What's wrong with parents?

November 04, 1993

The baby boom generation hasn't finished making its mark on the planet, but it probably already can claim the title of most self-assured generation in history. It's the most learned, the most mobile, the most sophisticated of any group that's come before. The boomers' formative years, like a Sesame Street episode, were sponsored by the letter "W" -- for War, Woodstock and Watergate. The times encouraged them to speak up, to go for the gusto, to just do it.

Yet one task seems to overwhelm them, or at least swamp them with self-doubt: Parenting.

This theme surfaces repeatedly, in the schools, in politics, in the mass media. "Yes, Mother, That Really Is How We Plan to Raise Zoe," read a headline atop a recent Wall Street Journal article about how many grandparents deplore the lack of regimen in the rearing of their grandchildren. Indeed, in a recent survey of 1,400 parents, a third as many admitted to spanking their kids as in a similar study 30 years ago; "timeouts" and negotiating with children are more common tools of discipline now. In the debate about reforming public schools, one thing on which educators routinely agree is that moms and dads need to be more attuned to their kids' behavior. The problem with parents has also been a theme of late in Montgomery County in the wake of police busts of beer parties that teen-agers held with their parents' blessing.

Even people who think the current crop of child-rearers is doing fine would have to agree that the foundations for families have been eroded. Adults -- and, thus, their children -- aren't as observant of their religious institutions or as respectful of their secular ones. Marriages don't face worse pressures than ever, but they do face less pressure from society to stay together. And despite the density of living space in urban and suburban America, more nuclear households than ever go it alone.

Can't parents parent anymore? Yes. In many ways, parents are more doting, nay, more obsessed with the development of their offspring than were their own parents. It's not that today's parents are doing something no one's ever done, but they are doing it in an age that no one's ever done it. No parent before had to fend off sophisticated marketing campaigns aimed at 3-year-old consumers. Or had to worry about guns in the schools. Or had the sex and drug experimentations of their own youth come back to haunt them in more deadly and earlier challenges to their own children.

Whatever new obstacles society throws at child-rearing, though, parents must strive to be up to the task. Little else they do will have as enduring an impact as how they shape the parents of the coming baby boom in the year 2010.

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