The XX Factor

Generational Peace, Love, and Understanding

Since the New York Times never gets tired of running “Kids these days!” stories, I geared myself up for yet another one when I saw the headline “Students, Welcome to College; Parents, Go Home.” But this time it was a twist on the usual narrative. Instead, we got a “Parents these days!” article. The article comically addresses the various ways that universities have tried to convince overly clingy parents to leave when they drop their kids off at college, but for once, the kids themselves are portrayed sympathetically.

Most articles I’ve seen in the past couple of years about “helicopter parents” address the anxious parents of very small children trying to get their kids into the best kindergartens and making sure that their coloring books get them diagnosed as geniuses. Boy, those kids aged faster than the kids on a soap opera, because now we have an article about parents of children 12 or 13 years older. But for all the hyperbole, the writer Trip Gabriel actually paints a touching picture of parents who’ve just spent the past 18 years making their offspring the center of the lives and now, having to set their cubs free, they don’t know what to do with themselves. And so they find excuses to linger, even as the kids are eager to get on with it.

Empty-nest syndrome is hardly a new idea, but I don’t actually doubt that it’s become more profound, at least for the privileged classes that Gabriel focuses on. Quadrupling the expectations of emotional investment of parents is one of the many unexpected side effects of making reproduction a choice instead of simply what happens to you because you’re a sexually active adult. This is basic psychology-when you make an affirmative choice to do something, you tend to invest much more in it than if it’s something that just happened to you. I just don’t understand why most of the coverage of the so-called helicopter parents has to be so negative.

I get that there’s excess. I worked at a graduate-school program just as the millenials were beginning to trickle in as students, and I encountered a couple of overbearing parents around that time, when I had literally never seen a parent enter through the front doors of our office previously. Sure, there’s something to be said about the lack of balance in the lives of many of these parents, who seem to use their children as a way to escape from living their own lives. But excesses aside, what’s so wrong about parents telegraphing the message to their kids that they were wanted and they are cherished? What’s so wrong with parents getting along with their children? Sometimes I think Americans are wed to the Baby Boom-era narrative about a heated battle between the generations. Now we’ve had two generations since then who aren’t particularly interested in rebelling against their parents, and the tendency is still to treat this as abnormal and worrisome, or to write screeds accusing young people of immaturity because they get along with their folks. Maybe we could take a step back and consider the possibility that it’s good that there’s so much love between generations that letting go isn’t so easy.