April 6, 2014

A weakening power of helicopter parenting? Another round of little Boomers?

While traveling a bit lately, I've been observing the otherwise invisible nuclear families of today, now that they have to leave their lock-down compounds to go to the airport, or leave their hotel room to grab breakfast.

It's probably too early to tell, but I'm getting a hunch about how small children these days are, or are not, going to internalize the paranoia of their helicopter parents. These are children in early elementary school or younger.

When helicopter parenting paranoia began with new births in the late '80s, there was plenty for parents to be concerned about (which doesn't excuse their over-reaction). Violent and property crime rates were nearing their peak, and for the previous several decades, it had seemed like the world would only continue on in that direction.

Hence, when the parents sealed off their nuclear family from the outside world and began ordering their kids not to do this and not to do that, there was an honest sense of concern coming through in their voice and mannerisms (however overblown this concern may have been). Moreover, this was the only message about the outside world that the parents allowed to get through to their children — primarily by shutting out all other sources of input, but also by choosing only those external sources that would provide a consistent paranoid message to their little dears. "Parental control."

These children, the Millennials, have grown up to be the most frightened and insecure generation in living memory — how else could they have turned out? Everybody who offered them input, or who their parents allowed them to observe, sent the message that the world is too scary and random to venture out into on your own. And their tone of voice was consistently frightened for your safety, not as though they were just making shit up or just trying to spoil your fun. I guess you might as well hunker down in your room and interact with others at most through virtual channels (texting, internet, online video games, etc.).

Now, what's going to happen when these people become parents? They don't have any first-hand experience with real life, let alone the dangerous, topsy-turvy, and humbling parts of it, let alone decades of such experience. When they try to pass on the message of how scary the world is, it will start to ring hollow. Kids aren't stupid, and they can tell what your tone of voice and mannerisms reveal, aside from whatever you claimed in words. At the least, they can tell when you're being sincere and honest, or when you're joking around and teasing them.

Can children also sense which grown-ups have more experience, and which are more naive? If so, they'd react to the dire warnings of their Millennial parents with, "Yeah, and how would you now, you big wuss?" Whereas if they sensed the parent was more seasoned, they'd take it to heart — "Damn, even this been-there, done-that kind of grown-up sounds scared. It must really be dangerous."

However, when the child steps on the other side of the paranoid "do not cross" line, Millennial parents sound more annoyed and upset than they sound concerned and afraid. This may also be going on with later Gen X parents, who are more experienced, but whose memories of how tumultuous the world can be are fading more and more every year. It's harder and harder for 1992 to exert that kind of gut influence that would shake up the parents, when the world has gotten as safe, stale, and antiseptic as it has by 2014.

Thus little kids today are not going to take parental paranoia to heart like the Millennials did. It's just the mean old grown-ups trying to boss us around and spoil our fun, not looking out for our greater long-term welfare. By the time they're in high school, cocooning will have bottomed out, and they'll be able to enjoy a more unsupervised adolescence. And given how low the crime rate will be by then, they'll conclude that all their parents' warnings were either clueless and out-of-touch, or knowingly wrong and intended to shelter them from real life. See, nothing to worry about in venturing off into unsupervised places!

What was the last generation that had this naive attitude toward breaking free from parents, who they callously dismissed as either out-of-touch or as hypocrites? Yep, we're about to see the rebirth of the Baby Boomers, whose defining impulse is calling the bluff of authority figures.*

It's odd how small children these days are more annoying in public places, running around and making noise, despite their helicopter parents trying to make them behave. When the Millennials were that age, they were either not to be seen at all, or were frozen in place. Today's rugrats and ankle-biters seem more appropriate for the 1950s (see any Saturday Evening Post cover showing their frazzled parents, or a crowd of kids running around the house at a birthday party on Mad Men).

We're not into that late '50s environment yet, but you can sense things creeping up to that turning point. For now, we're still waiting for Elvis.

* Gen X has a similar but more practical and mature attitude. Breaking free from parents is good, but you do have to be cautious out there. Yes, parents are out-of-touch, but that's to be expected given what a different world they grew up in. Authority should not be blindly followed, but blithely romping around calling the bluff of every older person who offers you advice, especially if it comes from the wisdom of tradition, is likely to get you killed.


  1. This has already happened to an extent. Parents told their kids that booze and drugs are bad, MKAY?

    But they didn't say why they were bad (long term negative effects on motivation, mental health, short term effects on judgment). They tried to use scare effects. Like if you touched a joint or drank a beer you were going to drop dead. Or the insidious gateway drug argument - touch that cigarette and you'll be smoking meth by Monday!

    This only works until the kids realize that their role models are drinking and using drugs (I.e. high school and college athletes, college kids, etc) and they are not dropping dead and generally having a good time.

    By the time the lumpenprole children escape the clutches of their parents in college, it is no wonder that they drink themselves into wild excess and pop Molly, snort cocaine, etc. I was going to say drunken orgy but it isn't clear how much actual sex goes on. There tends to be a gaggle of sluts hooking up with a few top dogs, shy or fat girls retiring to the dorms to munch on ramen noodles and gossip, and drunken betas retiring to the dorm room to use their hand at 3am.

  2. Waiting for Elvis-- cool formulation. Speculate what form he'll take?

  3. Gen-X was the original wholesome generation, the one that Millenials pretend to be. The truly wild ones were above Gen X, the "Disco" Generation.

    Why have Gen-Xers taken such a beating in the media? One thing is that they were teenagers and in their 20s in the '90s, when cocooning began. Cocooning seemed more pronounced in Gen-X, they were stereotyped as hiding out in academia, getting masters and doctorates for the hell of it.

  4. I agree the late boomers were the wildest generation.
    When I started college in 1987 , my fraternity had some members who were born in 1964. These guys partied more than my generation , born after 1969.

    one thing i noticed in my Fraternity, all the guys who were Juniors, seniors and above had done cocaine as freshman in college. Cocaine use seemed to fall significantly on campus after 1986. When I was a freshman, it was rarely done at parties, and when it was available it was mostly the seniors who were using. I think there were two reasons for this. The high profile death of Len Bias, in 1986 2 days after we was selected second in the NBA draft. This death certainly made me less willing to try cocaine, seeing how it could cause quick cardiac arrest. In addition the crack epidemic made cocaine less glamorous, funny how when the cost of coke fell in the late 80s it was no longer seen as a cool party drug by 1988. I will never forget when we had alumni visit for the annual alumni day picnic, all the guys from who had graduated from 1981-1985 would bring plenty of coke, and were surprised the younger frat guys did not partake.

    I also remember moving into the frat house in 1988 and finding canisters of ether which they had been using to freebase their coke.

    Gen X was more wholesome in regards to sex during the AIDS scare from 1984 to 1989 when the media spread fear about AIDS spreading to heterosexuals. Some of the older guys in my frat were surprised when the young college girls started to demand we wear condoms. I even knew a girl who made guys wear 2 condoms. My big brother in the frat actually lost out on hooking up several times, because he refused to wear condoms. He was a 24 year old senior in his 6th year of college still living in our frat when I joined. I learned a lot from him about how the party scene had becoming tamer , starting when they raised the drinking age to from 19 to 21 in 1984.

    to return to the wild days of disco states will need to start lowering the drinking age back to 19. I fail to see this occurring anytime soon. Without another baby boom the party scene of that era will not recur.

  5. thanks for sharing your experience.

    As to determining if the younger kids will be wild, this former post from 2009 might help:

    basically, changes in generations seem to accompany changes in the rate of smoking and substance abuse.

  6. Did Boomers often tend to have Greatest Generation parents though, right? Seems like from the years of birth of Silents ('25 to '43), quite a lot of their kids should've been born after '63 (the end of the Boomers) and the Silents were a small generation compared to the Greatest Gen anyway.

    Millenial parents seem to self describe as more laid back, compared to Gen X parents -


    Of course, it's a self description survey, so I'm sure the older folks will be dismissive of it as self flattery, but it kind of makes sense to me, and they could have found "positive" ways to describe helicopter parenting (vigilant, attentive, etc.) if they'd wanted to.

    They're not really risk taking like their Baby Boomer and Gen X parents, because their whole social environment has pushed against taking risks (anyt social risks, promiscuity, etc).

    But the world's not that dangerous, and they know it, so why cocoon their kids? Unlike the Gen X who still have that mindset of the dangerous world from their '70s-'80s youth (and react in a more risk taking and child shielding way). They'd also be aware of what they might have missed out on in life and take a native, low discipline relaxed attitude to letting the kid explore, compared to an average slightly more "burn out" Gen X parent who might look on the dark side of their own experiences.

    Re: Gen X and Baby Boomer differences, I wonder if the "naivity" of the Baby Boomers is what protected them against starting the cocooning trend? To some extent, at least for the early Boomers, they could never really take crime seriously enough to start cocooning in the way that the Gen X would begin to in their youth (although as parents they got started in being protective towards their kids). As a Generation which "cocooned" less, they could say their attitude was more "proportionate"...

  7. I think the "naivety" of the baby boomers explains some of it, from my experience. My Mother was born in 1944, the eldest of 5 siblings. There father was part of the greatest generation, served in WW II etc.. My mother and her siblings grew up in the same neighborhood as me, yet their experience was very different, their parents had less to worry about, drug use was almost non-existent when they were teenagers, while in my junior High school 1/3 were marijuana users by age 13 in 1981. Probably 3/4 had smoked pot by age 17 in 1986 when I turned 17. My mother was naive about this and it was never a concern to her. She was shocked when I informed her years later about the amount of drug use in my high school

  8. Related: Cohort effects in homelessness, where those born near the beginning of a crime wave (late '50s / early '60s) have consistently had the highest rates.


    You guys should read the graphic novel My Friend Dahmer about adolescent life in the late '70s, starring the late Boomers.

    Fast Times at Ridgemont High was also about the late Boomers rather than X-ers, who are shown instead in the Breakfast Club / Weird Science / Heathers kinds of movies. Drug use, casual sex, etc. is still going on, but the carefree attitude about that way of life is starting to give way to a streetwise mindset.

  9. A.B. Prosper4/7/14, 5:58 PM


    There will be a couple of thorns in the side of this thesis I think.

    Ignoring the Internet for a moment, the US really doesn't have a mass culture like it did in 1950 and with Demographics and the like and so a future "king" might find the scattered kingdom with its many peoples beyond rule. The 4 cultures (White, Asian, Black and Hispanic) share some commonalities but no one can really speak for all of them as Elvis did for he "youth" culture back than. There could be more than one Elvis, Elvii? but they may lead in opposite direction

    Also the US will almost certainly be measurably poorer, less safe and less free (being more collectivist) in coming years. This will change the calculus of partying a lot.

    Lastly the internet will stifle a lot of deeper socializing I think, the party animals will still play but with the off chance your life will be ruined by someone with a camera and everyone carries a camera or that its nigh impossible to pull off anything private since all communication is presumed monitored people may rationally reduce risk. They'll dip feet and rebel but only softly and in small measures .

    Importantly a lot of people , the geeks as always and many edge cases who in the past would have been dragged along won't bother being more interested in an online life or Call of Duty 12 or whatever

    Heck I rather easily imagine some nascent hedonistic scene guttering out as word of the growing to be standard militarized police raids spreads lightning fast.

    There is also an off chance of a number of black swans, economic collapse dictatorship and/or civilian or in a couple of decades the US just falling apart. How this will effect the situation at hand is unpredictable

  10. "Drug use, casual sex, etc. is still going on, but the carefree attitude about that way of life is starting to give way to a streetwise mindset."

    This is an important point - the 60s and early 70s seemed more dangerous, even though the crime rate was objectively lower, because people were naive and not used to a high crime rate. More innocents were victimized.

    By the late 70s and 80s, the good guys had gotten their act together, and were better able to protect themselves. This is why the 80s have a reputation as being safer, and not as wild, as the 60s.

  11. Being born in 1969 , I saw Fast Times at Ridgemont High in the movie theatre. I felt it was about my generation and peers at the time, but think those born from 1963-1967 would have identified better with the movie. But a lot of my friends had older siblings, and there were many kids in my neighborhood born a few years earlier than me, so I saw how they interacted and partied in high school when I was 13.

    Certainly when I was a senior in high school the scene had changed , although i also saw the Breakfast Club , Pretty in Pink and 16 candles my favorite was Fast Times, probably because I hung out with a lot of stoners and started smoking pot at age 13. Although I would not have considered myself a stoner and was considered a jock because i played on the Football and baseball team.

    but I agree, those born between 1961-1967 were more carefree than my peers born after 1968. It seemed in my town drug use and the carefree attitude peaked with those born 1960-1965. Besides having many neighbors from this age group, several of my cousins were born between 1961 and 1966, along with the siblings of many of my friends. I still prefer hanging out with people born in the 60s compared to those who came after 1971. But many of those friends and relatives born from 61 to 66 had issues with cocaine , while few of my friends and relatives born after 69 did. But some of my friends and family born after 69 became heroin addicts, and 2 friends and one cousin died before reaching age 40 from heroin. One was able to kick his habit a few years ago. Heroin is more of a cocooning drug than coke, so it makes sense that after coke use fell, heroin use increased.

  12. Some great insights by the commenters, thanks for that. I know around here, heroin use is on the rise as well. Seems like it was a more popular thing during the early-mid 90s, and now. I wonder what that says.

  13. actually it was one friend of mine who died of heroin, he was born in 1971. it was my best friend's younger brother. One cousin of mine, born in 1970, died from heroin OD in 1997. Another good friend i grew up with died at age 42, he was born in 69, and was a coke head in the 80s. he started doing coke at age 15, probably due to his older sister who was a party girl and 3 years older. He became an alcoholic after he stopped doing blow around 1994 and died of liver failure in 2012.

    when I go back to my old neighborhood now, it looks exactly the same. yet one sees fewer kids playing. I grew up in Upper Darby PA , where they filmed the movie Silver Linings Playbook. Both my parents were also born and raised in Upper Darby. So I had a dozen of cousins within a mile of my home, and grew up with so many kids around , cocooning was not much of an option in the 70s. most people did not have cable TV, and nobody had VCRs or video games. Some of my neighbors still had Black and white TVs in 1980.

    The next door neighbors on the left of our house had 3 boys, the youngest born in 1964. The house on the right had 5 children, the youngest born in 1965. Across the street the family had 4 , the youngest born in 1969. The other house across the street had 5 children, the youngest born in 1963 died in a car crash at at 18. So we were surrounded by a lot of older teenagers when I was 12.
    By the time I was a teenager the population of teenagers was 50% below the level of 5 years earlier, but seeing how they lived and partied had an effect on us.
    Those born just a few years later lost a lot of that experience.

    Upper Darby High School could not fit 4 grades of students until 1983. The typical graduating class was over 1100 students in the 70s. Had fallen to 750 in 1987. In 1986 they still had a smoking section in our high school, a place where they let the seniors smoke. We also had 3 large catholic high schools, which saw even bigger drops in enrollment since the 70s.

    I don't think America will revert from the cocooning trend anytime soon. As a parent of 2 kids, I can tell it is no longer possible to just tell your kids to leave the house and come back at dinner time. My parents would kick us out of the house by noon every saturday, if we had not already left on our own. When i was 7 years old I would come and go as I pleased, and would always find kids to play with. Today my children would have find this impossible. Every kid has each hour planned weeks ahead of time. Neighbors would think it strange to knock on a door and ask a friend to come out and play. While I did this everyday of my life from age 7 to 17. If one kid was not home, I had 10 other kids to visit or find outside having fun. Everyday after school, starting at age 6, I either brought a friend home, or went to a friends house or played outside. My mother went back to work when I was 7, thus me and my sister were on our own until our parents got back from work around 5:00. Would this even be allowed today ?

  14. A.B. Prosper4/8/14, 1:49 PM

    I live in a rather mixed neighborhood with a variety of ages, races, social classes and parental investment strategies.

    What seem to see is the lower investment parents who predominate in my neighborhood basically let the kids play on the street and one going to a friends house and knocking is not unknown. I've seen issues on matters of race but young people get along adequately on those grounds though I rarely see the White kids near the Black or Hispanic ones in groups. They seem to friend groups which may include other races but don't form clumps and clusters like the others do.

    The children of higher investment parents however seem to have much more structured lives AFAICT.

    Thus about 40% of kids will probably not be cocooned very much (Black, Hispanic mostly) and the other groups (White, Asian and upper class White Hispanic and Black) maybe 45% probably will to some degree.

    The upper tier 15% or so will probably have helicopter parents

    This is just a guess though


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