This article was first published in â€˜Your Childâ€™ magazine, September 2005
Children are not merely young versions of their parents. This may seem an obvious statement, yet many parents make the mistake of under-estimating the generation gap that exists between them and their children.
Introduction to the Generations
We all have a value system. A paradigm. A world view. It is that part of us that decides what is right or wrong, good or bad, normal or weird. Our value system is shaped in the first ten years of our lives and is influenced by the era in which we grow up. Unique forces in our homes, schools and suburbs shape our personalities but larger, global forces across communities and countries create a generational value set that is shared by all those people who are roughly our age.
In the past century, global forces have begun to influence people in different countries in similar ways as we share many experiences with our peers around the world through the media and popular culture, as well as intertwined politics and economics,.
Those people who were born in the 1930s and 40s experienced the Great Depression and World War II. Young people who grew up during these tough times naturally came to view the world as a tough place. You had to be disciplined and committed to survive. â€šGet a good job in a big company and stay thereâ€› was the career advice they were given (and followed, until their recent retirement). They have a â€šwaste not want notâ€› attitude, saving everything â€? even reusing birthday present wrapping paper, and ignoring expiry dates on tins of food.
They have been called the â€šSilent Generationâ€› because they grew up during a time when children were â€šseen and not heardâ€›. They were raised by over-protective parents, and were themselves fairly authoritarian, strict, reserved and not very demonstrative in their affection as parents. They demanded obedience without question. Their answer to, â€šWhy?â€› was usually, â€šBecause I said soâ€› with no further discussion.
Drugs, Sex and Rock â€˜nâ€™ Roll
The 1950s and 60s was an era of grand visions â€? capitalism, communism, apartheid, freedom, womanâ€™s lib and man on the moon, to name just a few. Economies were flying, inspiring leaders were trying to change the world and Elvis and other rockers were inspiring young people everywhere to stand up and be heard. The Baby Boomers are a powerful, visionary generation, passionately committed to their ideals of changing the world and making a difference. In the workplace, they have given us the most sustained period of wealth creation of all time, and are currently the generation in charge of our countries, companies and organisations.
As parents, they have been permissive, over-reacting to their own parentâ€™s approach, and trying to be their childrenâ€™s friends. They encourage their children â€što express themselvesâ€›, removing all conflict and imposing very little discipline. They often were not able to be involved in their childrenâ€™s lives, hardly ever coming to see sports or school concerts, as they focussed on their work. Dad worked longer hours than any previous generation, and more Mums than ever before had full-time careers. They live to work, and are the most divorced generation of all time.
Young people growing up in the 1970s and 80s became used to chaos and change, and gave up relying on adults who did not seem to know what was going on. They have been called â€šGeneration Xâ€› (X is the variable, the thing that can change). They love change. They need change. And if they do not get change, they will make change. If constant change can feel like chaos, then they need chaos, and will make it, too. They navigate a sexual battlefield of HIV/AIDS and blighted courtship rituals (the legacy of 1960s free love and feminism), dating and marrying cautiously.
As parents, they are likely to be very involved â€? maybe too involved â€? in their childrenâ€™s lives, tailing after them everywhere with a video and multiple digital cameras flashing away constantly. They have a bookshelf full of parenting books already, and baby.com as a default home page. They are getting married later and having children much later which means they are more settled and financially secure than previous generations of parents have been. They are likely to over stimulate and smother their children, who in turn, might grow up to over correct again. Thatâ€™s how the cycle goes.
A New Millennium
And so we arrive at todayâ€™s kids. Born after Mandelaâ€™s release, after the end of communism and the breakdown of the Berlin Wall, this is a confident generation of children optimistically looking ahead into the 21st century. Theyâ€™re the most watched-over generation ever. Adults now subject a typical kidâ€™s day to more and more structure and supervision, with a nonstop round of parents, relatives, teachers, coaches, babysitters, au pairs, minivans, surveillance cams, and curfews. Time spent on homework and housework is up, and free time is down. From 1981 to 1997, according to researchers at the University of Michigan, â€šfreeâ€› or â€šunsupervisedâ€› time in the typical pre-teenâ€™s day shrank by 37%.
They are being forced to grow up very quickly. On the one hand, they are growing up in a world of unprecedented opportunities, with a wonderful sense of diversity in the global village, on the other hand, they are exposed to serious pressures, including terrorism, ecological collapse, sexuality and a work world that continually demands new skills for the jobs of the future. This is producing an entirely different set of values from their parents.
Probably the biggest force shaping this young generation has been technology. Who programmes the video machine in most houses these days? Or downloads MMSâ€™s, or fixes the email when it breaks? For the first time in history, the children are more confident with technology than their parents, and face the future confidently. They are learning interesting new lessons (especially from video games): they are learning to experiment, to be confident to fail over and over again before they get something right, and to operate at 24 frames a second, 24/7. Authors like Don Tapscott (Growing Up Digital, McGraw Hill, 1998) argue that this is causing an actual rewiring of their brains, firing up different neurons. The New Scientist magazine regularly reports on research into childhood phenomena (see http://www.newscientist.com/channel/being-human/teenagers).
In the midst of a media-saturated entertainment revolution, the most common complaint from these kids is, â€šIâ€™m boredâ€›. How is this possible? Its mainly because these kids move at a faster pace than the world around them. They have instant access to more information of every sort than any human beings have ever had before. They have in their homes (and sometimes on their hips) more raw data processing power than most nations have ever had. Parents, educators and employers will need to speed up to keep up.
Education in particular is battling to keep up. Millennial kids have a much higher â€šinformation overloadâ€› threshold than previous generations, and process multiple inputs simultaneously. Roger Schank, in Coloring Outside the Lines (Perennial Currents, 2001) reminds us that a new generation requires new learning styles, and offers inspiration for parents who want to raise kids who will succeed in a new world. He encourages us to teach them gumption, ambition, creativity, inquisitiveness, and analytic and verbal proficiency, as top priorities.
This generation is more diverse than any before it. Not just in the â€šnewâ€› South Africa, where these kids lead the way in being colour blind to race and creed, but globally we know more about other nations and cultures than ever before. While this may cause a â€šclash of civilizationsâ€› amongst the adults, it seems to be germinating tolerance and global civic mindedness amongst the kids. They are team players, preferring collaboration to competition (their cartoon heroes include the team-focussed Power Rangers and Powderpuff Girls, rather than individualistic Bart Simpson or Superman).
This generation is actually sorely lacking heroes. They have celebrities instead. The Millennial â€šheroesâ€› are actors, multi-million dollar performers and sports stars whose claim to fame is popularity rather any â€šheroicâ€› act of intrinsic value. Most celebrities actively promote a destructive lifestyle, and tell young people not to follow their example. Yet, these are the people who gain the headlines and the admiration of todayâ€™s youth.
Raised in dual income and single parent families, Millennial kids have already been given considerable financial responsibility. In addition, they are often the only ones who can use the Internet to do online shopping. Surveys show they are deeply involved in family purchases, be they groceries or a new car. Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. estimates that in the US, one in nine high school students has a credit card co-signed by a parent â€? this is a growing trend in South Africa, and extends to cell phone contracts and airtime.
Early signs are that this generation will have high self-esteem, with a desire to change the world. Already, many teenagers and children are involved in saving the environment and are aware of global issues like never before. These kids are street smart and savvy, as well as pragmatic enough to find real solutions. They seem to accept authority. Most teens say they identify with their parentsâ€™ values, and over nine in ten say they â€štrustâ€› and â€šfeel close toâ€› their parents. The proportion who report conflict with their parents is declining. Half believe that lack of parental discipline is a major social problem, and large majorities favour tougher rules against misbehaviour in the classroom and society at large (from http://www.millennialsrising.com).
Given these emerging realities, its no surprise that this generation of children has a new set of values. They are confident â€? so confident, theyâ€™re almost arrogant. They know what they want, and nobody is going to stand in their way. In Millennials Rising (Vintage, 2000), one of definitive books on Millennials, by Neil Howe and William Strauss, the authors argue that these Millennial kids will likely become the latest in a series of â€šhero generationsâ€› that occur every few generations, and predict a â€šMillennial makeoverâ€› of popular culture in the early part of the 21st century.
Surviving Your Millennial Child
If everything we have said is even vaguely familiar to you, then you are probably the proud owner of a Millennial kid. Here are some tips for surviving and thriving through the experience of raising them:
- This is not your parentâ€™s generation gap. Boomers rebelled by growing their hair long (or not shaving it off!), burning their bras and playing their music too loud. Todayâ€™s kids do not rebel in the same way. In fact, they are more likely to ignore authority than rebel against it. They welcome structure and discipline, but it must be fair and consistent if it is going to have any effect.
- Your children are not the centre of the universe. Give them boundaries, and help them from an early age to understand that the world requires GIVE as well as TAKE.
- â€šBecause I said soâ€› is no longer a valid answer. If you do not give them a reason for your instructions, they will not listen. In fact, they will be suspicious that you actually do not know why yourself.
- You are not their friend â€? you are their parent! You get to be their friend when they are adults â€? for now, make sure you take the lead and shape their lives.
- Teach your children to deal with conflict â€? do not shelter them from conflicts.
- Teach them the skills needed to survive in a world where talent and creativity will be rewarded more than loyalty and specialisation.
- Look after your relationships. If you are married or have a permanent partner, make sure you keep that relationship intact. Take time away from the children, and make sure your kids know that you need special time together when you are all at home too. If you are a single parent, then make sure you develop friendships that will bring other significant adults into your childâ€™s life. Children have a radar for tension, and if your relationships are under stress, they will act out on their own low level anxieties.
- Remember, they are still kids. Do not push them too hard â€? give them space to enjoy the wonder of the world as seen through innocent eyes.
A Final Word
The biggest mistake most parents make is to try and give their children everything they wish they as parents had had when they were young. Todayâ€™s young people do not want our memories â€? they live in a different century, with different issues. What they need is wise parents, who will discern the signs of the times, and help them to become equipped to thrive in the 21st century.
No matter which generation we find ourselves in, parenting is always part science, part art, and part guess work. Every parent in every generation will make mistakes. All we can do is the best we know how at the time, smothered in layers of unconditional love, and trust that our children will be as forgiving of us as we should be of our own parents.
For more information on generational theory, have a look at our book, â€šMind the Gapâ€› (Graeme Codrington and Sue Grant-Marshall, Penguin, 2004) or our website, http://www.tomorrowtoday.biz/mindthegap.