The Parent Trap

December 13, 2004 | By Susan M. Barbieri

Dawn Kast and her teenage daughters, Danielle and Brianna, shop together and listen to the same classic rock. When the band Journey appeared near their home in Onalaska, Wis., they went to the concert together. They even agree on politics, for the most part.

Anne Nichols and daughter Molly of Woodbury also have similar taste in fashion and music—with limits.

Mom isn’t crazy about some of her daughter’s CDs that carry parental advisories. And the two sometimes clash over curfew, but “she’s letting me be more independent,” said Molly, a senior at Woodbury High School.

Anne Nichols said she has made a conscious decision to avoid the clashes she experienced with her own parents. “I try to remember what it was that bugged me about my mom, and I try not to be like that with my kids,” Nichols said.

It is not always a rosy path through adolescence—for parents or children. But there is an upbeat teen spirit wafting through their lives that smells nothing like Generation X disaffection. Unlike the chasm that separated baby boom parents from their parents, many of today’s teenagers’ tastes in clothes and music, as well as their political and social beliefs, dovetail with those of their parents. They are part of a generation from ages 9 to 19 that looks to Mom and Dad as role models.

“In the history of polling, we’ve never seen tweens [roughly ages 10 to 12] and teens get along with their parents this well,” said William Strauss, co-author with Neil Howe of “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation” (Vintage, 2000), about those born since 1982. “Boomers are an obnoxious lot,” Strauss added, “and there are a lot of things they don’t do well, but you could say they have done a pretty good job with their kids.”

But the notion that a teenager could consider a parent “cool” raises the eyebrows of many parents and experts in adolescent development. Being a “buddy parent” can render an adult insecure in his or her leadership, they caution, leaving parents afraid to crack down when their kid messes up. And children of buddy parents can become directionless young adults, experts say.

“What happens is, they lose a sense of authority with the kids, [and] the kids feel like they’re equals in the family. What has happened with these kids is they become very overindulged,” said Edina family psychologist Andrea Johnson.

“I’ve had clients that have gotten $200 a week allowance and they don’t do anything for that. So these kids are growing up with no sense of responsibility, no sense of respect for authority, and no sense for how the outside world really works. They have this sense of entitlement.”

She’s seen young adults “dig themselves into tremendous debt and then have their parents continue to bail them out into their late 20s,” Johnson said. “The parents are good at always being at the rescue.”

These young people don’t make good employees, Johnson said, because they have little respect for bosses, chafe at authority in the workplace and resent that they have to work at all. “They’ve been able to manipulate parents in a way that they can’t manipulate outside,” Johnson said.

It’s a tipoff that their parents might be more “cool” than commanding.

“No 14-year-old thinks their parents are cool,” said Michael Thompson, a clinical child psychologist in Arlington, Mass., and an author of “Raising Cain” (Ballantine, 1999). “Cool is an attribute that is awarded by the peer group.” Thompson said he is all for parents spending more time with their children, but he cautioned that those who strive to be cool in teenagers’ eyes are not fulfilling their duty. “You are the parent; you are the floor under them, the framework around them,” he said. “You are the bank, the police. But not best friend.”

Friends and role models

Studies have concluded that teenagers’ relationships with their parents have steadily improved since the early 1970s. In 1983, about 75 percent of teenagers said they had “no serious problems” with their parents, up from about 50 percent in 1974, according to the Mood of American Youth survey, conducted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, an education group.

In 1997, the mood study became the State of Our Nation’s Youth survey, conducted annually. The latest research suggests that children’s admiration of parents, though measured differently, is still very high.

When students ages 13 to 19 were asked last year to name their role model, the greatest share—44 percent—chose a family member (overwhelmingly their mother or father), up from 42 percent in 2002. The percentage of teenagers who most admired a friend or celebrity declined.

There has been a shift in parenting style with the baby boomers, said Teresa Swartz, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. It’s a style that sees the child as an individual and encourages personal development—a far cry from the old-school approach. Baby boomers are more tolerant, responsive and willing to negotiate with children, Swartz said.

In 2001, Swartz and sociologists in New York, Iowa, Southern California and Michigan concluded a sweeping examination of what it’s like to come of age in the early 21st century. The researchers questioned teenagers and young adults in their 20s, and the findings were similar across the country: Young adults truly appreciate and like their parents. This is convenient because they’re also living at home longer—they can’t afford to move out, Swartz said.

“One of the things I found particularly surprising is that many of them said their parents are their best friends. Especially the young women are saying their mom is their best friend,” she said. Given the choice of doing anything for a weekend, most said they’d prefer going shopping with Mom or to their parents’ for a barbecue.

“So they really see their parents in a different way,” Swartz said. “It’s really more of an intense, close emotional relationship that has respect as a part of it, because they do ask them for advice and they do see them as people to go to for wisdom.”

Being “best friends” is all right when the child becomes a young adult of 20, but when they’re teenagers, parents need to maintain some kind of authority to be effective, Swartz said.

Needless to say, there were not a lot of shared experiences or shared preferences among parents and teens of previous generations. When Dawn Kast was growing up, her mother worked two jobs and was less able to be hands-on with her kids.

“We’re more involved in their academics than my parents ever were. They just sent us to school,” said Kast, who worked at her kids’ school for 10 years and volunteers regularly. But she said her relationship with her own kids differs in other key ways. When Kast was growing up, certain topics were off-limits to kids.

“When they say, ‘Well, why can’t I get another pair of jeans from American Eagle?’ they need to understand that money doesn’t grow on trees. We didn’t understand how it was that our parents had jobs and they worked, but there wasn’t any money. We didn’t know they had bills for this, this and this.” Today, she said, “We share more of our household life.”

Kast believes that being close to one’s teens is a good thing, but there’s a fine line that parents shouldn’t cross. “You still have to assert discipline,” she said. “You can’t be their friend. You still have to be a mentor.”

Sandy Coyle agrees. The Apple Valley resident said her kids listen to rap music, which she doesn’t like, but she has learned to let go a bit. Her teenage son, Daniel, said music is about the only thing they don’t agree on. Daniel doesn’t talk to them about everything, he admitted, but he considers his parents approachable.

Coyle said she never fought with her parents, but she didn’t have the open communication with them that she enjoys with her own kids—and their friends.

“A lot of kids hang out at our house and I feel comfortable going down [to check on them] at any time,” Coyle said. “I have fun with them, but I’m not their buddy.”

Connections