Parenting as a Gen Xer

We've got one foot in two very different technological worlds.


Allison Slater Tate‘s “Parenting as a Gen Xer” is only tangentially about parenting. It starts off on topic:

On the days that I drive the middle school carpool, I purposely choose a route that takes us past a huge river. Some mornings, the water looks like glass; others, it reflects the moody clouds above with choppy waves – either way, it’s gorgeous. Every time we drive past it, I point it out to my car full of 12-year-olds: “Look at the water today. Isn’t it beautiful?” No one in the car looks up. They are all looking down at their phones, playing games with each other, texting a friend or watching a YouTube video. Sometimes, if I am lucky, I will get a mercy grunt out of one or two of them in reply.

But the second paragraph gets us to the heart of the essay:

It struck me recently, after one of my quiet carpool rides, that my generation of parents – we of the soon-to-be or recently 40 year old Gen X variety, the former latchkey children of the Cold War and an MTV that actually played videos, former Atari-owners who were raised by the the Cosby Show and John Hughes, graduated high school with the kids from 90210, then lumbered through our 20s with Rachel, Ross, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe, and Joey and flip phones – is perhaps the last to straddle a life experience both with and without the Internet and all its social media marvels. After all, I didn’t even learn to use e-mail until I was 19 and a sophomore in college in 1993, and only for a slightly cringe-worthy reason: a cute boy at another college asked me to e-mail him.

My generation, it seems, had the last of the truly low-tech childhoods, and now we are among the first of the truly high-tech parents.

It’s an interesting, if amusing, observation. I’m sure her parents would have laughed at the idea the she grew up in a “truly low-tech household” in which she had cable television and an Atari.

I’m on the older end of Gen X, so was in graduate school (after a four-year stint in the Army) when I first used email and the Internet. Indeed, I was nearly finished with my doctoral dissertation by the time the World Wide Web and Information Superhighway became a thing. So, I was well into adulthood when I started my adjustment to the connected world that Tate describes.

My mother, a Baby Boomer, gripes regularly that my friends and I “put everything on The Facebook,” and though she and my grandparents both have accounts, they don’t really use them. My parents still receive a paper newspaper, still read books in hardback, and only relatively recently became comfortable with texting. My children show them how to use their iPhones, and I set up their iTunes accounts for them.

On the flip side, the Internet seems intuitive to my children, who can make PowerPoint presentations as good as any professional, use Google when they are stuck on their math homework, and spend as many hours as I will let them watching YouTube videos of other people playing Minecraft, an activity I just cannot understand no matter how hard I try.

I am very much standing in the middle between my parents and my children when it comes to technology, one foot dipped in the waters of Instagram and Twitter and the other still stuck in the luddite mud of “In my day, we passed paper notes in class, sent real letters to penpals, and talked to each other’s faces!” When it comes to parenting, I find this middle place extremely uncomfortable, because I know what childhood and adolescence were like before the Internet, and my parenting models all came from that era.

So even though I also understand the powerful draw of the World Wide Web and social media and I participate in it enthusiastically, it scares me when it comes to my children and how it will mold and change their experience from mine. Will my children ever have their own awkward but poignant, John Hughes-worthy moments when teenagers today can have entire relationships over text messages? Would the kids in The Breakfast Club even talk to each other if they found themselves in a Saturday morning detention today, or would they spend all their time on their phones, texting their friends and tweeting about how lame it was and never actually make eye contact with one another? Would anyone today even believe that Seinfeld and friends would spend that much time talking to each other out loud about nothing?

I wrestle with demons far less First World Problematic than that of technology with my children, but I must admit that in its category, technology wins the prize for being the trickiest parenting challenge I have faced, right up there with infant sleep and potty training in terms of the feelings of desperation and hopelessness it can inspire at times.

Again, this is more about the angst of a Gen X’er than about parenting per se. I’m older than Tate and my children are younger than hers but I’ve had similar reactions to the differences technology have made. Unlike Tate, though, I’ve largely just accepted this new reality as, well, reality and don’t much see the point of resistance.

As the girls get a little older, I’ll likely face some of the decisions that Tate is grappling with:

The question of managing screen time and who is on what screen and how to protect those in front of the screens from things they might not un-see or un-hear is a constant, exhausting issue that frankly makes me want to go full-on Amish on all of them and throw every last blinking screen away.

But I try to be reasonable, even though I feel like I am parenting in the dark most of the time. So my husband and I set limits and negotiate them. We allow for Minecraft, because someone somewhere said it might be “good for them,” and we debate how old is old enough to have a smartphone. We make the children sit in public places when they are on devices or laptops, we look over shoulders, we check text message histories and set parental controls. We worry about their cyber footprints. We beg them not to send naked pictures of themselves to anyone, for the love of Mike. And, at the end of the day, we pray to the powers of this ridiculous universe – Zuckerberg? Gates? – that our children won’t stumble too hard or fall too far when they inevitably trip into an Internet pothole. We wonder what a high-tech childhood will mean for our little people: will they know how to go on a first date without checking in on Facebook or posting a picture of their food on Instagram? Will it matter?

In the meantime, I’m inclined to embrace the new technology and its magical ability to enthrall children. Indeed, despite my kids being only 5-1/2 and 3, I’m strongly considering getting them each iPads for Christmas. (As any parent knows, it’s essentially two or none; buying one for the oldest only is a recipe for disappointment and bickering.)  Aside from being great game consoles, the ability to stream shows from Netflix and Amazon and such are great joys even for kids too young to text or Facebook.

FILED UNDER: Parenting, Science & Technology, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    Speaking as someone who was a baby boomer parent we had many new challenges. For one thing most of my peers were really lousy parents. Most of my two sons friends had parents who were teachers. Guess where they came for help with their homework most nights – to this lowly engineers house. They would also come over for “real” meals that included “real” mashed potatoes. I only had 2 sons but I probably parented 20 or 30 kids.

  2. The observation about kids not wanting to look out the window and enjoy the scenery is nothing new. My Dad used to get annoyed that we kids seemed disinterested in the world outside on car trips and our distractions tended to be not especially technological. Kids often don’t care about such things or, if they do, the grunt of recognition is the common response. (Especially if it is a local scene like the river in the anecdote).

    On the one hand, there are real issues about the way technology changes our lives and there is no doubt there are parenting challenges associated with all the screens in our lives. But on the other, so much of this type of thing strikes me a a new version of the same old story: parenting is hard and we parents really only have our own, imperfectly remembered childhoods as guides–which we come to realize that we cannot exactly replicate so it unnerves us (or disappoints us, confused us, etc) and we then complain about the good ol’ days.

    A tale as old as time, yes?

  3. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I think that’s right.

    @Ron Beasley: Your generation started the experience of large numbers of women continuing to work outside the household once they had kids despite being able to afford to get by on their husband’s salary. Unlike my generation, the dads weren’t much pitching in to fill the gap. So, yeah, a lot of children who were barely being parented.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    We’re getting ready for our annual fall trip, a chunk of which will be driving up the Ohio River from Cincinnati; I’ll keep driving up and down until they notice the river and say something nice. Damnit, I’ll drive up and down the river until the batteries die.

    As parents with what my kids say are boring tastes in travel, electronics does help with the tedious bits of a drive, and the GPS is visible from the back seat, so I never get asked how long til we get there.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @PD Shaw: Yup. Plus, kids can easily entertain themselves for hours with tablets, phones, and other electronics. And my minivan has a DVD player, which I’ve stocked with my extra movies. (Kids’ BluRay discs almost invariably come with a spare DVD; I just keep the latter in a case in the van.)

  6. Mr. Prosser says:

    James,I think you are right to get your kids into the new technology, they are going to need it in their lives anyway. I’m sure you have seen this video of a toddler and a magazine, but it says a lot.

  7. Tyrell says:

    When I was a child the woods was our recreation, kingdom, playground. We would stay hours wandering new trails, exploring, playing in the creek, climbing trees.
    I miss the old movie projectors. We got rid of our 8mm projector and camera long ago when vhs came out. I wish now that I would have kept it. Even the movie theaters have gone digital.
    A while back I saw a stack of 8 track stereo tapes at a thrift shop.

  8. MarkedMan says:

    Hard for us fogies to say what it means to live an always connected world. Is it ruder to ignore your friend in front of you or your girlfriend on WhatsApp? I know for my generation but they will have to figure it out for theirs. Just as our parents had to deal with phone and TV and radio and so forth.

    I don’t offer the following as anything more than a datapoint. Recently I was in a tourist town in China on a cobblestone street full of outdoor cafes. With domestic tourism now four times the size of international tourism in China, there were plenty of middle class Chinese tourists in those tables as well as Americans, various Europeans, Koreans, Japanese, and so forth. All ages and collections of ages. And as I sat there over the course of two or three hours I noticed the only ones who were consistently just sitting around, people watching and enjoying a cappuccino or a beer, were the Americans and Europeans, regardless of age.

  9. JKB says:

    It’s an age rather than generation thing. It wasn’t but a dozen years ago, I threatening the life of Gen-Xers if they didn’t get their head out of the raster scan radar and look our the window. Of course, 15 years before, I had to learn to divide my time between the radar and the “big screen”, although in my time we were doing vector math with a grease pencil and a speed stick while engrossed in our screens.

    Technology changes life. My aunt, now 85, who went to movies almost every week of her childhood tells of her prediction when she and her husband got their first TV. She predicted “You’ll never take me to another movie”. And it proved mostly true. Although, TV, with the old reruns and Westerns channels is a valuable companion for her these days.

  10. Just Me says:

    As a parent from gen X (I’m in my kid 40’s and have four kids aged 15-20) I find that technology is part of my kids life but being from a lower income getting an iPad for one kid isn’t in our budget much less two, three or four. They learned to take turns and work out schedules for the one computer we have in the house. So I don’t believe so much that if you get one you have to get them all one-but there is certainly less argument just not convinced over the long haul kids never having to share or take turns teaches them the right lessons.

    I’ve found that my kids are tech savvy but are fully capable of entertaining themselves without the tech. They do prefer the tech. They are highly entertained by my stories of no technology (when I was in college the self correcting typewriter was the fancy tech, in grad school I used the apple computers in the computer lab. We didn’t have a home computer until 1996. My kids have never used a floppy disc (although they know what they look like because my husband has some old records stored on some and they are I the office).

    I agree with Steven though in that kids and teens in general from any generation aren’t always going to respond to things the way the adults in their world see them. Much of the attitude is just childhood and not the technology, but if she’s really concerned then she can easily implement a no tech in the car rule. His won’t guarantee her kids will be more interested in the water.

  11. No one in the car looks up. They are all looking down at their phones, playing games with each other, texting a friend or watching a YouTube video. Sometimes, if I am lucky, I will get a mercy grunt out of one or two of them in reply.

    The funny thing is this goes both ways in most families. Your kids are constantly trying to share things with you; maybe some new TV show they saw, maybe a book they read, etc. But it’s something you as a parent never heard of so you don’t care and you’re busy with what you’re doing so you make the same grunt and without even realizing it just subjected your kid to that same minor pain of rejection you feel when they can’t be bothered to look at your river.

  12. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Mr. Prosser: To the person who noted that for her daughter a magazine would always be an Ipad that doesn’t work I have a question:

    Your daughter is never going to learn how to read? (How sad.)

    “people playing Minecraft, an activity I just cannot understand no matter how hard I try.”

    James, Minecraft is easy–go back to your archives of stuff from your school days and look at how much you doodled in your notebooks and how many games of solitaire you played.. That’s what Minecraft replaced. We all need stuff to do that allows us to shut down sometimes.

  13. Moosebreath says:

    I am slightly older than James, so that I am on the boundary between Boomer and X. Every year we drive with our (now pre-teen) kids to my in-laws in Florida. They typically don’t care about the scenery, except the younger one always wants to be alerted when we cross into a new state. We even need to point out to them to ubiquitous South of the Border billboards, as they are typically engrossed in their DS’s or Nooks.

  14. @Just ‘nutha’ ig’rant cracker:

    I’d say Minecraft is basically the current generations version of playing with legos. Except they get an infinite number of legos, the lucky bastards!

  15. grumpy realist says:

    @Moosebreath: Heck, I used to read TONS of books while sitting in the back seat of the car….I’m sure I did the same grunt.

    I still prefer books to computers. I especially love old books, those bound in massive gold-stamped leather. Have grudgingly discovered the pleasure of DVDs, but mainly for obscure operas, documentaries, and silent movies. DAMN I love silent movies…