Boomer times: pampering the brat pack to death

October 26, 2005 | By Simon Castles

“Do as I say, not as I did”—the mantra of today’s obsessive parents, writes Simon Castles.

CARING for kids is all the rage. Mark Latham turns his back on public life to spend more time with his boys. Lachlan Murdoch considers his son’s future as he quits his dad’s business and returns to more family-friendly Sydney. Around the country, parents who can afford it downshift, and those who can’t do so berate themselves for not spending more time with their kids.

The Family First party, meanwhile, has become a political force, and says children are “the most valuable members of the Australian community.” In his maiden address, party senator Steve Fielding asked rhetorically, “How many children would love to see more of mum and dad?”

Not to be outdone, politicians of other stripes litter their speeches with talk of “family values” like priests at the pulpit. In the leaders’ debate before the last election, the word “family” was spoken 62 times (more than once a minute).

We are witnessing the rise and rise of what has been dubbed “kinderpolitics.” All issues are recast in terms of what is good for children or appears good, for this is seen as the best way of securing the votes of concerned, protective, sometimes obsessive but, no doubt, loving parents.

A new book, Children of the Lucky Country?, by Margot Prior, Sue Richardson and former Australian of the Year Fiona Stanley, argues forcefully that we need to create a society that puts children first. An American magazine, noting parents’ obsession with tweens, referred to this new era as the “zit-geist.”

There is little doubt parents protect their children more rigorously than a generation ago. Children playing on the street till dark is surely a tradition fading into suburban history.

Children are now the object of an intense societal concentration of worry, protection, support, encouragement, hope, wonder and infatuation. They are celebrated and wanted. Their days are organised and full; and their achievements trumpeted. Children’s fashion has become big business, as have books and videos about parenthood. As any teacher will tell you, pressure today comes as much from obtrusive parents as it does from students.

So what is behind this shift to the era of the super-parent and the precious child? Why is it that kids have moved to front and centre?

A falling birthrate is part of the reason, in that it makes each child the target of more adult attention than the adults themselves experienced as kids. A booming economy helps, too. And a culture of fear has nudged parents’ natural protective instincts from code orange to code red.

But much of what we are seeing can be explained by generational change. As Neil Howe and William Strauss note in their book Millennials Rising, the “era of the wanted child” can be traced to the mid-1980s, about the time those “Baby on Board” car signs became ubiquitous. It was a tacky gimmick, yes, but one that pointed to something significant: baby boomers had started having children.

The boomers embraced parenthood with the same tenacity they brought to every other stage of life. Their generation’s idealism, creativity, confidence, determination and belief were now directed at a new goal: raising children. And where boomers lead, society has little choice but to follow.

Boomers had also seen the cohort that followed them—generation X, described by The New York Times as “a lost generation, an army of ageing Bart Simpsons (who are) possibly armed and dangerous”—and realised with some urgency the need for society not to raise another generation like that.

But, of course, gen Xers are also proving to be doting parents, and part of the pro-children push. Why? The gen X childhood was a time of massive social and cultural upheaval for good and ill. There was increasing distrust of institutions, a sputtering economy, no-fault divorce, and a swing towards neutral values in everything from sex to schoolbooks.

As Howe and Strauss see it, generation X, the “least wanted of 20th-century baby generations,” are drawn to family values out of a natural instinct reinforced “by unpleasant memories of their own latchkey childhoods.” They want to give children what they feel they didn’t get.

Together, baby boomers and gen Xers are forging a new conservatism in child-rearing, even though their motivations are somewhat different. Gen Xers want to shield children from the sort of negative experiences they had as children in the ‘60s and ‘70s, whereas baby boomers want to shield kids from the sort of “fun” they had during the same time.

A New York Times article about how baby boomer parents don’t want their children to have the freedom with drugs and sex that they once enjoyed was headlined, “Do as I say, not as I did.”

Boomers want to shelter children from the highs of the past, much as Xers want to shelter kids from the lows. And thus it is that protection, fast disappearing from the workplace, is all the go in the family.