January 31, 2011

Earlier times when helicopter parents ruled

Flipping through Wikipedia, I wound up on the entry for helicopter parents. Everyone knows what they are and roughly when they showed up big-time (early 2000s, with a transition period of growth during the 1990s). But in trying to account for the huge change in parenting styles, no one can come up with anything.

The main reason why they're clueless is that the human mind is not meant to study things scientifically, in particular it isn't built to take the broadest view of something and then try to explain it using the fewest number of ideas as possible. So commentators talk about helicopter parents as though the parents of Millennials were the only large-scale example of this parenting style. Yet we all know of an earlier period of prolonged and widespread helicopter parenting. Don't remember? How about this --

"You'll shoot your eye out!"

The mother in that movie, in typical overparenting fashion, bundles up her son so heavily and tightly that he can't even move his arms or get up when he falls down.

A Christmas Story is set sometime in the late 1930s or early '40s, at a time when the crime rate was plummeting from its peak in 1933, ending the wildness of the Jazz Age. That's just like the timing for the current generation of helicopter parents -- it got its start after the 1992 peak in the crime rate and had risen to such a high level by the turn of the century that it started showing up in popular culture. When Baby Boomers look back on their childhoods, it's not until the late 1950s, as the crime rate began soaring once again, that they start to recall how liberated they'd become from their parents' hovering, such as in the movies Stand By Me (set in 1959) or The Sandlot (set in 1962).

It's odd that no one is aware of the previous era of helicopter parents since a good chunk of the Baby Boomers had them as their parents, and a lot of Generation X and younger (but pre-Millennial) people had them as grandparents. My grandmother was born in 1921 and had four children from 1941 through 1955, so she was a parent almost entirely during falling-crime times. (Only when her youngest child, my mother, turned 4 in 1959 would she even have had a hint that violence rates were getting worse.)

Not surprisingly, she is almost a caricature of a helicopter parent. Parenting styles fossilize into place when a person has kids; they don't change when they begin dealing with grandchildren. My grandmother treated me, my brothers, and my cousins just as hoveringly as she did my mother and her siblings when they were growing up. My mother, aunt, and uncles still bristle when she tries to overparent them or us grandchildren, even though they are in mid-life or retired and the younger generation are in our 20s and 30s.

"That there knife's liable to fall off and cut someone if you leave it near the edge of the counter like that..."

Mom! ... it's not even hanging over the side.

"You kids is gonna freeze out there if you don't -- "

Mom! ... they're grown boys now. They know how to dress warm.

"Are you sure you 'uns don't want more to eat? I just don't want you to get... anemic. You know."

Mom! ... they already had three helpings. They're not going to starve.

I love my grandmother, but she is an inveterate hoverer. Also like today's overparenting adults, she has always focused most of her attention on and derived most of her meaning from her kids and grandkids, so much so that she doesn't mind giving up a separate social life of her own. People who became parents when the violence level was soaring, however, sought to keep something of a distance from their kids, both to keep from getting too attached just in case they lost them, as well as to encourage a toughness and independence in their kids so that when they finally confront the increasingly chaotic world, they'll be prepared.

So even as recently as 1984, my mother went out to dance clubs every weekend, with my dad if she could drag him out or with her girl friends otherwise. Parental independence held true back through the '60s and even late '50s, as the movies mentioned earlier show. Once you get back to the '40s, though, you get the Christmas Story scenario where the parents aren't out and about doing their own thing, and wind up being a bit too present in their kids' lives at home.

This greater level of indulgence is what allowed Dr. Spock's Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care to reach superstar status when it was released in 1946. If parents were not already inclined to shower affection on their kids, they would have rejected the book as obviously false. But it struck a chord. "Earlier" childcare books advised parents to maintain a healthy amount of distance, which was fitting for the rising-crime times in which they were written (1933 back to the turn of the century). Now that the violence level has been falling for almost 20 years, parents have switched back to unrestrained indulgence and affection -- they see a much safer and more orderly world, and so less of a need to toughen their kids up to face it head on.

The Wikipedia article also tosses around the theory that helicopter parenting is due to the parents being Baby Boomers. Well both my parents were born in the mid-'50s and they were never helicopter parents, even during the 2000s when it had become too common to be ignored. The same is true for the parents of all the friends I ever had, or anyone I went to school with. It's only the Baby Boomers who waited so long to have kids, circa the late 1980s or early '90s, who became helicopter parents.

Before I've shown that trust levels fall before the crime rate falls. That is causal -- when people no longer trust others, they hunker down and shrink their lives into a very tiny private sphere. This dries up the pool of potential targets that the impulsive and opportunistic criminals rely on to thrive. If people who are withdrawing trust also have kids, they will take the same approach with them too -- keep them out of public spaces and locked up indoors (or at a tutoring center), where they can be closely monitored and micro-managed by the parents.

In fact, a good deal of helicopter parents aren't Baby Boomers at all. The first year of the baby bust was 1965, so if this cohort had kids in their early or mid-20s, their children would be Millennials and the parents would be hoverers. The same goes for anyone born even farther away from the baby boom.

Wikipedia also flails for a cause by pointing to the adoption of cell phones, which allow parents to keep much closer tabs on what their kids are doing. That was what really drove home the reality of how different parents have been lately -- when I made some undergrad friends upon starting grad school a few years ago, and seeing how they had to answer every call from their parents no matter what. Otherwise, they'd get bitched out and suspected of doing something bad -- "Why didn't you answer your phone when I called you?!" I felt like ripping the phone away from their kid and telling them to go get a life, but figured that would put a damper on our friendship.

Still, there were no cell phones in the late 1930s or '40s or '50s, so we don't need to mention them at all when explaining the helicopter parent phenomenon. Plus there's the pattern of the '60s through the '80s -- we went out whenever, wherever, and with whoever we wanted (only a slight exaggeration), and we weren't required to "touch base" every hour or so, often not at all until we showed up at the house again. "Oh, there you are! Well we're just about ready for dinner, so have a seat..." Our parents could have made us call them from the ubiquitous pay phones (perhaps collect), the phone in whoever's house we were hanging out at, etc.

Yet we were never required to do that, even though the phone technology of the time certainly allowed it. (Of course we often did call home -- but more to let our parents know what we were going to do than to ask their permission to do it.) Technological changes will have no effect on our social or cultural lives unless we wanted to move in that direction already.

1 comment:

  1. Your grandmother's "you'll catch your death from cold" warnings aren't hovering in the modern helicopter-parent sense. What is new today is the way parents will not let their children go without adult supervision at ages when children routinely used to go unsupervised. Drive near a school bus stop in the afternoon and you'll see parents in their cars waiting to pick up their children coming home from junior high school, lest their precious progeny walk two blocks alone. When I was in that age range, having Mommy or Daddy pick you up in that way would have meant instant and permanent Social Death.


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