I grew up in the 70s. This meant I was lucky to experience childhood long before helicopter parents, abstinence pledges, SAT prep courses and sexting obliterated the myriad reckless joys of American adolescence. Most parents had more than two kids, plus jobs, problems and pressures of their own. Kids’ technology risks consisted primarily of overdosing on The Flintstones and I Love Lucy.
My friends and I – and many of our parents and even a few teachers – believed that kids who went to keg parties in friends’ basements, smoked pot occasionally, drove without a license once or twice, and had sex before marriage were essentially sound human beings, as long as we told the truth when confronted, got decent grades, and avoided pregnancy, felony charges, and knocking out our permanent teeth.
70s parents let us make our own decisions (and mistakes).
This sounds insane today. But somehow, many of our achievements as daredevil adolescents were everything helicopter parents dream of these days. My two best friends and I are Ivy League graduates, a doctor, a writer, a PTA president, successful adults by most measures. Between us, we have nine children and advanced degrees from Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, NYU and Johns Hopkins universities. Our parents’ tolerance, and a culture that forgave teenagers for making mistakes, allowed us to glide into and safely out of adolescent mutiny, developing invaluable self-reliance we put to good use in college and as adults.
Not anymore. Most of us 70s kids (as well as subsequent generations) are raising our children in radically different fashion today. It’s not just a rash of helicoptering in elite suburbs. We are pressuring and coddling our children into mental illness, with the college admissions arms race the misguided metric of “success” for our kids and ourselves.
A recent New York Times article “Is the Drive for Success Making our Children Sick?” cites evidence of “a nationwide epidemic of school-related stress…on children across the socieoeconomic spectrum.” At the college level, 94% of counseling directors report rising rates of severe psychological problems among undergraduates. One anonymous study of high schoolers in Freemont, California, showed that 80% suffered moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety, and over 50% showed signs of depression. Pediatricians increasingly treat students — elementary school students — for migraines, anxiety and ulcers. Five, six and seven year olds.
The reasons for today’s intense parenting are surprisingly straightforward:
• SMALLER FAMILIES. American families today average only 1.9 kids vs. 3.4 in the 1970s, allowing parents to be more connected to each child’s development, academic achievements and daily activities.
• INVOLVED FATHERS. Men have become increasingly drawn into their teenager’s lives, with fathers today spending more than three times as much time with their children as their own fathers on a daily basis. Exhibit A: Mark Zuckerberg. The FaceBook founder took two months of paternity leave and pledged $45 billion in stock to honor his daughter’s birth. Pressure much?
• AMBITIOUS MOMS. In the 1970s, only 20% of American women had college degrees. By 2015, 62% did. Women’s higher education levels translate into working and stay-at-home moms approaching motherhood as an endeavor to be tackled with research, tools and competitive zeal.
• TECHNOLOGY EXPLOSION. FaceBook, Instagram, and SnapChat, cyberbullying, texting and i-chatting have dramatically reduced parental control over kids’ daily lives. Technology simultaneously increases parents’ access to information about children (think nanny cams, monitoring of teenagers’ texts and Instagram accounts, and instantaneous media coverage of kidnappings, molestations and murders) which creates the perception that adolescence is far more dangerous than it was 40 years ago, despite evidence that nearly every corner of the United States is markedly safer today.
These changes are, arguably, all in the best interests of the children. We want children to do well in the world, of course. But despite our good intentions, we are warping an entire generation of children. By constantly intervening and pressuring our kids to strive for perfection at school, in sports, and in extracurricular activities, we inadvertently send our children deeply destructive messages: that perfection matters (when grit, self-esteem, and civility matter more); that the world is too much for them – too dangerous, too difficult, too complicated; and that they are not capable of solving problems and meeting life’s challenges on their own.
“Instead of empowering them to thrive,” explains Vicki Abeles, the author of the New York Times article and producer of the eye-opening documentary about American childhood, Race to Nowhere. “This drive for success is eroding children’s health and undermining their potential.”
I’m not advocating rampant excess, or parental ignorance, or sugarcoating teenage stupidity. Evidence abounds regarding the myriad advantages to today’s parental involvement across all socio-economic and educational levels. Girls’ self-esteem has been proven to rise with time spent with dads. American teen pregnancy rates plummeted to a 30-year low in 2015; smoking and drug use have also declined dramatically. Many experts believe closer, more candid relationships between parents and children are the reason. Despite workloads that have increased since 1965 for both men and women, preserving family time is a priority in America for both mothers and fathers; today’s employed moms spend roughly the same amount of time with their children as stay-at-home moms did in 1975.
All good for kids.
But it’s important to take a memo from 70s parenting. Schools and parents tackling the problems of teenage stress, depression and anxiety have had success with the following practical tactics: limiting homework to 20 minutes a night per subject; instituting weekend and holiday homework bans; and providing kids ways to show their creativity outside of standardized testing. This measured approach seems to be working: after the Freemont high school made these types of changes, calls to counselors to help students having emotional episodes in class dropped from routine to nearly nonexistent, the AP class failure rate was cut in half, and students – gasp – continued to be accepted at respected colleges.
The lesson for all of us 70s kids: there’s value in stepping back from parental overinvolvement, in letting our children eat a little dirt occasionally, in trusting that we’ve done a good enough job raising them that they will discover their own judgment and resilience if we allow them to. Let them struggle with the consequences of their own choices and mistakes. Assure them, with our trust, that the ability to right themselves, not the ability to be perfect at age 15, matters most. Allow them the luxury to fail a test, to miss a basket, to thrive despite their human imperfections. Sometimes experience, not parents, is after all, the best teacher.