Maybe Gen X Should Teach Millennials a Thing or Two About Parenting

Generation X versus millennial parenting: Charlotte, Harry and child watch TV in a still from "And Just Like That"
Craig Blankenhorn/Max

Not by dint of any intellectual or moral superiority, Gen X has developed a very particular set of skills acquired over a very long career (to paraphrase that cohort’s hit 2008 movie Taken) that make them uniquely able to weather contemporary family life. And they’re gung-ho on having young ‘uns—after all, psychologist Jean Twenge says in her book Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers and Silents, we have Gen X (born between 1965 and 1980) to thank for reversing the plummeting birth rate of the 1970s by having larger families and bringing childbirth back into style.

So, with all the millennial parenting gurus like Emily Oster and Dr. Becky bringing their philosophies to the masses, why aren’t we also awash in Gen X-led tutorials on child-rearing? I’m a Gen Xer with a Gen Z son and Silent Generation parents, and I think a lot of it goes back to my generation’s “middle child” mentality. Born between two hulking generations—the Silent generation and Baby Boomers (about 92.6 million combined) before us and Millennials and Generation Z (approximately 140.84 million combined) after us—our little demographic (65.2 million) isn’t the first voice you hear. But we’ve got some surprisingly similar life experience to offer other generations: our smaller population grew up prizing individualism, watching flickering images alone while our parents worked. We Gen Xers know how to get by, but we’re not all about pushing the tips we learned (while watching MTV after school and biking alone around our neighborhood) on successive generations—we’re slackers, remember, and not super-interested in world domination.

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However…now that the new generation of 9 to 24 year-old Zs have come along, they’re facing some similarly intense economic, health and technology challenges (a housing crisis, Covid and social media threatening to spread disinformation) to the ones we Gen Xers weathered (stock market failure, the AIDS epidemic and cable television threatening to eat our brains). So why not take a tip or two from the Generation X playbook? After all, we Xers did things, like invented Google! And we’ve raised some pretty awesome children, like Amanda Gorman and Greta Thunberg. So let’s look at three hallmarks of millennial parenting, and contrast how Gen Xers approach them differently.

1. Helicopter Parenting

This parenting philosophy, while certainly not invented by folks born after 1980, is also a millennial tell. It’s got Mom overly involved in a kid’s play date and finishing projects for her, as well as endlessly discussing feelings and friend groups. The millennial parent is constantly tracking their child’s movements via one app, monitoring the kid’s spending via another, and if their child is old enough to be active on social media, well she’s definitely following them using a pseudonym. By contrast, Zero Hour for Gen X author Matthew Hennessey sees strength in Gen X’s hands-off approach. “Generation X comes from a tactile world…We walked to school, baseball practice, play rehearsal and home again—all unsupervised,” he recalls. “When it was absolutely necessary that we get in touch with our parents—or our friends—we somehow managed to do it without cell phones. All of this independence equipped us with resilience and self-reliance, characteristics that have slowly been going missing in America.” The result? Gen Xers hover less and allow their own kids more leeway—a trait millennials would be smart to embrace.

2. All the Scheduled Lessons

Sure, we get it. Today’s competitive job market means that a kid who has credentials is a kid who is better prepared to gain acceptance into elite programs and schools. And yet…overscheduling extracurricular activities is as likely to stress out your kid as it is to help them excel, a concept which Gen Xers have internalized way more than their younger counterparts. Indeed, a Time magazine poll reported 50 percent of Gen Xers thought their friends’ children participated in too many activities, while only 36 percent of millennials reported thinking kids had too much on their plate. And maybe it’s the slacker in me talking, but I’ve always felt that unstructured time, in which your child develops the ability to entertain himself, and self-soothe in healthy ways not mediated by electronics, is a skill that’s going to be far more useful longterm than the Suzuki method. Additionally, the Gen X parent is decidedly not interested in running himself ragged in the interest of their little one having all their time booked. And hey, we get it, being busy keeps your tyke off screens—but so does taking away the screens for a set time each day.

3. Compare and Despair

Gen X didn’t have the internet to cudgel our peers with—when we wanted to brag about our kids’ accomplishments, we had to spend time face-to-face with another mom or family member. Poor Millennials don’t have that privilege, since everyone is busy posting their kids’ tournament trophies, show jumping ribbons and diplomas on their feeds. According to a New York Times story on “earnest” millennial parenting [a moniker that’s anathema to my irony-laced Gen X brand]: “More than ever, parents can watch one another (or at least a filtered version of one another) which creates community—and anxiety.” While competitive parenting by no means began with this or any other age, social media showboating of your children can be a hurtful contact sport for the parents, as well as kids if they are old enough to read comments. For example, when one Gen X parent friend, a latecomer to the world of online bragging, posted that his child was accepted to a prestigious private college, one response read “How can you afford this on your salary?”

It's a tough order, laying down a loving set of expectations and habits when you’re a parent. What’s nagging? What’s inattention? Who’s to say where to draw the line when you’re carving up your time between all family members—yourself included—and their needs? When in doubt, I like to flip the script written by my fellow Gen Xer Sheryl Sandberg and lean in—to give a little extra care to my kids, family and what’s going on in my home.

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dana dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...