If you’ve been off-planet for the last few months you may have missed the news: Jon & Kate have split, and in the process migrated from the relative banality of the TV listings over to the hyper-banality of the tabloids. I’m still not sure what the future holds for the popular “reality” show, but whatever it is, Gosselin family 2.0 equals Jon minus Kate.
It occurs to me that these events represent something significant in our culture. Since about 1980 or so we’ve been in one of our periodic “childrens is the most preciousest things in the whole wide world” phases. (For more on the generational cycles that produce this dynamic, see Generations, 13th Gen and Millennials Rising by William Howe and Neil Strauss, two men whose work I have referenced a number of times in the past.) In the previous generation (Gen X), children were an afterthought for most parents, who had been socialized in far more self-centric times.
But around the time of the Reagan ascension we began to see signs that something was changing. Perhaps nothing better signified the new age than “cocooning” Baby Boomers driving boxy Volvo wagons with “Baby on Board” stickers in the window. Since then we’ve seen the institutionalization of the “mommy van,” mandatory helmets and kneepads for all bike-related activities, zero-tolerance school discipline policies, organized play dates and the advent of the over-involved “helicopter parent.” The same forces have driven the scourge of standardized testing (not a bad thing, in moderation, but a horrific thing taken to extremes).
Much has been written about the children of this era. On the one hand they’re very pro-social and are excellent collaborators. On the other hand, being raised at the center of the universe, where you get a gold star for showing up and you’re told that you’re precious every day of your life, regardless of whether you’ve actually done anything that day, well, that has a certain predictable impact.
Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with an involved parent caring about his or her kids. But the point here is that these things run in cycles, and as is so often the case, generations tend to react to (and rebel against) the trends of previous generations.
Since we’ve seen these dynamics before, students of generational history have been able to predict the future a bit. And in the last three or four years, in particular, we’ve begun to see some of these prophecies coming to fruition. The reason is that we’re seeing the next generation entering school. Depending on where you draw the line, the front edge of whatever we’re going to call the generation after the Millennials is now in third or fourth grade. Which means it’s time to start looking for the backlash against the excesses of Millennial child-rearing – a reaction that should be evident first in the cultural narrative and subsequently in policy.
Two particular (closely related) Millennial narratives of interest can be summed up thusly: children come first and children must be protected at all costs. If you know parents of children aged (roughly) 9-29 – or if you are such a parent – then you probably recognize the philosophy being described here. Those of us watching from the outside might be more keenly aware of some of the curiouser elements of the Millennial family (since it seems more natural and normal to those on the inside), but I suspect we all know someone who believes (whether they’d say it out loud or not) some version of the following: “My children come before my spouse.”
One observer – a minister, no less – calls this the Curse of the Child-Centered Family.
When a child becomes the central focus of the family, it interferes with the natural weaning process essential to the child’s healthy development. In fact, the child can come to bear the symptoms of the parents’ marital problems. Today I see more kids acting out, and more parents medicating them. But medication only treats the symptoms, not the cause — parents who keep the peace in their marriage by drifting apart.
Most parents would never dream that putting their children before their marriage could be wrong. They believe they just don’t have the time for their spouse. But the truth is, they often feel more love for their kids than for their spouse. Parents convince themselves that putting their kids first is child-friendly, but in doing so they make two mistakes.
First, when a child is the center of the family, it becomes harder for parents to establish and enforce the boundaries the child needs to shape his character. So he simply badgers his parents until he gets his way. Future bosses and spouses, however, will not be as patient with this behavior.
Second, the children face tremendous pressure to fulfill the parents’ emotional needs, which may lead the kids to act out. What had been a molehill then quickly becomes a mountain, as the anxious parents seek a diagnosis from physicians who are increasingly likely to medicate children. These steps can cripple a child’s development and, when played out in families nationwide, they threaten the future of our citizenry.
If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed others echoing these sentiments (like this, from TheLaborOfLove.com, which is rather explicit in advising that the marriage should come before the children).
Putting your marriage first insures that your needs are being met. When you are on an airplane, the airline attendants always tell you to put the oxygen mask on yourself before putting it on your children, so that you are stable enough to help them. It is the same way with marriage. By keeping your marriage strong, you keep yourself strong and much better able to care for your children.
A couple of years ago one of the morning shows did a feature on a new book, written by two women (if memory serves correctly), that went into a good bit of detail making the same case. I can’t recall the name of the book or the authors, unfortunately, but when I saw the piece I noted that the tail-end of the Millennial generation was now off to school and that this narrative had arrived right on schedule.
Also right on schedule, the “Dangerous Book for Boys” and the “Daring Book for Girls,” each preaching an anti-helicopter parent message to let kids be kids.
(Jon + New Woman) – Kate + 8 = The Next Generation
So, what do the Gosselins have to do with any of this? In a nutshell, they are the most visible repudiation to date of the Child-Centric Curse. Here you have two parents, both late Xers, who have very publicly rejected the ideology of “kids first, come what may.” After drifting apart in full televised view of whomever happened to be bored enough to be watching TLC – and drifting rather painfully, it should be noted – Jon and Kate did the unthinkable: they decided that their personal relationship took precedence over what millions of appalled viewers must have seen as the “right thing to do.” They decided that they would not stay together for the children.
There weren’t a lot of shows like this on television ten years ago at the peak of the Millennial family era, and when I think about the parents of Mills that I know personally, I cannot imagine them divorcing. And honestly, I know some who probably should, because they are not happy together.
There’s no vast network conspiracy at play here, but the timing of the Gosselin split isn’t a complete accident, either. Societies evolve, trends rise and fall, one generation rebels against the values of the one before it, and as these macro-dynamics play out it’s natural that our large public stories should also shift to reflect the underlying realities. If you’d like to think about it Darwinian terms (or free market terms – same thing, pretty much), realize that at any given moment a zillion writers and producers are trying to get their shows on the air (or books published, or movies made, etc.) and this multiplicity of stories represents a broad array of thinking about the society at the particular moment. They can’t all get produced, though. On average, the ones that are going to be successful are the ones that strike a nerve with the audience. The most successful are the ones that resonate most strongly with the broadest set of viewers.
Jon and Kate started out as an interesting little show, but its audience grew, I think, as a result of the obvious tension between the couple. I don’t know how other viewers read the relationship, but every time I caught a snippet of the show (not often, I admit) I walked away wondering how in the hell those two were together. As the unraveling became more pronounced and rumors began hitting the tabloids, I wondered how Jon could possibly leave eight kids, no matter how badly he might grow to hate his wife.
But that was last-generational thinking on my part. We’re now entering an era where adults are going to be more unapologetic about asserting the importance of their own happiness and fulfillment. Get used to the message offered by the authors quoted above – children do not benefit when parents who don’t love each other stay together.
If you’d like to argue that it’s a sad thing when the harbinger of such an important cultural shift comes in the form of a reality television show (one that tells the story of a family that appalls me in more ways than I can quickly ennumerate), go ahead. But our popular culture is what it is, for better or worse, and cultural historians will be discussing the 2009 season of Jon & Kate Plus Eight for many years to come.