wasn’t safe for them or brought them to such places. Some parents went overboard obsessing over silly little things, but only because the mod reaction from their generation carried over into the places that had no need of it. The children who grew up in safer neighborhoods away from the edge cities or exurbs, were the ones who had helicopter parents.

    I think it’s much more important to develop an emotional connection with your children, then it is to teach them independence, adventure, etc…how on earth are your kids going to “learn” a sense of adventure? This cannot be brought to people who are inherently imaginative no matter where they are. They create adventures in their heads, in their living room they can be in Florida, in their front yard, they can be camping.

    By the way, I am a millennial and I have a great relationship with my mother and I am not devoid of an adventurous spirit and imaginative spirit.