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February 20, 2005

The Problem With Parents

Those of you who come here often know that I'm no fan of the more obnoxious elements of the "child-free" community, and indeed positively delight in their snitty impotent rage at small children and the people who breed them. That being said, I will give the childfree folks credit for harping on one very important truth, which is that becoming a parent often turns people in assholes.

Which is to say: They weren't assholes before (or maybe they were and either they hid it well or were in such a way that they were generally indistinguishable from other non-child-bearing people), but later, in the performance of their child-raising duties, they somehow became sphincterfied. In other words, they're not assholes who happen to be parents, they are assholes because they are parents. Simply put, there are a lot of asshole parents out there, and if their numbers are not growing, then they at the very least drawing more attention to themselves.

I say this in the wake of reading the cover stories of last week's Time and Newsweek magazines: Time's cover story was on how obnoxious parents are making it difficult for teachers to teach, on account that they go ballistic every time junior comes home with a "B" instead of an "A"; Newsweek's piece was how today's mothers feel suffocated by "The Myth of the Perfect Mother" -- the idea that they can be great moms and great at work and great spouses and, oh I don't know, great at origami, too. Naturally, living up to this expectation is no fun and a lot of women are running around ragged and irritable at the end of the day, and secretly (but no so secretly they they didn't confide it to the author of this Newsweek article) enjoy childrearing about as much as they enjoy any other dreary household chore. And naturally they feel guilty about that. In the case of the Time parents, they really are assholes; in the case of the Newsweek mothers, they're worried they are assholes if they're not perfect, and making all the effort required to be perfect is likely to make them a bit of an asshole.

I'm an asshole, and I'm also parent, although I try not to be former because of the latter. Be that as it may, I feel I'm qualified to comment on both topics. So let me forward one theory of mine, which, while not the complete answer, is at least part of it.

This is the era of the Gen-X parent, and if we know anything about the Gen-X stereotype, it's that this cohort of Americans was shaped by Atari, Star Wars action figures, and divorce, divorce, divorce, divorce. Thereby, I suspect that many observers might say Gen-X parents are fueled by a desire to do a better job at parenting than their parents, and yet, given what a botched job their parents made of it, feel like they have no positive role models and/or ideas on how to go about being a good parent. So they overcompensate in their neurotically smothering way. If this essay were a Gen-X movie, this would be the part where a goateed Ethan Hawke would explain, between unfiltered cigarette puffs, how he and all his friends were raised by Bill Cosby and Meredith Baxter Birney on Thursday nights far more than their own fathers.

As attractive as this is as an excuse, it's a pretty crappy excuse, and I don't know if it's on point. For one thing, the majority of the Gen-X cohort is now on the far side of 30, and the unwritten rule is if you're over 30 and still blaming your parents for, well, anything, you need to be taken aside and told quietly to get a life (you get a pass if your parents are still actively trying to screw with your life, but honestly, that takes more effort than most senior citizens are going to make). Yes, yes, it's awful you were in the middle of that horrible divorce. Here's a hug. Now move on. And point of fact, most Gen-Xers have moved on, settled their issues with mom and dad, and I doubt are actively taking these dormant issues out on their kids thereby.

I don't think it's that Gen-Xers are asshole parents because they have issues with their own parents anymore, I think they're asshole parents because they have issues with each other. Allow me to posit a central truth regarding Gen-Xers: We don't much like other Gen-Xers. It should be obvious: We're all witty and smart, in that casual, pop culture-y way that makes for amusingly light banter at get-togethers that cleverly disguises the true purpose of Gen-X communication, which is to find that weak link in someone else's intellectual defenses that exposes them as a fraud, confirming that they're not really your equal no matter how much money, sex or prestige they have, relative to you. It's a generation of defensive egalitarians -- it's not "we're all equal," it's "none of you is better than me." And that's no way to run a railroad. As Gen-Xers get older, this approach to their cohort has expanded to deal with people who are older than they (because we're all adults now), and adults younger as well (because they don't know much).

How does this liberal (and, coming as it does from a Gen-Xer, self-incriminating) beating on Gen-Xers relate to parenting? In relation to the parents having issues with the teachers, simply enough: When a teacher suggests your kid is something other than your own personal conception of your kid, it's an implicit criticism of you, and that's not to be bourne, because what does the teacher know? If the teacher were actually someone important enough to be listened to, they wouldn't be a teacher, now would they? Fucking teachers, man. The problem lay not in you -- it couldn't -- therefore, the problem is the teacher, or the school, or the damn No Child Left Behind act that all those red state bastards rammed through Congress. And out come the knives and out comes the attack. Meanwhile, little Jimmy is over there eating his crayons and not actually learning much. But this is the point: It's not about the kid, it's about the parent. The poor kid, in this instance, is an extension of the parent's twitchiness in dealing with the world in general.

(This also goes back to the childfree folks' complain about parents in a general sense -- they've got these children completely off the hook in a public space and when someone calls them on it, the parents get monstrously defensive. But they're not reacting to the criticism of their children's behavior -- they're reacting to the criticism of them as a person. Again, the kid enters into the equation only as a tangential.)

With the "perfect mother" issue the "Gen-x self-dislike" factor is somewhat more muted simply because the expectations of mothers in general is a rather more complicated, and I think that in this situation there's a lot more concern for the actual children involved. At the risk of sounding sexist, I think "motherhood" is more child-oriented than "parenthood"; "Parenthood" is a slightly more dispassionate state that acknowledges the rest of the world, whereas "motherhood" is about what happens between you and your kid ("fatherhood," ideally, has the same dynamic). But naturally we compare how we handle out relationship with our child with how others like us handle theirs, and in the Gen-X, with its implicit undercurrent of antagonism, this is fraught with issues.

What to do? Well, naturally, I think the first thing for Gen-X parents to do is to get over themselves and whatever festering defensiveness they have regarding other people. Gen-Xers are capable of liking people their own age, of course: We all have close friends. It'd be nice if we didn't automatically question the competence and/or worthiness of everyone else we meet. In other words, try to reset our defaults to actually like people until and unless they go out of their way to prove they are, in fact, generally unlikeable. It's a thought, anyway. The end result of this is that parents then might be able to listen to teachers and other without feeling like it's a referendum on them as a person. It's not (generally). It's about your kid, and what your kid needs.

Which is the second thing. Your kid: A little person who is probably like you in a lot of ways and yet is not you at all. Despite your best efforts, your kids will turn out as someone who is not you, and who has their own agenda in the world. In my opinion, the goal of parenthood is to teach your kid how to explore the world and find himself or herself in it; this naturally requires that the focus is on the kid, and not the parent. The parent who is leaping in and mud-wrestling a teacher over a "B" or bribing the local daycare center staff to get their kid in is probably not focused on what the kid needs so much as what the parent thinks he needs to prove. The parent who gets her hackles up about someone complaining her kid is acting like a hopped-up monkey in a public place isn't actually doing her kid a favor if the kid is, in fact, acting like a hopped-up monkey.

What it comes down to is that when parents act like assholes, it's usually because they're thinking about themselves more than they're thinking about their kids. As parents, it's time to get over ourselves. It's probably better for our kids, and it's certainly better for how the rest of the world sees us as parents.

Posted by john at February 20, 2005 12:52 PM

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Tracked on February 21, 2005 04:23 AM


Tom Nixon | February 20, 2005 05:11 PM

"...which is that becoming a parent often turns people in assholes."

Now that sounds just painful to me. :)

John Scalzi | February 20, 2005 05:23 PM

Not as painful as it is to everybody else, though.

RooK | February 20, 2005 07:27 PM

You breeders are always so quick with the overgeneralizations.

Karen Anderson | February 20, 2005 07:56 PM

thanks, john. you just explained the mystery of the past five years at my workplace to me: Gen X'ers can't believe that anyone could possible know something they don't. any time i've been right, and one of my Gen X colleagues wrong, they've always been utterly astonished that anyone not of their age group could possible show any signs of intelligence--and very, very suspicous about how i might have come by the information or insight they lacked. the conflict is resolved whenever one of them decides i'm his or her "friend." Friends, apparently, are allowed to have a clue without being perceived as a threat.

Jeff Porten | February 20, 2005 08:33 PM

Two thoughts from Washington:

1) As I live 40 feet from a Major Tourist Attraction Involving Large Pandas, I regularly am surrounded by a large number of small children who tromp into my office. (Probably because my office has a large, green, instantly recognizable round logo on its door.) As a member of the childfree, I'm obligated to observe the following rules:

a) Children who have spent all day around large animals will be sleeping or maniacal. The threshold for objecting to their larger relatives is not "making children-sized noise", but making 911-sized noise, or by endangering the very expensive laptop I work with.

b) When it gets too bad, there's another Starbucks two blocks away, which these people do not know about.

c) When a child is awake and acting like an angel, as of course Athena would do, you can detect the assholes among the childfree by noting who among them do not go out of their way to compliment their parents.

2) In Washington, the Gen-X rules do not apply. Everyone here considers themselves a Master of the Universe, regardless of age. Just last night I was listening to a 23-year-old explain how he was going to reshape America in his own image; I patiently explained that I had heard that 100 times, and that 99 of those people went on to be shark chum. He gave me one of those patronizing "you don't know how good I am" smiles and disengaged. I predict he'll be living somewhere else in less than five years.

In any case, the people who survive here are the ones who realize that the world is vast enough that you can master your own issue areas, but you can't master them all. And so you listen to people who know more than you do—so long as you remember the areas where you know more than them. Or you'll be the next guy in the shark tank.

John Scalzi | February 20, 2005 08:54 PM

"When a child is awake and acting like an angel, as of course Athena would do..."

Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha! I have you all so fooled.

Seriously, she's generally pretty good. Occasionally she'll remind us all she's a very willful six years of age, however. Last night at my booksigning, Krissy announced she and Athena were leaving early because Athena was tired. Athena, who was in fact very tired, immediately yelled "I am NOT!" And then proceeded to attempt a fit, which was (of course) resonably quickly short-circuited by Krissy.

John H | February 20, 2005 09:59 PM

Not only do I share first names with you John, it also turns out we're the same age. And even though I am child-free I'm not opposed to having kids, I just haven't found a willing partner yet. (And having an unwilling partner would be totally wrong.)

I don't know if it's hatred of other Gen-Xers so much as the fact that we were taught to distrust everyone.

'Don't talk to strangers...'
'Just say no...'
'Check the tamper-evident seal...'

In time that mistrust has, for far too many, grown into a lack of respect for any sort of authority. And they're passing that trait on to their kids. It manifests itself in the selfish, boorish behaviour we see every day. They won't reprimand their kids, and you sure as hell better not try to do it for them.

When we were kids, if an adult saw us doing something stupid they would yell at us. If our parents found out about it we'd get our asses beat. Today, you just have to look the other way.

Chris Byrne | February 21, 2005 03:24 AM

John, either you've been reading me, or we have a supersecret psychic connection.

I dont remember linkwhoring this one out to you, but I may have:
The Myth of Having it All

"There are three life areas, social and personal life, marriage and family, and work life. If you are going to be successful in any one area, you need to compromise on the other two. There isn't time enough in your life to be highly successful in your job, to raise two great kids and have a great marriage, and be a champion origami folder all at the same time."

Either way I laughed my ass off when I saw it.

John Scalzi | February 21, 2005 05:48 AM

Well, everyone loves origami.

Chris Byrne | February 21, 2005 06:45 AM

I know I certainly do. Those pretty little unicorns.

Tripp | February 21, 2005 10:26 AM

Since I'm no gen-Xer I can't really relate to what you are saying, but didn't your parents MAKE you listen to experts?

This weekend I took my 14 year old to a sports lesson, a rare thing with us. We were paying money so a local expert could teach him. On the way there my son told me he didn't need the lesson because he already knew everything.

Ha! That is a very typical response from a teen, but I know that you ALL know how I replied to that.

So didn't you gen-Xers get the same thing? Or is it that you got it, but it didn't take?

John Scalzi | February 21, 2005 10:33 AM

It was that we heard it, but we also considered the source.

Tripp | February 21, 2005 11:02 AM

It was that we heard it, but we also considered the source.

This seems completely normal, but is seems you are implying Gen-Xers are more skeptical then previous generations. I wonder why? Did they learn it from their parents?

Chris Byrne | February 21, 2005 03:00 PM

I think most of us probably learned more of what NOT to do from our parents, then what TO do.

Danny Adams | February 21, 2005 07:09 PM

And now I suddenly have a much better understanding of why so many people of our generation (I'm 34 and my wife is 33) keep telling us We Must Have Children and get so hostile when we say we're still considering it and haven't yet decided to have our own. I imagine it's much harder to compete in the Better Parent category when the people you want to compete with don't have kids.

mythago | February 21, 2005 08:13 PM

What's the age range on Gen-X again? Maybe I need to move back to the sticks, but I keep ending up being at the low end of the age range for parents--my kids go to classes or parks with same-age kids whose parents are, oh, ten years older than me. My husband's age, that is, and he's a boomer.

To be marginally fair to some of the parents panicking about grades, here in Privileged Land there is such grade and resume inflation that having a 4.0 is merely average. There are parents CONVINCED that if their child does not get into Harvard, he or she will end up cleaning toilets for life. And when your competition for Harvard is students for whom 4.0 is average...

Chris Byrne | February 21, 2005 09:49 PM

There is always a transitional period between generations of two or three years on either side (accountind for differences in maturity and individual upbrining, but loosly, the baby boomers are the 3 generations born between 1944, and 1965, and the gen X'ers span from about 1965-1980.

Basically if you were a teenager, to 30 when nirvana hit, if you can relate stgornly to clerks, reality bites, heathers, and singles, and could when they came out, you are Gen X.

Another way of putting is, the boomers were born from Truman to Kennedy, a time of hope and growth, and optimism. The Xers were born from Johnson to Carter, a time of misery, malaise, and hopelessness.

Chris Byrne | February 21, 2005 10:57 PM

Hey mythago, thaks for the inspiration. Just banged out apost on the topic on What is Generation X

Soni | February 22, 2005 12:16 AM

You see. This is why I don't have kids. I'm assholish enough as it is - insufferably superior, glass-jawed when it comes to critisism and an annoyingly fast read at pretty much anything I chose to do unless it involves patience with infinite repetitions of a bad joke or a large tolerance for screetchy noises (in which case I snap at a very early stage and come out swinging with duct tape in my hands and a snarl on my face).

I am, in short, the anti-parent and God help any fetus that winds up in the direct blast are of my life line. Thank God for the pill and a husband who shares my distaste for all things sub-adult (and many things adult). Remember - the acknowlegement of weaknesses is a strength. Right?

Soni | February 22, 2005 12:18 AM


That being said, I have no issue with breeders, provided they can contain their brood in a respectably civilized manner when in public. After all, someone has to populate the planet with my future minions.

Tripp | February 22, 2005 09:40 AM


Now that's cool. Some smart person said "know thyself," and someone else said "do your own thing."

And the thing about minions is that ultimately they will be the ones wiping your butt.

John Edwards | February 22, 2005 12:04 PM

I'll be 35 in May, my wife will be 33 in November and we have a 3-year-old daughter and a 4-month-old son. I haven't read the Time article, which is no longer available online, but the Newsweek one certainly resonated in a lot of ways. Given the need to keep up with our mortgage payments and the vast salary of our excellent nanny, my wife and I are both essentially trapped in our high-paying jobs (or some high-paying job; she's about to switch to a new one). But I enjoy my work, in the field I've wanted to be in since I was 6, while she would much rather stay home with the kids while consulting or running her own business, if she could. Her new job should help, as she'll be in the next suburb over rather than commuting with me into the city, but she'll also be doing more traveling. In general, she spends much more of her psychic energy on worrying about what classes Rita should be taking or when to move Jake up to a new size of clothes than I do. While I think I'm a more involved father than many, we do fall too easily into those old gender roles. The prescriptions in the Newsweek book excerpt would be great, but in today's rabidly antitax atmosphere, they're absolute pipe dreams. I don't know what the solution is. Seems like we're in for a lot more stress.

Jeri Smith-Ready | February 22, 2005 03:25 PM

John, what an insightful piece. I've been thinking about blogging on this subject recently, but now I can just link to your post and spend those brain cells rearranging my Netflix queue for the 401st time.

Chris and I are your age and part of the child-free community (our friends and we prefer to call it the "No Whammies Club"), and we've seen some crazy stuff from our cohorts. One of our friend's kids was expelled from pre-school for biting another child, but of course it was the teacher's fault. Another has a half-human half-Tasmanian Devil daughter who routinely yells at and even hits people, yet if anyone reprimands her, the mother freaks out.

On the Diane Rehm show the other day, Judith Warner talked about her book "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety." She seems to diagnose the problem well but doesn't offer many solutions. I'm not sure if there is one, other than not having kids or moving to Europe where parents have more state support. I'd like to try both, just to be safe.

DPWally | February 22, 2005 04:41 PM

There is always a transitional period between generations of two or three years on either side (accountind for differences in maturity and individual upbrining, but loosly, the baby boomers are the 3 generations born between 1944, and 1965, and the gen X'ers span from about 1965-1980.

The baby boom was not just a generation label, it was a clearly-defined demographic bulge, 1946-1964. Somewhere around 1990 the pop culture media, finally realizing that the current crop of teens were not boomers, invented Generation X to describe them. They later back-dated the label to include the 5ish years of kids they missed when they hadn't realized the boom was gone.

I was born in 1967. I'm in the group added to the Gen X label as an afterthought, which is a good model for our contribution to the culture. I always felt we were overshadowed by the boomers, who wouldn't let go of their claim to youth culture when age dictated they should have. The movie "Reality Bites" (see John's Ethan Hawke reference) accurately depicted this feeling. For anyone outside that narrow age range, the movie was meaningless. For those few between boom and X, it made sense. I'm not saying it was a good movie - it wasn't, but it made sense.

Josh | February 22, 2005 05:53 PM

As an x-er myself, I don't think I hate anyone in my age group just because they are who they are. If there's anything about gen x to hate, it's probably its propensity for libertarianism, which is only an outgrowth of our latchkey, 'lone dog' childhoods.

acm | February 23, 2005 11:18 AM

What it comes down to is that when parents act like assholes, it's usually because they're thinking about themselves more than they're thinking about their kids.

and how exactly is this other than a symptom of the fact that they were assholes to begin with? anybody who is more interested in defending their own insecurities than in helping their child prepare to better face their own future is simply an asshole, and parenthood has revealed that fact, not created it.

these are probably the same people who make organizations inefficient, friendships painful, and public life demeaning by always insisting on being right, even when it's in nobody's best interest and when it means that better avenues of action must be ignored. they're the people who start fights rather than have reasoned discussions. they're the people with reflex responses to people of unfamiliar types and lifestyles. they're, um, assholes.

mythago | February 23, 2005 11:27 AM

She seems to diagnose the problem well but doesn't offer many solutions. I'm not sure if there is one

Here's a deceptively easy one: get over the notion that childrearing is the primary job of, and ought to be almost solely assigned to, females.

Chris Byrne | February 23, 2005 11:54 AM

Mythago, I think a lot of us got over that idea long ago.

How about child rearing just being the primary job of SOMEBODY, rather than an afterthought, or an unhealthy obseeion (to cover both extremes).

CLEM | March 3, 2005 08:01 PM

Suffrage for Minors!

Empower the youth and grant full citizenship to all Americans!

Old enough to Prosecute= Old enough to Vote!

Lower the voting age to 12!

Brought to you by: Coalition for the Legal Empowerment of Minors.

will h | February 6, 2006 09:55 PM

im going to be 18 in march and what i see in this world today is parents thinking that people under 20ish cannot have a intelligent opinion with out there help every day my friends come to school talking about how there mum and dad made them do somthing or go to somthing ether because its good for you, it builds character or my personal favorite "because i said so" i used to wonder why parents would do that and then i realised that they dont really know what they are doing all they are really doing is emulating their parents and what they think they would do hoping nobody would notice but that makes me think that mabe their parents were doing the same thing but about the parents are assholes thing parents are assholes but thats because people are assholes in general we are taught to be an asshole at a very young age but only really put that teaching to use when we are adults or when we have power thats when it really triggers and thats my rant for the evening.

Paul S | February 11, 2006 06:35 AM

Im 33 and I just wanted to make a comment to find out if other people my age have noticed.
We are like NON-Existent as a population!!!
I have a hell of a time just meeting people my age let alone labeling them asshole LOL.
When it comes to parenting my parents had the benefit of tons of friends and neighbors that were close enough in age that they could relate to. When I pick my child up from school all the other parents are either 10 years older or 10 years younger than me? I just think that has a little bit to do with why this generation is so alienated. The same goes for my workplace, I get along with people and I'm not trying to play intellectual sparring match with anyone, but how the hell do they expect us to do all the work our parents did when there are so few of us? The numbers don't lie just look at the huge vortex of (NO PEOPLE) between us and the boomers. I think as a Gen X'er the only thing I can say is I'm doing the best I can!!! The only difference now is that I have the whole damn country saying "Not good enough" instead of my parents. And NO this isn't a pity party or an excuse, it's more like "Damn get off of our ass"!!

Belinda | February 20, 2006 03:08 AM

I completley agree with you, we are not very noticable because there arent alot of us. and your right GenX'ers have never been good enough, look how we are labeled, I have been all over the internet trying to find people my age who share common interests and experiences. this is the first place I found that actually doesnt trash people my age.

dave | March 12, 2006 04:06 AM

[deleted for racist lameness]

xeno | February 7, 2007 06:00 PM

I agree with you wholeheartedly that a lot of people are jerks once they have kids. However there are a lot of people who remember what shits kids are and they try to raise their kids with a bit of conscience.

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