Growing Up Anxieties

Running criticism of children, parents and contemporary child-rearing is a familiar theme in much commentary on social issues.  Lately, there seems to be an explosion of hand wringing about young adulthood, its problems and failures.  The implication seems to be that everything parents have done wrong is now finding expression in the inability of children to grow up – or at least to reach some definition of maturity.  Apparently, either the definition has changed or it is taking too long to reach it – whatever it is.

Now several new books on the subject are getting attention.  One, “How to Raise an Adult,” by Julie Lythcott-Halms, former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford, presents as the chief suspect – surprise! – overparenting.  In fact, the subtitle of her book is “Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.”  Judging from the reviews, she herself has fallen into the demographic trap.  Overparenting, otherwise known as helicopter parents, generally refers to parents too involved in their children’s lives, or alternatively as children too dependent on their parents, or both.

Undoubtedly, this phenomenon exists, but having working with many parents over the years my view is that it is one that describes a limited population of financially privileged, success oriented parents.  Many conclusions are drawn about young people at the most prestigious and expensive universities and then presented as if they are representative of the population at large.

Early in the modern women’s movement, one criticism that was leveled at activists was that they represented only a limited number of highly educated and financially comfortable women who were setting an agenda that did not address the needs of minority and non-professional women.  In a sense, this is true today with a kind of advocacy promoted such as “Lean In,” which might not work for women in low paying jobs on which they are financially dependent.

The same problem applies now to the judgment made of parenting based on a particular segment of the population and then generalized to parents as a whole.  Many parents are being criticized and feel attacked by a profile description that does not apply to them.  Yes, parents do want their children to be successful.  But success should be defined in accordance with people’s socio-economic status and more importantly, their values.

Another new book noted speaks to this point and others in a way that sounds interesting and more relevant.  “The Prime of Life,” by Steven Mintz, a professor of history at the University of Texas, is as the subtitle says a history of modern adulthood.  In his book, Mintz not only describes the profound transformation of adulthood in today’s world, but also gives us a historical perspective on how past generations navigated the passage to maturity.

This perspective shows how cultural and historical circumstances have consistently reshaped what it means to be a grown-up in contemporary society.  The economy has played a role as well by determining employment opportunities…thereby influencing the age of marriage and potential for adult independence.   During the first half of the 20th century adulthood was synonymous with heterosexual marriage, parenthood and adherence to fixed sex and family roles.

By the 1950’s, people who had not married, had children, bought a house were not yet considered adults.  With an income high enough to support a family, parents surpassed the standard of living of their own parents.  The Second World War also played a part in providing financial support for returning veterans to attend college.

Mintz makes clear that the nature of adulthood and family life of the 1950s, which has been idealized, was specific to a particular historical period.  He points out that many of the social changes of the 1960s were unintended by products of the “rush to adulthood” in the previous era.  The constricted gender roles became a source of frustration and rebellion.  At the same time, the rapid expansion of higher education contributed to the emergence of an independent stage of life after young people left home but before they started their own families.

Clearly, the culturally prescribed roles and relationships of the past have been transformed, leaving adulthood to be fashioned and given meaning in individualistic ways.  What remains consistent for parents is that the purpose of child-rearing is to prepare children to function in the society in which they live.  When we criticize what parents do we are actually criticizing the world in which we live.