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.

"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."

Parents and children as friends

"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.

Time-short parents also encourage children's independence, making them more responsible for themselves. "They'll say, 'We trust you to make the right decisions' [whether they're ready to assume the responsibility or not]," says Billingham.

The self-esteem movement of the past quarter-century has also affected family dynamics. Some parents worry that if they tell their child no, or impose limits, it will hurt the child's self-esteem.

Yet, parents who don't set rules risk becoming "so powerless in their own homes that they feel out of control and sometimes afraid," cautions Dennis Lowe, director of the Center for the Family at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

He believes that parents – in their eagerness to keep the peace and avoid arguments – miss an opportunity to teach children how to resolve conflicts, rather than simply avoiding them.

Although sensitive and democratic parenting has its advantages, Laguna expresses concern about "almost epidemic numbers" of children who have few boundaries or expectations.

Dr. Lowe and his wife, Emily, try to maintain structure and boundaries by taking a traditional approach with their children, ages 10 and 14. They also strive for a united front. Challenges arise, he says, when one parent wants an egalitarian relationship with a child, while the other parent wants to set limits.

"Probably the democratic approach is not bad in and of itself," Lowe says. "It's when it swings so far that it promotes lack of rules and structure and discipline for children. Problems also arise when it promotes overindulgence, sometimes in an effort to avoid 'harming' the relationship, rather than teaching children moderation and the limits of life."

Overindulgence, Lowe says, can actually be a sign of neglect – neglecting values, neglecting teaching opportunities, and neglecting the relationship. To be successful, people need an appreciation for rules and limits.

To give their own children that appreciation, the Lowes discuss everything from the kind of movies the children can watch to what is realistic financially.

Lowe sees some parents trying to cultivate friendship with their children even at very early ages. And he knows families where children call parents by their first names. "Rather than 'Mom' or 'Dad,' you have a 7-year-old saying, 'Hey, Gary,' " he explains, adding that a lack of respect for parents could carry over into relationships with teachers, bosses, and others in positions of authority.

Growing understanding

Still, encouraging signs exist. Vern Bengtson, who has studied generational changes as coauthor of a forthcoming book, "How Families Still Matter," finds a greater tolerance for divergence between generations today than in the past.

"Because of my own rebellion in the '60s, and because of the way I grew out of it, I can better accept my son's desire for independence and the crazy and sometimes rebellious things that he does," says Professor Bengtson of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. "Based on my experience, he, too, will grow out of it."

As Dalby, the rock-climbing mom, looks around at friends and acquaintances, she is heartened to find that many people are far more open with the things they talk about with children. "There are a lot more dangers out there now. It's better to address them yourselves, because somebody will."

Where do families go from here?

"Parents have to be careful not to totally be their kid's buddy, because they still have to be the authoritarian and disciplinarian," Krattenmaker says.

For her part, Laguna would like to see role distinctions that illustrate clearly who the adults are.

"I don't think we're swinging back to the 'good old days,' when parents ruled and children kept their mouth[s] shut," Billingham says. "We're swinging toward a balance, where parents once again are viewed as parents, and not as peers to their children. Children are being viewed as very loved and valued family members, but without the power or authority of the parents.

"If we can get this balance, where parents are not afraid to be parents, and parents and children put the family as their priority, we'll be in great shape. I'm very optimistic about the future."

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