Have you watched ET (1982) lately? The kids in that movie were able to hide an ALIEN in their house for what seemed like weeks, while their harried, single, working mom—loving, sure, but largely absent—raced in and out, ordering pizza, oblivious to their shenanigans. With full access to Reese’s Pieces and soda, they rode their bikes without helmets into the woods alone at night. Gertie was six.
As one now-Grandmother told the New York Times, Boomer parents generally subscribed to the notion that, “My job was not to entertain [my kids]. My job was to love them and discipline them.”
Can you even imagine?
For a generation of parents already feeling enormous pressure to optimize every opportunity for our kids, as of March, 2020, it also became our job to educate them. Clearly, the pandemic and its interrelated she-cession , remote learning and childcare crises dramatically dialed up Millennial parenting stress.
But, in truth, the “intensive parenting” train left the station before Covid. When we think of how we approach raising kids differently than our own parents did, one stat, cited in the Times, inevitably jumps to mind:
“Over just a couple of generations, parents have greatly increased the amount of time, attention and money they put into raising children. Mothers who juggle jobs outside the home spend just as much time tending their children as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s.”
Looking back to our mothers’ generation, the world was also in turmoil (albeit not in a once-in-a-century pandemic sense). But Boomer mothers were pushed forward by second wave feminism: Women entered the workforce en masse, divorce rates skyrocketed, and a generation of latchkey kids fended for—but also got the chance to define—themselves. Just like those Coke-guzzling free rangers in ET.
So how exactly does all this shake out when it comes to the nitty gritty business of parenting? Who was right? And who was left drowning in a sea of Music Together classes and SAT tutoring bills? Here, five ways the generations diverge when it comes to raising small humans, and one thing that proves the more things change, the more they remain the same.
1. Millennial Parents Are Older
In 1980, the average age of a first time mother was 22.7; Today it is 26. 69% of Boomers lived with a spouse and at least one child by the time they reached age 38, but only 55% of Millennials do. “Previous research has shown that women are waiting longer to give birth, with many becoming first-time mothers in their 40s,” according to Pew Research Center.
2. Millennial Parents Value “Specialization” over Life Skills
The children of Millennials have very different activity rosters than the kids of Boomers did. Kids “used to get themselves around the neighborhood and have summer jobs and chores,” writes Julian in The Atlantic. “Today, only 10 percent of kids walk or bicycle to school, a steep decline from decades past. Forty years ago, 58 percent of teenagers got summer jobs; today, 35 percent do, and the after-school job is an even rarer species… 82 percent [of American adults] said that as children they’d had regular chores—but only 28 percent said their own children did.” The reason is not that Millennials’ kids are lazy or overindulged. It’s that they’re busy becoming specialists. A recent CNBC headline under the banner “Raising Successful Kids” reads: Why ‘early specialization’ is the key parenting approach for raising exceptional kids. (And who doesn’t want one of those?) Whether it’s coding or cello or chess, the directive to Millennial parents is this: ‘Find your kid’s talent and hone it early.’ The article, written by a “Performance Expert” takes a sledgehammer to the central nerve of parental anxiety: “Specialization isn’t just reserved for future sports champions and billionaire entrepreneurs,” he writes. “It’s increasingly necessary if you want your kids to grow up and get good jobs that they enjoy… As the saying goes, jacks of all trades are masters of none.” (Brb, signing kids up for robotics class.) Obviously, all that effort toward becoming a child “master” leaves less time for free play. One recet survey revealed that 85% of Boomer parents believe playtime is important for children to develop emotional skills. Only 65% of Millennial parents do.
3. Millennial Parents are Plugged-In (Literally)
Alexa: Play “Baby Shark!” Sharenting. Cyber bullying. We should really talk to them about sexting and revenge porn. The Snoo. “Co-viewing” Paw Patrol. Nest cams. GPS kid-trackers. Google Classroom. Is blue light messing with their sleep? Facetiming Grandma. Pinterest-perfect birthday parties. Screen-time limits. Fortnite tantrums. Parental control settings. YouTubers. Parenting influencers. Suggestive TikTok dances. 54% of 11-year-olds have smartphones. We buy actual beds—with headboards and tiny little sheets—so we can tuck in our devices at night, in an effort to preserve screen-free family time. One Millennial parent freely admitted to the New York Times that she named her daughter with a Twitter handle in mind. She’s not alone. A poll found 20% of Millennial parents changed, or considered changing, their baby's name based on available domain names. Boomers remember when call-waiting and dial up modems changed kids’ lives. Millennials have 6-year-olds who accidentally spend $8,000 real life dollars on Robux.
It’s impossible to talk about modern parenting without acknowledging the ways tech has revolutionized it. “The good news is that parents know more about child development than ever before,” parenting expert Rebecca Parlakian told the Times. The…um…less good news? “Google is the new grandparent, the new neighbor, the new nanny.”
4. Millennial Parents Are Anti-Shame
Without placing all the blame on Boomer parents, kids in the 70s and 80s faced prejudice that would be unacceptable today. “Growing up in the 80s, writes blogger Eric Jimenez-Lindmeier, “I was surrounded by a culture… movies, media, education, and social norms, that told me … as long as the gay was treated as a stereotypical joke, no one cared. It was okay to make fun and laugh at their expense.”
Thanks, perhaps, to their own childhoods, Millennial parents have a much firmer grasp on issues of social-emotional import. And they’re not letting go. Millennial parents are changing the world for their trans kids. Today, LGBTQIA+ characters are increasingly represented in media aimed at kids, according to GLAAD. Nine in 10 millennials approve of interracial or cross-cultural marriage, per to the Times. Millennial parents have also helped destigmatize everything from neurodivergence to mental health disorders. (Bravo, Millennial mom Amy Schumer for saying her son Gene, 2, will “most likely be diagnosed” with Autism like his dad, chef Chris Fischer, but “if he’s anything like his father, [then] that is wonderful news.”) They are more willing to support and advocate for their kids. They are pro-therapy and early intervention. They embrace gender-neutral toys and pronouns. They are more open about surrogacy, fertility struggles and solo parenthood (Single-parent households increased threefold since 1960, to 26 percent. About 1 in 5 Millennial parents are single Dads). They also desire a more equal division of domestic labor (though real life outcomes still fall short of these goals). “Millennial dads are different than their elders, in that they see it as a positive masculine trait to be involved with their children,” Anne Halsall, founder of a childcare startup called Winnie, told the Times.
5. Millennial Parents Aim for Less Toxic Divorces
“Conscious Uncoupling” may have entered the chat thanks to Gen X icon Gwyneth Paltrow, but Millennial co-parents are making it mainstream. When they split up, younger couples are more likely to seek mediation as opposed to engaging in more acrimonious legal battles (Think Kylie Jenner and Travis Scott as opposed to Kramer vs. Kramer). “This is certainly true of the couples I see in my practice, in terms of age demographics,” says Maren Cardillo Elbaum, Legal Director of Divorce Mediation Professionals. “The objective of mediation is not to solve the problem of divorce for one member of the couple at the expense of the other. It is to leave them with an agreement they both feel they can live with. Many younger couples watched their own parents go to war in divorce. They are discovering there is another way to do this.”
What Do They Have in Common: Both Millennial AND Boomer Parents Are Drowning in Advice
Millennials are branded Snow Plow (or Lawn Mower or Bulldozer or Helicopter) Parents. There are Tiger Moms and Panda Parents running around out there! Headlines remind us of “The Real Reason You’ll Never Be Able to Parent Like the French.” We’d love to parent like the Dutch! Or take our cues from Mayan cultures. If only we had time. And resources. And government-mandated parental leave. Oh, and universal access to high quality, affordable childcare. Instead, American society slaps trendy (if demeaning) labels on parents and sells us books. It’s a tale as old as time.
And it’s what Millennials and Boomers have in common. In fact, the term “helicopter parenting” had its origins in the 90s. In an article titled How Baby Boomers Ruined Parenting Forever, researcher Sarah Kendzior writes that it was during the Clinton era that “the price of higher education and its accoutrements—SAT prep classes, expensive extra-curriculars—began their exorbitant rise.” What to Expect When You’re Expecting, first published in 1984, is still a best seller. By the 90s, there were five times as many parenting books as in 1975. And so, it was during Boomers’ prime child-rearing years that their kids’ achievements became the key marker of familial success. You know the story by now. Experts who capitalized on parental insecurity became boldface names. RIE (short for Resources for Infant Educarers) is a high profile child-development movement founded in 1978. Its parenting center still offers classes in Hollywood today. Its governing philosophy, per Vanity Fair: “Parents—or ‘educarers’—need to stop treating children like children.” No noisy toys. No sippy cups. No baby talk. Devotees included Boomer parents William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman. In her pre-sentencing letter to the judge after she was convicted for her part in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, Huffman wrote of her over-reliance on “expert” advice, in words that will pierce the hearts of parents of all ages: “From the moment my children were born I was worried that they got me as a Mother. I so desperately wanted to do right and was so deathly afraid of doing it wrong.”