American Culture

Jon & Kate: a sign of the times to come

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.

9 replies »

  1. so, do you think divorce rates will increase among gen X? I see Xers as helicopter parents vs. Boomers who were self-centered. I’m not sure I’m tracking with you. You make several great points, but I’m a little confused. I see Gen X parents a being child-centered, which doesn’t support your thesis about the highly self-centered Gosselins. I’m sure you made your point well. I’m probalby just tired!

    • Jen: I don’t know that I think divorce rates will necessarily go up, although it’s a good question. So many of my contemporaries were pretty careful about getting married (I was 41 before I finally took the plunge myself) because they had grown up in decidedly non-Cleaver family environments. (Early Xers were often the children of Silent Generation parents, and they’re the ones the term “Me Generation” was coined to describe.) So on the whole I think X marriages work to be as responsible as possible. In some cases this may result in some bend-over-backwardness, but we’re also a really practical cohort and I think the idea that children don’t benefit from bad marriages is one that will make sense to us (and to early Millennial parents, as well).

      Conversations about things the size of generations can be confusing an unsatisfying, though, because there are always millions of exceptions. So you’re certainly right to poke at things that seem off to you. On particular dynamic in this kind of discussion is that in talking about the parents of Mills, you’re talking about both Boomers and Xers (early and late). Howe and Strauss discuss how early and late stages of a gen can vary because they’re being raised by the latter cohort of Gen A and the early cohort of Gen B, and that can make a big difference.

      So apologies for the slippage – part of it is probably me and the rest is probably unavoidable, to some degree.

      Thanks for dropping by.

  2. It’s kinda funny. In North Buffalo we watch kids on their bikes riding around all the time with no bike helmets. When I go to the burbs where I grew up the kids are practically wearing full body armor. Both area’s are similar income types (actually North Buffalo may be more affluent in spots), and the same helmet laws for children. What’s funny is how me and my brother used to jump everything with our BMX’s when we were kids, now he’s one of those people who make his kids wear body armor when they ride their bike.

  3. Great article Sam. Having a 21 year old bright kid, I’ve been around helicopter parents a lot. It is my contention that being a helicopter parent usually causes more harm to the kid than does good. Recently, I had a discussion with a Tribeca Mom(the worst sub species of helicopter parent), and she said that if her 3 year old didn’t get into the right pre-school, his life would be ruined. Her idea is that if he doesn’t get into the good preschool, forget about a good private K-12, and kiss Harvard goodbye. I couldn’t believe my ears listening to her….her obsession borders on child abuse. Somehow, I think that helicopter parents are living for themselves and have a desire to mold their kids into something that will be acceptable to them, and their peer group. I’ve witnessed the negative effects on the kids from having parents who hover, over stimulate, and over schedule their kids. Sometimes, it’s good for kids just to lay around and daydream and just look at the clouds. Personally, I believe in a rather laissez faire approach to child rearing, and in my son’s case, he’s turned out OK so far. He’s definitely not a clone of me, and is his own person in every sense of the word.

    Jeff

  4. I think I’m a bit confused. I’m probably just missing the point, as usual. Are you assuming that people who get a divorce are always placing their relationship with their spouse above their kids? What about people who get a divorce for the same reason? Not knowing the statistics, I can’t really say how common that is.

    I guess I just think think this is a very complicated issue. As you know, I’m a ‘product of divorce’ (and my mom is not particularly known for following generational trends). I’m not sure if it would have been “better” for me if they stayed together, though. Granted, I’m not exactly the most well adjusted person on the planet. Socially, I’m absolutely clueless. But I’m not sure how much of that has to do with my parent’s divorcing when I was very young, mild PTSD from living in Hawaii, genetics, or just being a wishy-washy pisces. Probably all of it.

  5. Mike: The big deal with J+K is less about the fact that they divorced – although doing so with 8 kids is certainly a story – and more about the narrative. Hey, divorce didn’t go away in 1980. The big deal here, if I didn’t state it clearly enough, is what this means for the “kids come first” narrative that has dominated our collective ideology for the last generation.

  6. Sam,

    Kids should play second fiddle, but in the sense that parents should empower them, but not make them the center of their universe. I’ve noticed that while this generation of kids might be cooperative, when parents take over their lives, it creates emotionally needy kids. Not to mention the undue pressure it puts on them trying to live up to the extremely high expectations of the hovering parents.. Although this is anecdotal, I noticed a significant proportion of kids at Exeter and Yale that developed various facial tics…..that’s undue pressure in my world..While I’m a far from perfect father, I always looked at the helicopter parents and tried to do the opposite with my son.

  7. Sam – these generational differences are indeed fascinating. I wonder how the current economic picture will effect these relationships. Multi-generations forced to live together certainly changes the dynamics of a household. (I grew up in a multi-generational household. It can be tough.)

    Helicoptering can have strong elements of economic privilege – after all it takes more resources to hover.

    Be interesting to watch this unfold – parenting a 15 year old myself is the biggest balancing act I’ve ever attempted!

  8. You know, Dawn, if economic conditions forced the return of the extended family, I suspect a lot of what has been written would need revising. Howe and Strauss’ analysis has covered everything since the US was founded, but obviously the more recent chapters in the tale have relied on an assumption of the nuclear family. ESPECIALLY the last three gens (Boom, X, Mill).

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