Saturday, February 25, 2012

Helpless Generation? A Response to Mickey Goodman

I just read "Are We Raising a Generation of Helpless Children?" by Mickey Goodman over at HuffPo. The basic argument is that Gen Y students are self-centered, overly dependent upon their helicopter parents, and strangers to failure.

Rescue helicopter
From odolphie

She sums it up with four major problems: 1) telling these kids to dream big has left them unable to recognize the small steps it takes to get there 2) these kids have heard they're special without that specialness being attached to any qualities 3) these kids grew up with "every comfort" and now expect instant gratification and 4) these kids focus on happiness as a goal instead of the fulfilled life that produces happiness.

Then she offers some solutions including letting kids fail when they're young, balancing autonomy and responsibility, and not doing children's homework for them.

I'm not saying that I'm against Goodman's entire argument. She opens her article up with some stories of entitled children: a girl who calls her mother in the middle of a college class when she receives a C- and the mother demands to speak to the teacher, a kid who was accompanied by a parent on a job interview and the parent is upset that the kid didn't get the job. As someone who teaches college students, I've had some encounters that left me nodding my head as I read this section.

I once had a student who missed class nine times in the first half of the semester (which is technically enough to fail for attendance alone). His midterm F woke him up and he worked really hard the second half of the semester. Then he cussed me out and threatened to get his parents involved when he ended up with a B- for the year. He argued that his A work later in the semester should cancel out his F work at the beginning. Sigh.

But I do have an issue with Goodman's assertion that all Gen Yers are recipients of this overprotection and entitlement.

Technically, my husband and I are Gen Y. The article defines it as being born between 1984 and 2002. We were born in 1985.

We were talking after looking at this article and remarked on how this has very little in common with our upbringings. We were certainly encouraged when we were young, but we were never led to believe that we couldn't fail and we were never led to believe that success was a guarantee. We are both first-generation college students, and our successes were celebrated, but not seen as a given. And I cannot even imagine a situation in which my parents would have done my homework for me.

But maybe since we are so early on the spectrum we didn't get the full brunt of this helicopter parenting phenomenon. Still, I work with dozens of students every day. For every student who demands I give them an A when they miss nine classes, there is a student who is working so hard it makes my heart ache.

I've met students who are in college against their parents wishes because their parents see college as a waste of time. They want these students back home working in the family business instead of out chasing some pipe dream, even when those students are getting straight A's and doing graduate-level research as sophomores. I am not exaggerating.

I've met students whose parents are caring, but who grew up in such poverty that helicopter parenting was simply not a possibility. I've met students whose parents worked three jobs and were rarely home, students whose parents were also raising nieces and nephews and couldn't helicopter for lack of physical resources, students whose parents' definition of "dream big" meant staying out of prison, where many of the children from the neighborhood ended up.

I've also met students whose parents were not caring--parents who ignored their children or abused them. For these students, college is an escape, a fresh start.

And I've met plenty of students whose circumstances were not extreme, but who were taught the value of hard work and that success was no guarantee. I've had many students who approach me after getting a D and say not "how dare you?" but "how can I do better?"

All that to say that Goodman is probably pointing to a real phenomenon, but pretending that it is "a generation of helpless children," focuses only on a narrow segment of the American population. Perhaps this phenomenon is more pronounced among suburban, affluent families (though I'd be willing to bet there's more variation there than we think) but I do not think this model of parenting is very common outside of that demographic, and acting as if that narrow segment makes for a whole "generation" pushes the rest of us into invisibility.


  1. You need a period after "exaggerating," but other than that, I agree with most of your points. Does this make our children Gen Z?

    1. Thanks. I'll add the period.

      Yeah. Our kids are Gen Z, but there's some argument over when Gen Y ends and Z begins.

  2. I've seen Gen Y defined as 1980- 2000, so I guess there's some argument about where X ends and Y begins, too? I'm in that gray area where some sources would say I'm Y and others X. My baby brother on the other hand is firmly Gen Y (born in the early 90s). I think that it's a fine old tradition to rail about how the latest generation is degenerative in some way (Boomers are the Me Generation for instance because they are all supposedly self-centered and entitled, but even if I can't pull it up right now I know I've seen stuff going back at least a hundred and some odd years off on the same stuff).