A hundred years ago, we read stories of how families were larger, how kids were to speak only when spoken to, and how parents enjoyed a more influential voice in their teens’ lives. In most cases, the acceptable style was command and control. My research shows that much of that narrative is true. There was a clearer sense of control parents had decades ago.
Over time, life changed.
When the baby boomer generation arrived, we began to hear the term generation gap. It was a term used to describe the chasm parents felt between themselves and their children because their kids were growing up in such a different world than they did. Later, Generation X only widened that gap, as the culture played an even larger role in how emerging adults turned out.
What caused the change?
The Role of Information
The change was caused by access to information. Mass communication played an expanding role in changing families and homes over the last century. More voices were added to the mix. As time marched on, the media overtook parents’ voices in the upbringing of their children. (In fact, even parents were affected by the media, as values and traditions morphed in modern life). First, radio became common in homes around the 1930s. By 1934, 60 percent of homes had one. Then, came records, which launched in 1930 with RCA Victor. By the 1950s and 60s most teens listened to them. Next, television was born. By 1955 half of U.S. households had a black and white TV. By 1960, 9 out of 10 homes had a television in the family room. Consider the impact this had compared to life in 1900 when no gadgets existed.
It’s not that every media voice was necessarily destructive. It’s simply that culture began playing a larger role in shaping kids. Today, research says that peers and media (even social media) enjoy a larger percentage of influence in a teen’s life than parents do. As parents witnessed this growth, they felt they were losing control of their kids. In some ways, they were. The 1960s was a decade of student protest, violence, drugs, rock, smoking, and illicit sex. The decade ended with Woodstock, a four-day, outdoor concert attended by 400,000 young adults.
The parenting journey was morphing too. What’s a mom to do?
From Control to Connection
As Baby Boomers became parents, they determined they didn’t want the same challenges they had with their parents. The command and control style of their parents created this gap—and they decided to close it. In response, they chose to buddy up with their children. They didn’t want to lose them to cultural temptations (as many of them had experienced), so they chose to be the “cool mom” or the popular parent. In fact, many acted like a pal more than a parent. They chose to trade the pursuit of control, which past generations of parents modeled, for a pursuit of connection. In many ways, it was a good trade. Many millennials remain close to their parents well into their adult years.
The problem, of course, is that it’s difficult to be both an authority figure and a buddy. Parents can vacillate between the two and send mixed signals to their teens.
The Key: An Intentional Balancing Act
I am a father of two adult children, Bethany (31) and Jonathan (28). I felt this quandary with my kids as they grew up. My wife and I wanted to create a space that was safe to talk, for them to weigh in with their thoughts and ideas and even safe enough to challenge the status quo. Along the way, it was difficult to balance both equal voices and parental authority.
The key was intentionality. With more voices to compete against in our children’s lives, we could not leave our input to chance. A century ago, a parent had less competition for influence. Now we must intentionally balance the pursuit of connection with the art of direction.
- Pursuit of connection: You prioritize the relationship, the trust, the listening, and the safety.
- Art of direction: You prioritize guiding your children into what and how to think and act.
One without the other is incomplete. To only connect but not direct fails to offer real leadership and leaves kids wandering as they reach adulthood. No compass; no purpose. To only direct but fail to connect leaves them feeling like they had a drill sergeant, not a parent in the family. They may not open up or bring their problems to you, much less their hopes and dreams.
Four Phases of Raising Kids
As I have crossed paths with successful parents, several have confirmed that parenting is the ultimate picture of leadership. As we lead our kids, there are different phases where our leadership morphs into a new style, always loving but ever guiding the emerging adult.
1. Discipline Phase (Ages 1-5). This is when children learn boundaries.
2. Training Phase (Ages 6-12). This is when children learn to initiate good behavior.
3. Coaching Phase (Ages 13-21). This is when you guide their own decision making.
4. Friendship Phase (Ages 22 and up). This is when you enjoy the fruit of love and respect.
Three Steps to Take
1. Ensure your voice is a large one, by placing boundaries on media, guiding choices, and offering autonomy to adolescents as they earn trust. Limit them to two hours a day on social media and two hours a day on video games. Balance it with face-to-face time with family. This limit also decreases their vulnerability to anxiety and depression.
2. Place a priority on honoring people and valuing relationships. Respect for every family member (even siblings) is essential. When a wrong is done, penalties should revolve around making the relationship right, not merely paying a fine or losing phone time. Have them take mom on a date or join dad on a family chore.
3. Determine you’ll gain their respect more than their love. If you need to be “liked” by your children every week, you’ll never be a good leader for them. Love them, but win their respect early on and work to retain it. If you do, you’ll have their love as they become adults. Parenting isn’t a popularity contest, it’s a preparation contest.
Someone once said, “If you parent your children, you get to spoil your grandchildren. But if you spoil your children, you’ll have to parent your grandchildren.”