Exploring the Generational Parenting Gap
By Sharon Blumenthal-Cohen
On the evening of the “Welcome Back Schmooze” hosted by my son’s preschool, I had a revelation. As my husband and I sat in tiny rainbow-colored plastic chairs making introductions with the other parents in attendance, I became aware of something I hadn’t expected. The time-marking milestone references of the group made abundantly clear that twenty years fell between the youngest and oldest parents in the room!
My researcher’s curiosity is piqued in the most surprising of places, and on that evening, that place was a brightly decorated preschool classroom. Acknowledging my own generational lens, I sat among my parental peers as both a mom and a researcher, observing our similarities and differences. From the questions we asked to our reactions to the teachers’ responses, the values of the parents in the room were on display, and I became aware that collectively we represented two very different generations: Generation X and the Millennial Generation, and I wondered about the impact of our differences on the educational context.
Neil Howe and William Strauss (1991), authors of Generations: The History of America’s Future 1584 to 2069, posit in their co-authored Strauss-Howe Generational Theory that the primary defining experience of a generation, or “turning,” as they refer to a 20-22 year span of time, is either crisis or recovery. According to the theory, these states are determined by political, social, and economic events that occur during each generational span of time. They further explain that these states alternate with each subsequent generation, resulting in contiguous generations experiencing significantly different childhoods.
Citing political scandals, international tensions, and the rise in divorce rates of the 1970’s and 1980’s, Howe and Strauss (1997) argue that Gen X’ers tend to be cynical about politics, challenging of authority, and self-reliant because their unsupervised childhood was defined by crisis. Quite differently, the Millennial Generation’s hyper-supervised childhood took place during a period of recovery, a time of economic expansion and increased focus on social change. Abrams and von Frank (2014), who study the multigenerational workplace, assert the climate of recovery shaped the Millennial Generation which tends to be hopeful, open to change, and appreciative of structure and supervision.
Research indicates that not only do the social and historical experiences of our childhood shape our adulthood, but they also inform our parenting. Giulia Sani and Judith Treas’ (2016) research on parenting differences between Gen X’ers and Millennials helps elucidate this. In their study, published in The Journal of Marriage and Family, they reveal that on average Gen X’ers, possibly because they were the first generation of self-reliant latchkey kids, spend far less time with their children than parents of the Millennial generation. Gen X’ers typically expect their children to be more independent and to seek out opportunities to socialize with peers on their own. Millennials, products of “helicopter parenting” (Cline & Fay, 1990), tend to parent quite differently, positioning themselves as their children’s primary advocates and social schedulers. Research further reveals differences in the ways in which the two generations view work and rewards. Widespread corporate layoffs of the 1980’s and the resulting job insecurity Gen X’ers felt as they entered the workforce may explain the value this generation places on merit-based rewards for independent work. Quite oppositely, the Millennial startup mentality sheds light on this younger generation’s emphasis on contributory rewards for group work and effort.
These parenting differences have ramifications beyond whether or not every child should be awarded a participation trophy or if children should be able to engage in unsupervised play. In schools, these philosophical differences have significant implications for curriculum and instruction. Much research has been conducted on the need for educators to adjust their instruction to meet the learning needs of each new generation of students, but there is very little discussion in the field on the effect parents’ generational perspectives have on their children and how that impacts their children’s learning. As an educator, I recognize the delicate balance between using the research on generations to inform pedagogical choices and resisting making reductionist assumptions. Honoring that balance, I ask, How might the effect of multi-generational parenting influences on same-aged children impact pedagogy, classroom culture, parent-teacher relationships, student-peer relationships, and the like? As I continue to explore the generational parenting gap, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic. What have your experiences been? What insights do you have that I should consider?
Abrams, J., & Frank, V. V. (2014). The multigenerational workplace: Communicate, collaborate, and create community. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Cline, F., & Fay, J. (2006). Parenting with love and logic: Teaching children responsibility.
Colorado Springs, CO: Pio Press.
Howe, Neil. “Meet Mr. and Mrs. Gen X: A New Parent Generation.” AASA | Equity, January
“Millennials On Track to Be the Most Educated Generation to Date.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 17 Mar. 2015.
“Our New Report on Millennials’ Views on the State of Education.” Medium.com, Medium, 8
Sani, Giulia M. Dotti, and Judith Treas. “Educational Gradients in Parents’ Child–Care Time
Across Countries, 1965–2012.” The Journal of Marriage and Family, Wiley-Blackwell,
19 Apr. 2016.
Dr. Sharon Blumenthal-Cohen is the Associate Program Director for the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development in Washington, DC.