July 17, 2014

Hovering parents give children short attention spans

Millennials and small children these days have the attention span of a fly. Yet kids were more comfortable just being at ease, perhaps having nothing much to do, back in the '80s. As boring as the day may have seemed, something was bound to come along and make things engaging again. That's the natural rhythm of human interactivity. Or even when you're playing by yourself -- sometimes there's a lull in your imagination, then it picks up again.

It's like eating to satiate your appetite. Most of the day you're not-so-hungry, then there are a handful of times when your stomach starts growling, and hence only a handful of times when you devote special attention to satisfying your hunger with a proper meal. Craving nearly constant stimulation ("entertainment" AKA distraction) is like jonesing for a snack every five minutes, and is a sign of malnutrition since no person can thrive on snacks alone.

Kids who grew up after the Midcentury heyday of Dr. Spock -- and before his resurrection under helicopter parents -- learned this natural rhythm from not being constantly attended to by their parents, other adults, or even their peers. In a climate where folks are treated more equally, rather than children being the center of the universe, there were good stretches of time when whoever you wanted attention from would be otherwise occupied.

With helicopter parents cocooning their children in the home for their entire upbringing, they never learn the rhythm that comes from trying to set something up with their peers. Y'know, sometimes your best friend is home, and sometimes he isn't. Sometimes they're available to talk on the phone, sometimes they aren't. Peers and friends don't place you at the center of the universe, so you gradually learn humility, compromise, and patience -- rather than remain stuck toddler-like with arrogance, stubbornness, and impatience. By preventing contact with peers, helicopter parents have shut off this pathway toward social and emotional development.

The same goes for unrelated adults, not that a kid has many opportunities to interact with them. Still, you go to ask a shop clerk a question, and they might be busy for a few minutes. You go by yourself to a fast food place, and you can't just whine and shout your way to the front of the line, or get the workers to speed up your order. Children who are locked indoors have no experiences like these: they scream "Jump!" and their parents say "How high?!"

More important for children of a bubble-wrap generation are the interactions with their helicopter parents. Such parents want to keep their kids constantly stimulated, whether passively soaking up mass media content or actively participating in activities (around the home or one of the many that they're shuttled to and from).

It needs to be emphasized that even if the parents shut off the TV, DVD, video games, internet, etc., they are still at their kids' beck and call. They respond right away to complaints of boredom, have back-up lists of dozens of activities they can "entertain" their kid with, and generally aim to fill up 100% of the kid's free time with activity.

What other outcome is possible than a mind that expects to be doing something, always?

I think it's that mindset that drives their adoption and excessive use of digital distractions like "feed" websites and "leveling-up" video games. Gen X is fine walking around with nothing in particular to do, hence we do not lock our heads down into smartphone mode the second we step foot outside (or inside for that matter).

I know, we should be more understanding of helicopter parents -- they're only trying to make up for the unsupervised childhoods that they had, and want their own kids to be attended to more closely.

So, if the parents had grown up in lean times, we'd forgive them for stuffing their kids with starch and sugar to fatten them up, as part of a continual regimen of eating-eating-eating? No, we'd say, "Look, we know food was scarce when you were little, but get a grip -- look at how your fanatic over-reaction is warping these children."

What strand of common sense leads these parents to believe that constant activity and being the constant center of attention will be good for their social and emotional growth? Seeking constant stimulation in order to alleviate boredom moment-by-moment is like masturbating all day long instead of just going for a roll in the hay a few times.

When mass hysteria goes so hard against common sense, it's tough to cut the parents some slack "based on how they grew up." If they were only providing more supervision than they'd received, fair enough. But their obsessive-compulsive extreme is not a mere correction back to normal, it's throwing things farther outta-whack than they ever were before.

For better or worse, the Millennials will someday have kids of their own, and they'll have the opposite parental impulse -- let the kids roam around and get into a little mischief ("like I wish I could have!"). A good chunk of roaming-around time, though, isn't very engaging or exciting. Only when they are allowed more unstructured free time will they learn to cope with boredom and come to realize that the whole rest of the world is not at their beck and call.


  1. At the same time, there was less boredom during outgoing periods, because were more active. Millenials have become inactive, often not by choice.

  2. Not much to add except that my experiences with my young nephews 100% agree with the above; they get overstimulated from playing too many video games and are palpably uncomfortable with having to entertain themselves without electronics or adult attention (usually they start fighting over the same toy and attacking each other within 5 minutes). They're also pretty bad sometimes about rudely demanding attention when adults are obviously in the middle of something else. I sympathize with the difficulties of managing young boys but unless the parents set and enforce the expectation that they be able to amuse themselves from time to time, they'll never learn.

  3. Yeah, when I tell my nephew he has to play by himself or "do nothing" for awhile, he huffs and glares like he's about to go postal.

    Speaking of interrupting the plans of grown-ups, what happened to the TV? It's now under the control of the children 24/7. If grown-ups are watching shows in the evening that are not appropriate for or just boring to small children, they get their panties in a wad about wanting to watch SpongeBob right now.

    In the old days 25 years ago, grown-ups owned the TV from 7pm until bedtime a few hours later. If you whined, they stood their ground. So, you either acquired a taste for Matlock, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, and nature docs, or you went and did something else, somewhere else.


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