Sunday, May 23, 2010

Talkin 'Bout My Generation--No Really, My Generation

Back in my day, we wore flannel shirts and jeans up to our navels...and we liked it.

Yes, Gen X’ers, I’m talking to you.

We few, we happy few.

We who were born sometime between West Side Story (1961) and Ordinary People (1981).

We who were suckled on formula, schooled on "Sesame Street" (old school, rated R) and inspired by Julie on “The Love Boat”, the time has come for us to stand in the spotlight.

No, not as Commander in Chief (although the President is not only a citizen of the United States, he’s arguably a citizen of Generation X) but as part of a grass roots effort far more powerful.

No, not the Tea Party.

I’m talking about the PTA.

In his fascinating blog, The Gen X Files, Dave Sohigian speaks directly to this phenomenon. A generation that is far smaller than the one that preceded it (the Baby Boomers) and the one that followed (the Millennials), has reached a tipping point noticeable in the make-up of parents to current seventh and eighth graders. For the first time, Gen X’ers are in the majority.

And, teachers, he cautions, should be warned.

As a dominating group of parents, Gen X’ers will not act as the Baby Boomers did. And, their kids, now referred to as Homelanders, will not behave as the Millennials.

Dave Sohigian writes:

“I have written before about Gen X parents, and the reasons for our challenging nature have to do with how we were raised. Generation X were the original “Latchkey kids", raised during times when the focus was on adult issues (such as civil rights, women’s rights, nuclear proliferation, etc...) and we bear the scars of having to fend for ourselves.

Many Gen X'ers have promised themselves that this won't happen to their kids and are over-protective of them as a result. We were also failed by institutions (which were crumbling during much of our youth) and have a deep mistrust of them as a result. That means we hold individuals accountable instead of organizations (which we figure will probably just screw up anyway). So we tend to blame individuals (teachers or administrators in this case) and we expect the institutions to fail in resolving issues.

The results of these actions is that teachers are under intense pressure to perform. In many cases teachers may be forced out of schools by a small band of Gen X parents.....”

Sohigian says he’s seen this first hand.

This is actually different from the helicopter style of some Baby Boomers, who over-scheduled and organized every aspect of their kids’ experiences. As a teacher relating to such parents, I found that they hoped and expected the school was designed to meet their individual child’s needs.

As a Gen X’er, I don’t expect that. I feel more like a Beagle, my nose to the ground, always sniffing for scraps of information, and doing in parenting, what I did in my childhood—fending for myself. Not in the anti-social, maverick sense—but with the belief that there is no safety net of competence or consistency to rely upon.

It’s remarkable to me that Sohigian captures the reason for this so precisely in his explanation of the Generation X experience. How he got a hold of my fifth grade diary I will never know, but he nails it.

Before I go further, I need to say that when it comes to the success of parenting or education, the proof is in a pudding that takes thirty or more years to set. And, looking around, most of us turned out ok. But, the environment in which we were raised and schooled shaped our generation not only as it grew up, but now, as it raises its own children. So, if it’s true that what’s past is prologue, let us look at the recent past.

I am the child of baby boomers, but ones who had kids early in life, making them parents well before the majority of their peers, who would raise the millennials. I, like the older Gen X’ers, was born into a time that Sohigian likens to George Bernard Shaw’s summary of the Lost Generation (born 1883-1900), which has,
the unique disadvantage of being young at a time when elders were revered and old at a time when youth was idolized.”

You can debate the view that “elders” were being revered in the late 70’s, but I think it’s true that it was a time when youth—or childhood—was valued mostly for how it could fulfill the policies and hopes of the grown-up world. It might have been for the greater good, but the result was, kids, in many ways, were either cogs in, or casualties of, the instruments of change.

I thrived with the independence given to me. And, I never felt a lack of love. But, when Sohigina says we “fended for ourselves”, I know what he means.

I was, literally and figuratively, a latchkey kid. In elementary school, I wore the key on a string around my neck. Every afternoon, my older brother and I would walk ourselves home from the bus stop. I’d drop my backpack near the front door, find a vanilla Danone yogurt in the fridge, watch “Tom and Jerry” for an hour, and then go down to play in our unfinished basement. Only once did I stick my hand in the uncovered electrical socket. It was shortly after that that I began carrying a travel clock and two watches in my backpack, but I’m fairly confident these incidents are not related.

In sixth grade, we moved to Austin, Texas. I was bused to a school in a very poor section of the East side. My teacher’s reading level was a bit lower than my own, and when the state issued the first test of teacher’s basic skills, I was surprised and a bit disillusioned that he showed up the next week, having, apparently, passed.

Because of busing changes, I went to different schools for seventh and then eight grades. With our earlier move to the state and natural matriculation, I went to entirely different schools for fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth grades.

I had a history teacher who taught the civil war from the perspective of the confederacy (the south was “us” the north was “them”), another teacher, a Vietnam Vet, who told terrifying war stories and randomly called out geographical directions, making us stand at attention and face, “North”, “South”, “East”, or “West” at his command. I had a fundamentalist math teacher who punished kids by making them write out passages from the bible---this, in public school. Yesterday when my mom mentioned her concern that Texas had just adopted a very conservative curriculum, I realized how much of my experience had slipped under the radar. Conservative? How about Nuts?

In high school, I had a brilliant English teacher, a devoted drama teacher and a prescient history teacher (in his late fifties, he was studying Arabic and convinced the Middle East would be the next area of great importance in world events). Things fell into place, but my parents did not have involvement in my course load, or teacher assignments. They came to every performance I ever did; they were and are wonderful. But, if you ask them what AP classes I took...well.....

Math remained my nemesis, so I decided I needed an SAT prep class, sought one out, and drove myself to it. We did the college tour, but I don’t remember ever getting any advice on what college I should go to. When I got into the one I wanted, they figured out a way to pay.

And, that’s key: I had little guidance, but I had little hindrance. They let me spend hours a day in a dark theatre, never insisting that I become more balanced; they never vetted my friends or issued a curfew. They never asked me if I’d done my homework—or even if I had homework. I had been packing my own lunches and doing my own laundry, and writing away for information on teen tours—that I didn’t actually go on—on my own, from the minute I was able.

There was no pink in my youth, but no particular oversight in my teenage years. We were, for better and worse---not raised in a time when “childhood” or “parenthood” were the professions they are spoken to be today.

Did this determine my personality? Or, fortunately, simply suit it? I do not know. But, it has affected my style of parenting. And, as Sohigian suggests, affected my view of education.

Because, in retrospect, I realize that it was the kids whose parents were involved, who were not in the classroom with the illiterate teacher. Whoever decided that twelve year olds should ride a school bus at 6:45 in the morning to the opposite side of town may have been thinking about correcting social inequities, but he was not thinking of what it meant to the actual kids. So, it was the style of parenting in that time—and the focus of the institutions—that shaped my sense of “fending” for oneself.

What I learned, I am sure, made me more confident. I did make friends with kids whose lives were much different from my own. As I think back, I realize many of the smartest kids in my high school graduating class were the ones who’d braved that neglected elementary school years before. (And, thankfully, I’ve reconnected with many of my friends from all aspects of my Texas years.) But, at some point, whether it was in deciding that my allegiance to the Union was greater than my respect for a particular history teacher, or that algebra and the Ten Commandments need not be coefficients, I learned to be a critical thinker.

If I can prevent it, however, I do not want my kids to learn in the “sink or swim” fashion. And, if they ever face a failure on the part of grown-ups (teachers) or institutions, (schools), I don’t want them to feel, as I did, all on their own.

If Sohigian says we put a lot of pressure on individuals, I think it’s true that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to navigate in this system, too. I try to know as much as I can about the school my daughter attends (or will attend in the years to come), and about the teachers’ styles within them. My husband might be more interested in test scores and data, but what interests me, and will interest me, are the things I learn from other parents, or notice in other students.

I had an acting teacher who would say, “I will not take away your struggle.” She meant the creative struggle. But, I think of this when I look at how I approach parenting and education.

Am I trying to take away the experiences or struggles that are the ones worth having?

Or am I, as I tell myself, just trying to avoid the extra stress, and chaos, and wasted opportunity that I felt prevented me from having a better education early on in life?

Sohigian says that Generation X, in an attempt to protect their kids from the chaos of our current world, will go overboard and produce a generation like the Silent Generation (born 1925-1942). And, as students in a school environment, these kids will differ from the Millennials.

He writes:

“The result is a very challenging time for schools (and eventually companies) as these stifled, conformist and compliant kids move up through the years.

Their Gen X Parents, Sohigian says, in reference to the demands they place on individual teachers, “will be an entirely different matter...”

My kids? Stifled, conformist, and compliant?

Say it ain’t so.

Will a weekend of John Hughes movies, Huey Lewis, acid washed jeans, and excessive amounts of Mello-Yello cure them of these traits?

Or must I change my ways?

I think I’ll have to start by explaining them.

First, to myself.

And, my kids.

Ps- The time frame assigned to Gen X varies, and Sohigian’s was the most inclusive period I found. It’s hard to say that anyone fits into a generality, and certainly the people born in 1961 had a different experience than the ones born in 1981. There is also a movement among some Gen X parents to be what Sohigian says are, “bad parents”, announcing their revolt against the self-sacrificing absolute devotion to their children shown by the Boomers just before them. Bad, as in Good, has always been a key aspiration of some of my generation. I never wore enough flannel to qualify for that.....


Fran said...

loved reading this Sarah, brought back some mixed memories of that busing to the East side. and i have only now begun really thinking about what i remember about what those teachers might have (or not) taught me. seems i remember mostly my private boarding school teachers crystal clear but not any of the public school teachers (save for our high school drama teacher)... thank you for writing about our generation. yes, i grew up much like you did - pretty much independently based. i cannot imagine what parenting would be like based on that background, today.

Tim Morrissey said...

What a fascinating perspective, given that your father and I are both "49ers" (b. 1949). My wife (b. 1954) and I were certainly not "helicopter parents"...but were constantly shocked that our children's (b. 1983 and 1984) teachers in the Madison public school system kept telling us they wished all parents were as involved as we were. The bar was apparently set much lower than we had expected.

A very engaging and thought-provoking post, Sarah.

Houston! said...

I want to resist becoming that parent that we are predicted to become. I mean my son was born less than 3 weeks before 9/11. I sat there watching the towers come down as I held him after a sleepless night in a complete daze thinking "How could we bring him into this world?" People make me feel guilty for letting him walk to school with our neighbor alone. It's only two blocks! I hope I can give them a good sense of independence. I think I learned a lot more on my own without my parents constantly asking questions of me or my teachers or guiding me through every milestone situation. I actually had to think, make phone calls, drive myself to college interviews, fill out FAFSA forms on my own...I had to work everyday afterschool just to buy a prom dress. I already see the Millenial effect on my children -- that disposable income feeling --if you break or lose an Ipod it's instantly replaced. I hope we can resist that. Excellent choice on this week's topic!

Alyson said...

What a thought provoking post! I love thinking about all these different parenting issues, though I don't really agree with Sohigian's assessment of me or my son. My parents are a part of the Silent Generation and if my son turns out anything like my mother than the world will be a better place. And she was clearly involved in my life, not in a overbearing way, but in the way I hope to present in my son's life. There, but not looming. I don't fit neatly in Sohigian's box, and I highly doubt Brett will either.

Cory said...

I was also a latchkey kid, but I came home and watched Lassie and The Brady Bunch, and fought with my sister. I've come to realize that letting my girls figure out their own problems is one of the best things I can do for them. It is so much easier to just put their shoes on for them, much less time consuming, and much more reliable; but they learn nothing if I do it. When I don't do it for them and they step on something that hurts because they refuse to wear the shoes, next time they put them on.