Gen X Parenting: raising the neXt generation

“Would you let your ninth grader hang out at a house with no parents home? Would you let that same freshman male hang out alone at a house with two girls?” That challenging question was posed by a friend on social media. My answer: “Sure.” If Gen X’s approach to parenting were a formula, it would be: raise ’em and trust ’em. And even as my wife and I debate how much is our kids’ nature and how much is our environment, we know we’ve played a significant role in who they’ve become.

So in that hypothetical situation, I’d trust him. We trust our son and our daughter. We also speak candidly with them and always have. That’s the mark of a Generation X parent. The Boomers created the idea of helicopter parenting, and it’s not an admirable development in the parenting game. It’s not surprising though; for the rebellious flower children didn’t want their kids doing what they had done, and with rising levels of affluence, they simply wanted to give their children everything, a sort of nod to indulging every pleasure, but with supervision. Granted, some in the Gen X demographic are influenced by similar child-rearing anxiety, even morphing into the disturbing snowplow parenting phenomenon. But for most of us who grew up kind of on our own as latch-key kids of the 70s and 80s, we have different ideas about raising children. It’s the sort of hands off approach to be expected of the last kids to ride without seatbelts and car seats.

In reality, our parents probably trusted us too much and shouldn’t have. The Silent Generation moms and dads worried too little about the safety and maturity of their Gen X kids. That was just the nature of the 70s and 80s, and good old Dr. Spock probably had much to do with it. By contrast, contemporary parents could trust their kids more, but don’t. I’m baffled by parents who are aghast when my kids ride their bikes to a friend’s house a couple neighborhoods away. And, I’m wary of parents who barely let their kids walk to school where we live when it’s within a half mile. Many of us grew up being out of the house in the early morning and not returning to dinner. And often we’d return to an empty house, sometimes with the responsibility of getting dinner started. I was a free-range kid who would head off into the nearby Boy Scout camp, following creeks around the bend and finding more than my share of adventure and mischief.

Full disclosure: my parents certainly trusted me too much and probably didn’t know half of the things I was doing, which was better for both of us. However, when I write that sentence I’m reminded of a bit of wisdom from essayist Robert Fulghum who, looking fondly upon his son’s growth into being a pretty good father, commented: “He tells me all the rotten things he did behind my back when he was a kid, and I tell him all the things I knew he was doing but that I ignored because I didn’t want to deal with the problem …” My memories of youthful indiscretion, both the things I shared with my parents and those I hid, have informed my parenting. Questions from my kids and my initial reluctance but growing willingness to be honest and vulnerable has cultivated a candid, open, and honest relationship that is the heart of Gen X parenting.

For the generation that basically raised itself, Xers turned out to be surprisingly effective and agile parents. But hovering is not a Gen X trait, and we are far more likely to drop our kids at the mall like our parents did, or even send a ten-year-old off by himself on the subway. Trusting our kids to be alone and even travel by themselves raised a huge controversy a few years ago when Lenore Skenazy, a mom and blogger, wrote about allowing her nine-year-old son to take the subway home from Times Square by himself. It was a classic Gen X move, refusing to be controlled by conspiracy and hysteria. In reality the kid was fine — but many questioned the “carelessness” of the mom. I’ll admit nine is on the young side, and Times Square ain’t walking to school. Still, I’m on the side of trusting and not hovering over my kids. And Skenazy went on to literally write the book on free-range parenting.

Balancing freedom, supervision, and guidance changes from kid to kid and parent to parent. I feel like the parent who says “I can’t do that” or “my kid is more difficult” and needs more “parenting” actually just means they need more communication in that family. And it has to start from the earliest age. In reality, if a parent “can’t do that because my kids would make bad decisions,” then the kids are already making poor choices. They’re just doing it on their own and are more inclined to lie and deceive. Of course, Gen X parenting is not just giving in or ignoring parenting either. It is certainly not letting your kids drink, smoke, and have parties at home because you “drank in high school and turned out right” and you’d rather they do it “under your watchful eye.” That’s actually naive and even negligent. And it’s not parenting.

Gen X parents don’t hover, they don’t helicopter, and they certainly don’t snowplow. However, they are neither aloof nor disengaged. Generational writer and sociologist Neil Howe has termed Gen X parents “Stealth Fighter Parents.” They are aware and involved in the lives of their children, choosing where and when and how much. If an issue “seems below their threshold of importance,” they will let it go, “saving their energy” and probably their nerves. But if the situation “shows up on their radar … they will strike, rapidly and in force, and often without warning.” The target might be their kids’ friends or their teachers or a neighbor, or most likely the kids themselves. Gen Xers are post-9/11 “security moms” and hands-on dads. And our kids, the neXt generation, share our pragmatic, somewhat jaded, and pessimistic view of society while also being rather attentive to themselves, like Xers who had to be while we let ourselves in to the houses after school and fixed our own snacks while waiting for our parents to get home. They are woke, and to borrow from David Bowie (and John Hughes) “quite aware of what they’re going through.” That’s the scoop on Gen Z, a derivative nickname for Xer’s kids, who are out, open, authentic, transparent, and inclined to change the world themselves rather than wait for their elders.

Because Gen X was so often on their own, they tend to promote independence and grit in their kids. Gen Xers recall losing in childhood and dealing with it. In my first season of youth soccer, we lost every single game. It sucked, and there was no trophy or party at the end of the year. As a result, we don’t look favorably on participation trophies, and we’re more inclined toward competition and learning a lesson. Some might say the Tiger Mom is a Gen X trait, but that’s actually too controlling for an Xer, and to be perfectly honest that approach is often about the parent rather than the kid. My wife and I talked at length about this kind of involvement when our kids were very young, and we thought about the effects hovering and obsessing has on kids from the earliest days. So, if our kids fell down and looked to us, we didn’t rush in to save them. My wife was much better at this than I. Parents know that moment when a young child looks to Mom or Dad to gauge how upset he should be about what just happened. The reaction is a pivotal parenting moment. Gen X parents observe from afar, and they tend to respect the rules of the playground. In fact, that hands off, wait-and-see approach is how we taught our kids to sleep as well. No rushing in, and no sleeping in our bed either. Kids gotta figure it out, but we’ll be near, available, and stealth.

Gen Z, for all the angst that we hear about, are also more grounded and self aware than kids have been in a while. For, as we’re learning, they don’t drink much, take fewer recreational drugs, and sleep around less than the previous three generations. They are equally suspicious of institutions like education, government, and the church. And that makes sense. The Xers were defined by presidency in disgrace, and Gen Z will be influenced by one that seems to be forever in crisis, turmoil, and spin. Ultimately, Gen X parenting is not about a specific time, age group, or demographic, even though terms like Boomer, Xer, Millennial, & Gen Z are. As both the sociologist Paul Fussell and novelist Douglas Coupland explained, X is much more a state of mind: it’s a class of people that don’t fit the standard paradigms. And if helicoptering and snowplowing has become the standard model for parenting, then Gens X and Z are more than happy to take the path less traveled. And they’ll do it alone, but together.

Michael Mazenko is an administrator & AP English teacher in Colorado. He’s been a Colorado Voices writer for the Denver Post, and he blogs at A Teacher’s View

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