Vanishing childhood: Intro
After seeing my nephew over Christmas vacation, lots of observations snapped together into a single pattern. More or less, helicopter parents are trying to prevent their children from going through a rite-of-passage, of any kind, as they age.
Their emotionally avoidant mindset makes them feel awkward thinking about their son or daughter as belonging to a fundamentally different class of living creatures when they're little, and then changing into something more familiar during adolescence. Dealing with small children is more emotionally taxing if you perceive them as their own class of people -- it requires disrupting your routine of social interaction and emotional investment, since that's almost always geared toward other adults.
Frequently switching modes in any domain of life is always anathema to those with OCD, but especially if you have to make a qualitative switch rather than just dialing some behavior up or down.
They therefore want to avoid giving the child any kind of markers that set him clearly off in some kiddie sphere -- not just physical markers, but also speech patterns, styles of address, and overall treatment. If he is never clearly marked as a separate type of person as a child, he won't need to shed those markers and adopt new ones during adolescence. That palpable transformation is again too much of a disruption to the routine for an avoidant-style parent to tolerate.
I think avoidant types must also have a deep anxiety about ritual in general. It's too corporeal, and bodily sensations excite the emotions. That rush you get when you're stomping and clapping along with the other fans for your team, is not going to fly with someone who doesn't want to ever become attached to other people. By eliminating ritual, and making things more abstract and cerebral, they can maintain their preferred absence of emotional investment in the parenting process.
As a result, today's kids aren't very kiddie. In future posts, I'll go into a little more detail with specific case studies, but consider just a few examples briefly.
Children don't wear distinctively kiddie clothing anymore -- their parents dress them in jeans, cargo shorts, Chuck Taylors, Uggs, button-down collared shirts, hoodies, etc., just as an adolescent or adult would wear. There's also no specifically kiddie hairstyles that you grow out of. They don't have their own physical spaces where grown-ups are not allowed -- parents hover right behind their kids at Chuck E. Cheese's, and adults invade the "kids table" at Thanksgiving (even teenagers sit there now). Their media are no longer distinctly kiddie, as over half the jokes, references, and remarks in children's programming are obviously aimed at the parents in the audience. There's no more kiddie food, all of it now being the miniature version of grown-up food, like fiber-and-yoghurt cereal instead of S'mores cereal.
And of course they don't get spanked or given firm orders (i.e., backed up by a physical punishment). They are reasoned with or have their things taken away / put in time-out as though they were adult workers who have disobeyed their co-adult manager. You wouldn't spank a peer, so you can't spank your own child.
By dissolving the taboo boundaries between childhood and adolescence, helicopter parents believe they are treating their kids more fairly and doing a better job at preparing them for adulthood.
Yet the attempts at fairer treatment blow up in their face. The parent treats the child like a grown-up, the child behaves like children do, and the parent feels betrayed -- like, "After all I've done to not condescend to you and to treat you like a grown-up, this is the thanks I get, another temper tantrum." Then the parent snaps and probably chews the kid out, just as you would get angry at a peer who didn't reciprocate your kindness. All this drama is easily prevented by not viewing and treating the kid as someone near your own level, but rather as some lower thing that can't be expected to treat you as your peers would. If you just expect children to act selfishly, you won't feel betrayed when they do. You have to correct them when they misbehave, but you shouldn't have a seething personal grudge underlying it as well.
As for preparing them better, it does just the opposite. Truly preparing them for adulthood means letting them fly out of the nest on their own and getting hurt if things happen that way. All of these ways of marking children as those who've already gone through adolescence are just rewarding the child for something they haven't accomplished. The whole point of the rite-of-passage stuff is that you're actually changing and becoming an adult, and as a reward, you get to wear different clothes, sport a different hairstyle, sit at the grown-up's table, and so on. By giving them all these privileges in childhood, parents tell them that they don't need to bother growing up -- they're already enjoying all the perks, both material and social. These children end up socially and emotionally stunted, not mature.
Well, that's all the bla bla bla about that. What'll be more interesting is going over all of the many domains of life that this touches. Where possible, I'll also draw comparisons back to the turn of the 20th century, to show how it relates to the trend in the crime rate. As predicted, in falling-crime times parents mark their kids as mini-adults in order to minimize the intensity of age-group transitions, while in rising-crime times they encourage them to live their own separate lives as precious children before transforming into adults. Why the link, is another post.