Secure or spoiled?

Culture | The generation gap is closing, but that may be partly the result of parents who refuse to say no

Issue: "Pryor commitment," Sept. 13, 2003

THE GENERATION GAP-THE PHENOMENON OF young people rebelling against their parents-is apparently a thing of the past. According to a study by the Horatio Alger Association, almost 75 percent of high-school students say they get along very well or even extremely well with their parents. Only 3 percent do not.

When asked their preferences, more teenagers say they would like to spend more time with their parents than with their friends. Family members ranked highest as role models, way ahead of athletes and entertainers. Over 90 percent said that they have a family member they can confide in.

The very term "generation gap" was a legacy of the '60s, when flower children were reacting against their war-hardened parents. But generation gaps are an anomaly in human cultures. In most societies, throughout history, children emulate their parents, share their values, and aspire to be like them. This is how families are supposed to function in a healthy culture.

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When the flower children grew up and had children of their own, a type of generation gap persisted, this time an arguably beneficial one. The next generation reacted against at least some of the '60s values of their parents, preferring the cynicism of punk rock to the sappiness of peace and love psychedelia; embracing the ideals of freedom instead of socialism; making money instead of becoming one with the universe.

Now, the culture seems to have reached an equilibrium, a returning to normal. Although families are still beleaguered-and often broken-a child's need for parents is evident, and no one is denying it, including the child.

The closing of the generation gap is good news. Of course, every silver lining has a cloud.

That so many teenagers want to spend more time with their parents is in part an indication that they feel they are not spending enough time with them right now. Busy parents may not realize that their teenage children yearn for more time together.

Another uncomfortable question raised by the study is why teenagers get along so well with their parents. One reason is certainly the love and security fostered by strong parenting. But could there be another reason?

The report found that the biggest dispute teenagers have with their parents is over cleaning their rooms, a universal but minor cause for complaint. Only 4 percent of teenagers fight with their parents over their appearance.

So that means that parents are apparently OK with their daughters dressing like belly dancers without the veils. And parents have no problem with their sons getting tattooed like Queequeg and pierced like Moby Dick.

Better parent-child relationships are probably related to the drop in teens having sex and in the dip in drug use. But those rates are still very high. Despite the success of the pro-abstinence movement, sexual activity abounds among teenagers. In 1997, 34.8 percent of 10th graders said that they smoked marijuana; in 2002, the rate was down to 30.3 percent. That is real progress, but still almost a third of high-school sophomores are getting stoned. Those sexually active and drug-active teenagers must include a big percentage of those who get along great with their parents.

One reason teenagers get along so well with their parents may be because their parents are overindulgent, refusing to say no to their children and trying to be their friends.

As the economy was struggling, spending on the part of teenagers actually shot higher and higher. From 1997 to 2002, teen spending increased 60 percent. Last spring, teenage girls spent an average of $1,572 on clothes, while the boys spent $925. According to one marketing survey, a teenager spends an average of $97 per week. Their total contribution to consumer spending was $160 billion.

Those figures outpace earnings from fast-food restaurants. Thus, parents are giving their children unprecedented amounts of money. And it is not a matter of a big allowance. Parents give out much of the money as children ask them for it. And 34 percent of teenagers have their own parent-sponsored credit card.

The question is, how much of this new harmony between parents and teenagers comes from the love and security of a strong family, and how much of it comes from the teenager's contentment in being blissfully spoiled?

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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