By Neil McNerney, Parenting With Purpose
Over the past 20 years or so, parents have significantly shifted their priorities. Instead of focusing a large portion of their lives on themselves and their interests, they have devoted more time, money, and energy on their children in hopes that it will help launch them into stable and successful adults.
Previous generations were not nearly as involved. I grew up in Northern Virginia in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I played a couple of sports, but most of my time was spent quite detached from my parents. I generally knew what time to come home for dinner, but my parents seemed blissfully unaware of my whereabouts.
My parents had a full life that had little to do with my life. My mother played bridge, bowled on a league, went to bingo, ran her own small business, and had friends over regularly. My father, always the introvert, spent his time reading and researching his various interests. He also stayed involved in his men’s church groups.
This was very common for that era. My parents’ generation had 51% more friends, had 3 times more social organization memberships, and spent much more time as a couple socializing with others. Most of those social connections had nothing to do with their children.
We orbit our lives around our children more than any generation before us. Our social lives tend to be focused on our children’s activities. Many of my friends were somehow related to my children’s activities, sports, and interests. Would I naturally gravitate toward these parents? Maybe some of them, but not the majority.
Did I sacrifice too much of my interests for my children? I wouldn’t call it a sacrifice, since I enjoyed spending time with them, travelling to their games, watching them participate, etc. I was the team videographer for many teams and enjoyed getting skilled at video editing. I did, however, spend much less time doing the things I enjoy, such as fishing, hiking, and other outdoor activities. There were just too many games on the weekend to spend the time doing something just for myself.
The important questions is: Has it made a difference for our children? Are they better off due to our involvement?
In some respects, the parent/child relationships are stronger than any other previous generation. Although it is hard to measure, the evidence points to young adults feeling closer to their parents than in the past, and parents report that they are much closer to their adult children than they were to their parents.
But this could come at a cost, with our children feeling more obligated to stay close to us since we sacrificed our own social networks for their sake. The empty nest syndrome, in my opinion, is much worse for those parents that have neglected their own interests and friends during childrearing.
Are our children better off? I am skeptical. Youth mental health issues, especially anxiety, is at an all time high. As a family counselor, I believe a significant portion of anxiety is based on parental expectations. In my counseling practice, I hear more and more students worry about disappointing their parents vs. making them proud. For many children, the intense parental involvement feels more like pressure and less like support.
Should we go back to my parent’s generation and barely focus on our children’s lives? I don’t think so. There are many benefits to our involvement in their lives. I do think, however, that we are gone too far and have lost ourselves in the process, and I think that has negatively affected the parents and the children.
Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out! and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at email@example.com