Parenting Styles Shape Generations

The Addams Family as drawn by Charles Addams

The Addams Family as drawn by Charles Addams

On Friday, my family and I saw a terrific new musical in Chicago, The Addams Family. The show was inspired by Charles Addams’ 1920’s and 1930’s New Yorker cartoons (also the inspiration for the 1960’s TV sitcom and 1970’s movie).  It’s a great show, especially for its message about families: it’s okay to be a little strange.

For those of you who may be too young to remember, the Addams family is not just eccentric, it is downright macabre. They are ‘weird’ by any definition — pet spiders, a fascination with cemeteries, torture, and the color black. Yet, underneath their peculiar interests, the Addamses are fairly conventional –even admirable! 

The Addamses are close-knit and loving. Morticia is an exemplary mother to her children, Wednesday and Pugsley. Morticia and Gomez still have a passion for each other, reserving 7:00 each evening for their special tango. They support their children and cheer their unusual accomplishments. They provide a home to their extended family members, Uncle Fester and Grandma. They are unfailingly friendly and gracious to outsiders. In the world of the Addamses, they are not the problem, it is the outside world, that judges them by a different standard, that is to be pitied. The Addamses understand that in the areas that truly matter, they get it right and they feel sorry for those who don’t. 

The central truth of the Addams Family is this:  all families are weird. What kid hasn’t thought they were the ‘Wednesday Addams’ of their family, the only normal one in a house of loonies? Who hasn’t felt a small sense of dread bringing someone home to ‘meet the parents’? Would they behave themselves? Would they seem ‘normal’? What is ‘normal’ anyway?

Now ratchet the argument up to the generational level. Aren’t all generations shaped by parents that are essentially conventional, but eccentric in ways that will look strange to those of previous or later generations? TIME magazine’s November 20 cover story, “The Growing Backlash Against Overparenting“, describes in great detail the eccentricities of Boomer and Gen X parents in the 90’s and 00’s, actually going so far as to call them ‘insanities’.

“The insanity crept up on us slowly; we just wanted what was best for our kids. We bought macrobiotic cupcakes and hypoallergenic socks, hired tutors to correct a 5-year-old’s “pencil-holding deficiency,” hooked up broadband connections in the treehouse but took down the swing set after the second skinned knee. We hovered over every school, playground and practice field — “helicopter parents,” teachers christened us, a phenomenon that spread to parents of all ages, races and regions.”

Desiree Kane, a Millennial, writes in her blog “Heroes Rising” what it was like to be the focus of parental anxiety and overnurturing. She uses the metaphor of  ‘100% child safe’ to highlight the lengths parents went to ensure their children’s success.

“Simply stated, early wave Millennials grew up in a culture of metrics. Our Boomer parents wanted to know if we were hitting benchmarks at the appropriate times, if we were where we were supposed to be for our age, etc. We grew up in an age of hyper-parenting. “Child safety” initiatives in overdrive was but a daily occurrence in our households. So much so that this extreme awareness of external factors that could possibly hinder achievement of childhood milestones was reflected in parenting styles shifting to everything being 100% child safe. Things MUST be “childproof” so nothing could stand in the way of the achievement of their special, one of a kind child. In fact, “childproof” in terms of “safeguarding a child’s future” could be a euphemism this day in age for “I’m the parent and my kid is going to do what I say, regardless of what they’re naturally inclined to do/be.”

In retrospect, this approach to parenting seems a little nutty, but trust me, it seemed normal at the time (despite gentle reproaches from our own parents — why don’t you just let them play, dear?)  According to TIME, change is coming.  Parenting styles are shifting again, partly in response to earlier ‘insanities’ and partly in response to the necessities imposed by the recession. What’s more, families seem to be better off for it.

“A backlash against overparenting had been building for years, but now it reflects a new reality. Since the onset of the Great Recession, according to a CBS News poll, a third of parents have cut their kids’ extracurricular activities. They downsized, downshifted and simplified because they had to — and often found, much to their surprise, that they liked it. When a TIME poll last spring asked how the recession had affected people’s relationships with their kids, nearly four times as many people said relationships had gotten better as said they’d gotten worse.”


Desiree Kane agrees that Millennials are likely to show a different, more ‘hands-off’ parenting style with their own children. She attributes this to both a reaction to how they themselves were raised and a greater tolerance for diversity and individuality. 

“Millennials won’t safeguard their kids as much by pushing them towards a set life path. They won’t enroll them in after school college prep programs while they’re in middle school, etc. I think we’ll see a shift away from focusing on milestones and metrics. I think we’ll notice a move towards less ‘safeguarding’ children’s future because truly, whatever Gen Y children turn out to be will be just fine for Gen Y to accept since we accept and encourage diversity & individuality so much within our peers today.”

This prediction is more credible than a prediction that Millennials will parent the same way they were parented. Yet, I also think there may be more that unites the generations — call them ‘Addams Family Values’ — than separates them. The changes may be show on the surface, but the essential conventionality is the same.

According to a newly released longitudinal study by Nickolodeon, the generational gap is fairly narrow when it comes to matters of real importance. They like each other and want to spend time ‘hanging out’ together. Parents worry just as much about whether they have enough family time as they do about finances.

 “Today’s families are different from what we’ve seen and come to expect from previous generations, in that staying together and playing together are the top priorities among everyone in the household,” said Ron Geraci, SVP of Nickelodeon Research. “Instead of being divided by tastes and clashing over values and things like music and entertainment choices, today’s parents, kids and grandparents are being drawn closer together by them, as well as embracing new value systems of tolerance and acceptance.”

  • 76% of parents of 2-21 year-olds say they feel extremely close to their child today, while only 25% of grandparents reported that they felt close to their own child.
  • Today, 49% of parents have one of their own parents living within 30 minutes from them; and 10% percent have a parent living with them in their home.
  • Today’s first-time grandparents are an average age of 48 (source: AARP), and have a central role in day-to-day family life.
  • 61% of parents of 2-17 year-olds say the grandparents assist with raising the kids
  • 56% of sons ages 8-21 years-old share the same taste in movies as their fathers, and 48% enjoy listening to the same music.
  • 64% of daughters 8-21 years-old share a similar taste in movies as their mothers, and 44% share the same sense of fashion and clothing as their moms.
  • 82% and 77% of families are watching TV or movies together at home, respectively, each week.
  • 41% of parents and kids are listening to music together; and 36% are playing games together.
  • Ad Age and JWT recently published a whitepaper on ‘Real Moms’ based on a survey data among moms and dads of all ages. The data is broken out for Millennial women and men (18-29 years). It reveals the importance they place on having a family and a committed relationship. 82% of Gen Y women and 61% of Gen Y men say it is ‘very important’ to ‘be married/in a committed relationship’ at this point in their lives.  70% of Gen Y women and 43% of Gen Y men say it is ‘very important’ to ‘be a parent’ at this point in their lives.

    With family values like that, the Addams Family should have a nice long run in the theatre.