Generation Watch

Generation Watch
News and Views of America's Living Generations


Aug 27, 2002

Won't Someone Please Think of the Children?

by Steve Barrera

You would think by the pleas of some that no one has thought about the children for a very long time. "I have had it with gutless politicians who don't have enough moral fiber to lead the charge to protect American kids," writes Bill O'Reilly in a fairly recent column. Where has he been for the past twenty years? Children have been the focus of concerned attention in America ever since "Baby on Board" signs first showed up in the back windows of Volvos in the early 1980s, ever since an infant girl named Jessica was rescued from a well while the whole nation watched and worried.

Back then the focus was on the newborn "trophy kids" of a new breed of urban professionals. In the time that has since passed, the attention has followed the growing '80s babies up the age ladder, leading to endless debates about proper schooling form and to a plethora of laws and regulations designed to safeguard the younger generation at every stage of its development. From mandatory automobile safety seats to zero-tolerance schools to curfews for juveniles, the charge to protect American kids has overrun the country.

This sheltering of the rising generation is understandable when one considers a time when American children were truly underprotected: the 1970s and (for teens) 1980s. It was during that era that divorce rates soared, and R-rated movies pushed G-rated movies out of the theatres. It was during that era that drug use was far more open and tolerated than it is today, and youthful sexual promiscuity accepted as normal behavior. The 1982 movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High featured a 15-year old losing her virginity and consequently visiting an abortion clinic - the story presented without moralistic overtones, as bland adolescent entertainment.

During that time, so much different than now, America was in the grip of idealistic fervor and social revolution. A culture of narcissism prevailed, and children had no part to play in fulfilling the needs of their recently divorced parents, no connection to the fun and games of the sexual revolution. A Nomad archetype generation was in childhood, and an Artist archetype generation was raising it, in the spirit of the age.

Adults in mid-life - the Silent Generation - were discovering a freedom that had been denied them during their strict childhood in the 1930s and conformist coming of age in the 1950s. They rejected the overprotective manner in which they had been raised, seeking to tear down social barriers which seemed outdated. In so doing, they shunned moral judgement and the setting of boundaries, preferring to communicate options and let their kids choose what felt right. Their parenting style reflected the sensitive helpmate persona they had developed growing up in the shadow of the powerful G.I. Generation.

The product of that parenting is today's younger adult cohorts, Generation X - not exactly the most reputable generation alive today. Nor is it a very fortunate one, suffering high rates of poverty, and living on the political fringe. As a result of their neglectful upbringing, Xers are alienated and hardened, their shells often hiding deep emotional wounds. They are risk-takers and thrill-seekers, less likely than their elders to exhibit moral restraint. They are the embodiment of the Nomad archetype, the scions of spiritual upheaval and social decay.

The worst excesses of Generation X - gang warfare, date rape, high rates of suicide and addiction - are a reminder of why boundaries are needed in a child's world. America's parents, now including a substantial number of Xers themselves, are determined to avoid raising a generation like the last. The transformation in child rearing standards circa 1980 is a sign of the replacement of the Nomad archetype in childhood by the Hero archetype, embodied in the young Millennial Generation.

Now children are treasured and fussed over, instead of handed a latchkey and told to get out of the way. Family movies fare better at the box office than violent or sexy thrillers. Drugs are disappearing from schools, and teenagers becoming more chaste. Sure, there are still troubled and misbehaved youths, and awful cases of child abuse and neglect, but statistics have been and still are improving - and there will never be a year when no teenager anywhere dies from a drug overdose, and no child anywhere is murdered.

But the push to protect children more and more is not going to end. While Millennials come of age, another generation will fill the child age bracket behind it, this one raised primarily by tough and pragmatic Xers. As Xers take control of parenting - from Boomers whose own offspring have become adults - they will discover a security denied themselves when growing up. They will reject the underprotective way in which they were raised, setting boundaries, raising barriers, and restricting options for their children.

The trend of overprotecting children is already evident, as parents consider expensive and intrusive means of safeguarding children from kidnapping, though the likelihood of a child being kidnapped decreases annually. Even as other dangers decrease, the fear of them will compel anxious parents to tighten control over their kids - until the kids feel stifled. Meanwhile, these prized children will have less and less of a voice in society, for the young adult Millennials, in whom so much hope is vested, will be the focus of attention into America's next era.

It is difficult to imagine a day when kids will be ignored, but it will come - when the moralizers are finally appeased, and the problems our society faces so preoccupy adults that the old adage, "children should be seen and not heard," makes sense again. It is then that a new Artist generation will form, shielded from harm by overprotective Nomad parents, overwhelmed by the seriousness of a nation in crisis, learning to be helpful and sensitive, and waiting until much later in life to taste the fruit of freedom.

Steve Barrera and Generation Watch 2002-2007. All rights reserved.


Also by Steve Barrera

The Reappearance of the Generation Gap

Ages of the living generations (2002)
Lost 101+
G.I. 77-101
Silent 59-77
Boomer 41-59
Gen-X 20-41
Millennial ?-20
Homeland ?

Millennial Saeculum
High 1946-1964
Awakening 1964-1984
Unraveling 1984-?
Crisis ?-