The disappearing generation gap
Parents and kids today dress alike, listen to the same music, and are friends. Is this a good thing?
Sometimes, when Tom Krattenmaker and his 16-year-old daughter, Holland, listen to rock music together and talk about pop culture interests they both enjoy he recalls his more-distant relationship with his parents when he was a teenager.Skip to next paragraph
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"I would never [have said] to my mom, 'Hey, the new Weezer album is really great how do you like it?' " says Mr. Krattenmaker, of Yardley, Pa. "There was just a complete gap in sensibility and taste, a virtual gulf."
Music was not the only gulf. From clothing and hairstyles to activities and expectations, earlier generations of parents and children often appeared to revolve in separate orbits.
Today, the generation gap has not disappeared, but it is shrinking in many families. The old authoritarian approach to discipline a starchy "Because I said so, that's why" is giving way to a new egalitarianism and a "Come, let us reason together" attitude.
The result can be a rewarding closeness among family members. Conversations that would not have taken place a generation ago or that would have been awkward, on subjects such as sex and drugs now are comfortable and common. And parent-child activities, from shopping to sports, involve an easy camaraderie that can continue into adulthood.
No wonder greeting cards today carry the message, "To my mother, my best friend."
But family experts caution that the new equality can also have a downside, diminishing respect for parents.
"There's still a lot of strict, authoritarian parenting out there, but there is a change happening," says Kerrie Laguna, a mother of two young children and a psychology professor at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. "In the middle of that change, there is a lot of confusion among parents."
Family researchers offer a variety of reasons for these evolving roles and attitudes. They see the 1960s as a benchmark. Dramatic cultural shifts led to more open communication and a more democratic process that encourages everyone to have a say.
"My parents were on the 'before' side of that shift, whereas today's parents, the 40-somethings, were on the 'after' side," explains Krattenmaker, news director at Swarthmore College. "It's much easier for 40-somethings and today's teenagers to relate to one another. It's not a total cakewalk for parents these days, because life is more complicated, but [sharing interests] does make it more fun to be a parent now."
"Fun" is, in fact, a word heard far more frequently in families today than in the past, when "duty" and "responsibility" were often operative words.
Parents today are more youthful in appearance and attitudes. From bluejeans to blow-drys, their clothes and hairstyles are more casual, helping to bridge the sartorial divide. Those who are athletically inclined also enjoy Rollerblading, snowboarding, and rock-climbing with their offspring.
For the past three years, Kathy and Phil Dalby of Arnold, Md., have spent at least one evening a week, and sometimes two, at a climbing gym with their three children. "It's great to be able to work together," Mrs. Dalby says. "We discuss various climbs and where the hard parts are. Sometimes that leads to other conversations, and sometimes it doesn't. We're definitely closer."
A popular movement with roots in the 1970s, parent effectiveness training, has helped to reshape generational roles. The philosophy encourages children to describe their feelings about various situations. As a result, says Robert Billingham, a family-studies professor at Indiana University, "Parents and children began talking to each other in ways they had not before."
On the plus side, he adds, these conversations made parents realize that children may have important thoughts or feelings that adults need to be aware of.
But Professor Billingham also sees a downside: Many parents started making decisions based on what their child wanted. "The power shifted to children. Parents said, 'I have to focus on making my child happy,' as opposed to 'I have to parent most appropriately.' "
Other changes are occurring as the ranks of working mothers grow. An increase in guilt on the part of busy parents makes them less eager to spend time disciplining, says Dr. Laguna of Lebanon Valley College.