February 5, 2013

Consciously articulated parenting strategies stunt your kid's growth

Those 1983 issues of Parents magazine may have been a pleasant trip down memory lane, but I can't say the same for the 1989 issues that I just looked through. Something clearly went wrong starting with the Millennials, but did it begin in elementary school or even earlier? It looks like helicopter parenting began sometime in the late '80s, although only for very young children, like toddlers or younger. That would explain the birth years that did and did not lead to Millennial traits (I'd include '85 and '86 births, but definitely from '87 onward).

Many things leap out as different between the two years -- most strikingly, the obsession with safety in '89 that gets cursory treatment in '83. But they're all the kind of things you would expect from helicopter parents, and not worth discussing in detail.

However, one major shift that I didn't anticipate really sheds light on how easy it is to mess your kids up socially and emotionally. The '83 issues have almost no bullet-point lists of Do's and Don'ts -- bulleted lists are rare overall, and when they do occur, they're more like hints, suggestions, guidelines, etc., to try out and judge for yourself in your own sticky situation. By '89, they're more common, more specific, and more mandatory about Do this / Don't do that.

So, parents of infants and toddlers in '83 were flying more on intuition, while their counterparts in '89 were rationally formulating explicit check-lists or blueprints.

How did that affect their kids once they got out into the real world? Well, your kid's peers, no matter what stage they're in, are not consciously forming check-lists of Do this / Don't do that when interacting with your kid. They're going purely by intuition -- smile if your kid makes a genuinely funny joke, shove him down if he's acting like a selfish brat.

Maybe the kid's teachers will have a Do this / Don't do that approach, but more or less everyone he meets out in the real world will be reacting from intuition. To prepare him the best for adapting to real life, then, you should give him plenty of experience early on with interactions that are intuitive rather than having clear rules (even if they're unspoken to the child). I mean, that's how every parent in the world ever raised their kid before Dr. Spock and Dr. Phil, and somehow homo sapiens has avoided mass extinction.

Instead, if you have precise rules for interacting with your kid (unspoken or not), once he goes out into the real world, he'll take an almost OCD approach to interacting with his peers. Wait a minute -- you didn't explain why you do or do not want to be my friend ("I dunno, just cuz I don't like you"). Wait a minute -- you followed one rule in a situation, and then a different rule in that same situation -- you're being logically inconsistent! ("Yeah well I changed my mind, life isn't fair.")

By only giving him practice with rigidly consistent rules of interaction, the fuzzy and up-for-grabs nature of real socializing will throw him for a loop. He will be so inflexible and irritated that no one will want to be his close friend, i.e. someone they'd trust deep down, not just play Modern Warfare with online.

So in fact, you should not strive for consistency in rewarding, punishing, or interacting otherwise with your kids -- his peers sure won't be, and he has to get familiar and even comfortable with that early on so he can hit the social ground running. Again, caveman parents didn't strive for consistency in parenting, yet somehow we're still here and indeed have taken over more of the globe than they could have dreamed of.

Spastic parents will try to frame this as supporting total unpredictability and chaos, but nobody is retarded enough to act that way. Going on intuition does not lead to unpredictability or chaos -- just a fuzzy spectrum of responses to your kid's behavior, a distribution with variance (like a bell curve), rather than a perfectly predictable single response.

The manageable stress of not knowing precisely how the parent will respond causes the kid to develop social and emotional skills that can at least anticipate the probable range of responses, giving up the fool's game of guessing exactly how someone will respond, and to grow thick skin. Otherwise they wind up thin-skinned and autistic.

Of course, the helicopter parents' goal of shielding their kids from all outside "influences" (i.e. relationships) will postpone the rude awakening. But eventually they're going to have to interact with real-life people, not their biased and coddling parents, and will crack from having grown up so weakened socially and emotionally. And by that point it'll be too late to correct. Kids get their picture of what the world's going to be like from toddler age or so up through adolescence, and then it's set. They don't learn other languages after that point, and they don't form radically different schemas about how interactions take place.

Indeed that's why it's so infuriating to try to interact with them sometimes -- someone from Gen Y or earlier can't just wave a magic wand and psychologically adjust to the new world of autistic youngsters. We're stuck in our non-weirdo social expectations. It'll be a miracle if workplace interactions survive a generation gap this wide. And forget about inter-generational togetherness outside the workplace, where things would have to be more voluntary.

But, not to worry too much, since it's just one generation that's messed up. Parenting styles akin to engineering pass in and out of "fashion" over the decades, so some new generation will come around and be more like the Boomers, who are easier for most people to interact with, especially the later ones. Just keep your radar on and you'll know it when they're here. Until then, I think we have to write off most Millennials as lost causes for anything requiring social-emotional competence (let alone excellence), trust, behavioral flexibility, and so on.


  1. It'll be a miracle if workplace interactions survive a generation gap this wide.

    Hmmm. I work with people who range from their 20s to their 40s and 50s. I haven't ever got the impression that the people in their 20s prefer rule based interactions - structured meetings, goal based checklists, stuff like that. Or are less tolerant of variation in mood. They don't tend to prefer to work alone either, rather than interact and ask questions and cooperate.

    Possibly my workplace is just an odd environment (government jobs?).

  2. The rules are artificial and therefore kids don't get a feel for how people genuinely respond to certain kinds of behaviors.

    For instance, if the parenting checklist says "instead of getting angry, see from your son't point of view and reason with him". But it doesn't work that way with your peers - they get angry if you do soemthing they don't like.


  3. There's a larger theme here about "trusting your intuition" that is common in New Wave(1960-1990) media. 60s-80s movies portray established authority as being corrupt or incompetent, and people must learn to make decisions based on their own emotion and judgement.

    The most obvious example is Star Wars - "Use the Force" - Luke Skywalker turns off his guidance system and flies by the seat of his pants.

    ". I haven't ever got the impression that the people in their 20s prefer rule based interactions"

    Most people prefer at least some unwritten customs to guide their interactions. But these customs should be based on human nature.

    Teh advice that stupid magazines give out is usually contrary to human nature and often irrational.

    So its not so much that Millenials are too rule-based, as it is that they're operating on incompetent rules.

    We all know about the "self-esteem" craze in the 90s. Respected psychologists were running aroudn telling parents that the key to success was to constantly compliment their children.

    Now, the impulse of most parents are to compliment their children when its warranted. If the kid is extraordinary in some way, then he or she will get complimented a lot, and have an (accurately) high self-esteem. Most kids will get complimented some of the time, when they do something worthy of it, but generally will adjust to not receiving praise 24/7.

    What happens to the kid who gets compliments he doesn't deserve? Well, when he meets his peers, they don't compliment him. One of two things happens. Either the kid thinks he must have done something wrong to not be being praised now, and gets depressed and timid. Or, he thinks he's still great, but that his peers are in error. He starts lashing out, cause he thinks he's not getting the recognition he deserves, and that his peers are immoral or stupid.

    Of course, everyone adjusts during an "outgoing" era. Silent Generation members such as Bob Dylan, Warren Beatty, and Woody Allen got into the thick of things and seemed to behave as decent people.

    The problem is, how much damage or wasted potential happens before the culture turns outgoing.


  4. "We all know about the "self-esteem" craze in the 90s. Respected psychologists were running aroudn telling parents that the key to success was to constantly compliment their children."

    In a 1989 issue of Parents magazine, an article actually pointed out the problems with cheap praise. They all fall under the theme of an inevitable mismatch between the signal from parents and the signal from peers, like you pointed out.

    But, that was 1989, and helicopter parents soon figured out the solution to the problem -- don't let their kids come into corrosive contact with their peers. No peer signals, no mismatch!

    ...Except when they try to get a job, and then articles regularly appear in the WSJ etc. about how bratty and socially retarded the new young workers are.

  5. One last thing. You talked previously how Millenials seem to have sadistic streaks, they do things "to mess with people".

    Yet I think this type of behavior is more childlike than it is sadistic. A little kid "messes with people" just to see how they react. Its a trial-and-error learning strategy.

    Some Millenials(not all), however, have been so isolated that they don't start doing this type of thing until high school or college. The kinds of immature things they should have done as small children, they end up doing at college.

    This trial-and-error accelerates cocooning. After several of your grown peers have done something grossly inappropriate to you, it makes it that much harder to leave the house.


  6. So basically, so much of modern youth culture is just delayed development. Which is pretty much what you've been saying from day one.


  7. Sorry to double-post, but think of it like this: If you're an 8-year old girl, its not a big deal if some little boy pulls your pigtail. If you're a 20-year old girl in college, and some guy "pulls your pigtail"(or does something analogously strange or inappropriate), its seriously creepy. now pretend that several guys do this to you. You'd probably spend less time going outside.


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