Parents and Peers

One of the axioms of modern times is the "fact" that parents do not spend the necessary amount of time with their children to raise them to a life fit for adulthood, hence the children's hedonistic self-expression in still more narcissistic doings, unwilling to commit themselves to anything but themselves and their own interests.  Examples and analyses are legion, and nobody in his right mind disputes them.  The burden is thus put on the parents who may mean well when buying "things" to substitute for the "love, care, and understanding" they should have given instead.  This is considered a fact to such an extent that nobody cares to argue even the slightest bit of it.

But parents have always worked, and parents have never had enough time to spend with their children – not enough to be a model beacon for them.  Children used to be reared by their grandparents who had the necessary time on their hands to spend with their grandchildren.  That way the child learned from the example of the elders how to act in the adult world, and from about 14 years of age they were supposed to take up responsibility for themselves, leave school, get a job and later raise a family modeled after their own.

In the 60s and 70s, however, children who were raised by their grandparents or by overzealous and too stimulating parents were considered precocious because they were not allowed to stay children for very long.  Such children had the vocabulary of a grownup and a subsequent old-fashioned outlook on life.  The ideal of the decades was that children should remain children for as long as it took them to enjoy and saver the feeling of gradually growing up, i.e. they should not be rushed into adulthood.

So, the general attitude was for children to grow slowly, not ushered by their grandparents nor by their parents, but in interaction with their playmates, their peers.  Now, the parents' attitude may have been an afterthought, a (subsequent) rationalization to cover up for possible failures soon to be discovered, but with the world's development moving fast not much could be said in favor of grandparents teaching their grandchildren new tricks.  Instead of becoming small adults from 14 on, children were given time to grow slowly as far as responsibility was concerned, and nobody demanded any kind of commitment until they were ready to get married, i.e. with a finished education and a steady job.

The 60s also meant the advent of out-of-house jobs for many housewives, especially those who had an education equal to that of their husbands, and their children stayed longer in school, stayed longer in their parents' home, and stayed children for as long as they did not have to commit themselves to anything that involved consequences.  Many families moved to better but also more expensive housing, and soon both incomes were needed to keep up with the mortgage, the acquisition of the many new appliances and commodities that were so useful in the house now that "mother" was gone.  In Denmark a family car was often at the top of list of things to wish for.

In this society of consumers children were the losers – or so the experts say.  But what would have happened, had the hardworking parents demanded that their children stay in at night to shoot the breeze, watch TV, play cards or basketball, or work overtime in the garage?  How would the children have appreciated that?

Chances are that there wouldn't have been much communication and no "teaching/learning" process.  Not only did school take over much of the teaching, especially of new subjects, it also created a feeling of superiority in the young who thought old meant obsolete, redundant.  What the two generations might have talked about was old values, but most parents weren't sure themselves what that meant since they had discarded their own parents' values themselves.  Among the old values was respect for authorities, but since the parents had rebelled against exactly that, how could they not allow their children to rebel, too?

But the most distinguishing feature was probably that young people want to mingle with – young people, and not their parents or grandparents.  The element of being raised by peers has always been present in history - elder siblings and playmates have always taught the younger ones some of the secrets of the world (always with good room for speculation and wonder) - only in the 60s this was greatly enhanced by the baby boom. And those babies were sent to kindergartens where they grew up to be highly influenced by their peers and to act in concord with their peers; a life style they have pursued ever since.

The lenient, but well-meaning parents who tried to be as different from their own strict parents as they possibly could, let their teenage children conquer a room of their own in which they could establish peer rules to substitute for their parents’ rules.  Old was out, new was in, which was not a great change had it not been for the fact that many parents wanted to stay young, in mind as well as in body, which gave a tremendous boost to the teenage culture and its values including certain assets – "hip" was the word of the 50s; in the 60s "cool" was what’s cooking, regardless of age.

But this is not all: the established success of teenagers as a powerful segment of consumers meant that more and more focus was put on young people’s doings and wishes.  From living on their parents’ weekly “donations” they came to earn their own money, sometimes skimming the odd jobs from grown family providers who were laid off because they were more expensive than young people who didn’t pay rent or support a family and therefore didn’t ask as much as their parents’ generation.

With the teenagers’ new status as fast spending consumers in the world of fashion, music, movies etc. came the eventual but inevitable takeover of the businesses themselves from the inside: young executives, agents and salespersons were often preferred to elder, more experienced colleagues, simply because they were young.

Such was the focus on youth in the music world that the media flocked to produce, support and then prey on newly created stars, often people who wouldn’t otherwise have made a career because of lack of musical talent.  Along with the paraphernalia around the music itself was a cult of young fans, the “betweenagers” who modeled their idols hoping for a career of their own.  In the 90s this group rose greatly in numbers due to the success of pre-fabricated groups like the “Spice Girls” who were as plain as the neighbor’s daughter – also musically – but who through their example proved that also “ordinary” girls could make it.  Thus inspired, the still younger fans started dressing and acting “grown”, even from the age of 10-12.

And this is where we are now.  Who is to blame?  The lenient parents?  The young peers?  Or the commercial lure of fame and fortune urged by the media?
   What would have happened if parents had set their foot down and demanded that their children abide by the same old rules that the parents detested and rebelled against?  Would their children have obeyed them?  Did the children feel emotionally abandoned by their parents, or did they leave for greener pastures on their own accord?  Did the media merely record the development, or did they stage and promote it?

Every time, era, and age has it own psychologists who come up with the “right” explanations and analyses according to the consensus of that time.  I think it’s about time we leave the guilt ridden parents alone and accept that 'the times they are a-changing' whether we want it or not.  We may not like what we see, but that’s not new; we may not want to accept it, either, and may try to fight it; but to think that we can fight and defeat development – and the world – will only produce an aching head, perhaps also an aching heart.

November 2001
Erik Moldrup