It doesn’t get any easier…

by Natalie P.

June 3, 2009 | Filed Under Parenting, The Heartless Bitch Way | 4 Comments

Once, when my children were very young, I was exasperatedly telling an older friend about my trials and tribulations with parenting. (It might have been the day after we found worms coming out of my eldest’s ass)…. I said, “Does it get any easier as they get older?”  She said, “It doesn’t any easier, the problems just change.”

My kids are now in their twenties, and in some ways I find being a “parent” to young men this age even harder than parenting them when they were young.  When they were little, you had authority – it was an essential part of the role. After all, your primary job as a parent, as Dave Barry puts it, is to stop them from killing themselves before they are 5. (Or 10, or 15…)  As difficult as young kids can be, you still have the the right to say, “No. You will do it THIS way.” or “You need a time out to think about this”, and in the worst case, you can pick them up under your arm and haul them off to their room, (or to the car, so you can take them to the hospital for stitches). When they get older, it all gets more complex. It’s hard to pick up a 6’2″ 190lb guy, and you can’t exactly give them a “time out”, (Though you CAN embarrass the shit out of them when they break the “No Skanky Hos Sleep Over” house rule.)

These are the things they don’t tell you about in prenatal classes, or even parenting books.  For example, I had a hard enough time dealing with my own existential angst, and now I get to relive it all over again as my kids go through their own versions.  Each one in his own uniquely painful (and painful to watch) way.  

When they ask questions when they are little, you generally know the answers. As adults, those questions get really complicated and the future hangs in the balance, and all of a sudden you have to say, “I don’t know”.  Or worse, when you DO know exactly what shit is going to happen, and no amount of warning them will dissuade them from a bad course of action.  I mean we all made mistakes, and lord knows, we probably learn the most from our mistakes rather than our triumphs, but it is REALLY hard to watch your kid make the SAME mistakes over and over again.  It’s even harder to say NOTHING when you see them repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot.  (OK, for me, that’s IMPOSSIBLE.)

But here’s the dilemma: We all want our kids to feel loved, validated, and good about themselves. In order to give your child that message, you are supposed to “accept” them as they are. However, if you accept all that they do as an adult without comment and you see them doing self-destructive and/or self-defeating things, aren’t you just “enabling”?  If you see your kid with all this potential, just floundering, do we not owe it to tell them that we believe the can be/do so much MORE with their lives?  If I applaud them for working at a shitty minimum-wage job am I not giving them the message that I think that’s all they are capable of?

More importantly, do we ever stop being “parents”?

A friend sent me a quote yesterday, that seemed to match my feelings on this subject:

“If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse; however if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.”
    -Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Or, as Ashley Brilliant put it: “Just because I have accepted you as you are does not mean I have abandoned all hope for your improvement.” 

You hope that by the time they get to their twenties they at least have some things figured out, and they ARE adults now, so they have to assume responsibility for their actions, but I think the hardest part is letting go. I think my biggest challenges in the last 4 years have been around figuring out HOW to be a parent to an adult.  Even the best offspring are going to do things that are crazy, reckless, and downright foolish (god knows, *I* did), and if we say nothing when we see this going on, and bad things happen, are we complicit in the outcome? In law, if you witness a crime and say nothing you can be considered an Accessory After the Fact, right? How do you draw the line between “caring” and “interfering”?  I mean, I think we can all identify the extremes, but it’s that stuff that’s close to the line that makes us so miserable.

I told one of my sons that if he didn’t want me voicing my opinions on his choices, he should stop asking me to fund them, or more to the point, asking me to bail him out when he runs out of money.  In business, if you go to a venture capital firm to borrow money, they have VERY tight control on what you do with that money – how you spend it, what information you disclose back to them, and how you pay it back. Kids today, on the other hand, seem to think we should loan them cash with impunity, (and some think they are actually ENTITLED to it) and without having the right to say ANYTHING about how they might spend that money, manage their finances, never mind actually talking about repayment.

I wonder, is the safety-net of a mom who will help him out financially (that gravy train has come to a grinding halt, BTW), and a Dad who will give him work at his business if he can’t find anything else, actually undermining the initiative he might take for real personal growth and achieving his potential if he didn’t have us to fall back on?

(I gave my cousin a birthday card a while back that said, “We child-proofed the house 3 years ago… but they keep getting back IN!”) 

I see the same issues but in a different way with my eldest. It’s like they both have a vision of what they want (sort of – at least what kind of lifestyle they want), but neither seems willing to endure the effort (doing things that they don’t find immediately pleasurable), and the delay of gratification it would take, to get there. They often put off long term gain in favor of short term things that are “fun” and feel good, but that they KNOW are holding them back. And yet they rationalize their choices.  “I’m young. I have lots of time.”  I hear this is an issue with many of the “Millennials“.  Kids in this instant-gratification/Nintendo generation seem to have little tolerance for the rote, less-than-fun work that it takes to get to an accomplished level. Teachers at the college level have told me that so many of the students just don’t want to do the work necessary to REALLY learn the material, and worse, they don’t think they should HAVE to. They think they should earn a degree through attendance alone.

The thing IS, I know I didn’t raise my kids to be this way, but something is going on.  Is it an education system that stopped making the kids responsible for self-discipline, instead shunting it to the parents? (Getting planners signed? We never had “planners” when we were in school…). Is it the “everyone is special, everyone gets a certificate” crap that is currently fashionable? Is it the “heaven fore-fend we should FAIL a child for not meeting the standards set for passing this grade”?  I think that Raina Kelly nailed it in her “Generation Me” article in Newsweek: “…as Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell point out in their excellent book “The Narcissism Epidemic,” released last week, we’ve built up the confidence of our kids, but in that process, we’ve created a generation of hot-house flowers puffed with a disproportionate sense of self-worth (the definition of narcissism) and without the resiliency skills they need when Mommy and Daddy can’t fix something.”

If you believe what the Steven Levitt’s and the Malcom Gladwell’s of the world are telling us, it seems that parenting doesn’t matter as much as we think it does. Society, peers, and a whole host of other factors (on top of genetics) may have a much stronger influence:  Reality TV, Financial scandals, an information age where viral marketing spreads trends faster than ever before, and the perception that they will never be as successful as their parents may have a bigger impact on this generation than any values we can hope to instill.  According to the studies that Gladwell cites in The Tipping Point, it is of far more negative impact on a child to have good parents in a bad neighborhood than it is to have bad parents in a good neighborhood.  According to data that Levitt quotes, whether you read books every night to your kids, took them to museums, or put them in a head-start program has little impact on their outcome in school. (On a positive note for all you guilt-ridden working moms, going back to work before they entered kindergarten also has no impact on school outcomes compared to staying home until they enter school.) Further to alleviating that parental guilt, Judith Harris’s “The Nurture Assumption” (reviewed here by Malcom Gladwell) turns the tables on many assumptions about the impact of parents on the personality/behavior of the child.  We aren’t as important as we’ve been lead to believe we are. (Oh thank GOD. You mean it’s not all MY fault?! What a relief.)

It would seem that if individual parents are not directly to blame for the current epidemic of narcissism and instant-gratification in the millennials, then we as a society have to take some responsibility. Remember when it was inappropriate to let a kid run amok in a restaurant? Remember when it was socially acceptable to ask someone to take a screaming child out of a theatre, or chide a child that wasn’t yours, for rudeness or aggression?  Now, heaven fore-fend you should look askance at someone else’s kid.  The “village” it seems is bent on raising a bunch of self-absorbed brats.

Despite the negative influences of the Millennial generation, I am proud that my sons are polite, courteous (at least to others, and usually to me), and helpful. They do not suffer from the same sense of entitlement that I see plaguing friends and acquaintances. When we help out, they are grateful, but they don’t expect it.

I just hope that they DO have as much time as they think to “figure it out”.  I just hope that when they are 35 and finally finished school and are trying to start a career, that managers like me aren’t going to look at them like 2nd-class citizens, wondering why someone that old is only JUST getting his shit together now….  

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4 comments so far
  1. Momo June 5, 2009 3:35 pm

    Thank you. I was raised by strict parents, and although they went overboard (living vicariously through me, grounding me for getting a 95 rather than 100, always comparing me to Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern kids), it did help prepare me for the real world. I am so disgusted with people my age and younger in the workforce. They think that work is an extension of their social life and that life should be fun and fair.

    My parents have cooled down now, and I’m happier with the job they’re doing with my younger siblings. They don’t ask me when I’m going to “move up” and become a doctor (I’m an RN), and they’re encouraging my younger brother to go into things other than academics rather than label him a dunce. However, they still push us past complacency and make it clear that a D minus is not tantamount to an A.

  2. Possum June 12, 2009 9:35 am

    I too have wondered where kids today get the impression that they are entitled to things that we would have had to work towards when we were their age, irrespective of whether our parents could have afforded it. I am saddened on occasion by school policy that wont let kids fall flat on their faces at times, just in case they get upset about it. How will this prepare them for the real world, where there is no one to prevent you from falling (failure) at times. They will leave school thinking that they are entitled to be kept from having to fail and someone else will be responsible for the mess.
    My eldest two are just entering the horrible stage of puberty, and for a while were developing a very nice little entitlement complex. I sat them down and very quietly explained that, yes there were certain things they were entitled to just because they were born, but not the things they thought.

    I told them that are were entitled to an education from their parents, up to the end of high school (and help to study and learn if they need it, but i wont do it for them). They are entitled to our love and respect as our kids forever. They are entitled to healthy food for sustenance, clothes to keep them warm/ cool/ decent. They are entitled to shelter until they can afford to emotionally and physically leave home. These are your entitlements. Anything else is icing on the cake, and when affordable and deserved we will endeavour to either get them for you (as presents)or help you to earn enough to purchase them for yourself (by giving you jobs to do). But you are not automatically entitled to them.
    Funnily enough it seems to have worked. They have both stopped demanding that myself and partner get them something now and have on several instances done jobs for us and our neighbours in order to earn it themselves. These things have consequently become prized possessions that they take care of, because they mean something, other than just a new thing they had to have that gets broken when they get bored with it.

  3. Eva November 4, 2009 6:37 pm

    “If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse; however if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.”
    -Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

    I have been trying to find the words to say that properly for _years_. Thank you.

  4. AK November 6, 2009 11:00 am

    You’re dead right about the difficulties of parenting twenty year olds vs legal minors.

    I met a woman whose 28 year old son recently *died* from swine flu. He had been healthy, no known medical risk factors.

    When I told two women friends of this, they both groaned. Both revealed they had sons in their twenties. Both women had been hounding their sons to get the swine flu vaccine and both boys, influenced by delusions of immortality were refusing. And–there was nothing the two women could do about it–the sons were too old to be picked up and carried to a pediatrician’s office. And in the case of the 28 year old, he resisted being taken to the hospital and only went there because (bless her) his girlfriend raised holy hell and dragged his ass in on Day 4 of the illness. The guy died, but at least his mother has the faint consolation of knowing he didnt die from negligence–thanks to his girlfriend.

    BTW, thank you very much for having written this:

    “In business, if you go to a venture capital firm to borrow money, they have VERY tight control on what you do with that money – how you spend it, what information you disclose back to them, and how you pay it back. Kids today, on the other hand, seem to think we should loan them cash with impunity, (and some think they are actually ENTITLED to it) and without having the right to say ANYTHING about how they might spend that money”

    I live in a city overwhelmed with beggars and pandhandlers, that also has a plethora of social services for those willing to tell a case manager to truth and avoid bad companionship.

    I have felt shitty and guilty about not wanting to support toxic street culture by giving money to beggars.

    Your information about venture capitalism and the accountability it places on those who panhandle wearing business attire was just what I needed to firm up my own resolve.

    If you have spare funds and want to make a difference, see if the department of social work at your local county hospital can make use of it–the social workers often pay out of their own pockets to find cab and bus fare for clients.

    Never do anything from guilt or shame or in haste, especially giving out money or letting someone move into your space.


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