Recently Mister Boomer heard an interview with an author on the radio. While he immediately forgot what the book was about, he was struck by one thing the author said that resonated with him. She stated that today’s parents spend much more time with their kids than her parents — Baby Boomer parents — did in the 1950s and ’60s. Mister Boomer immediately thought, “She’s right!” What has changed to make today’s parents spend appreciably more time with their children?
First there is the schedule. The lives of today’s kids seem to be timed to the hour. With both parents working, there aren’t too many other choices for busy parents. As a result, kids are constantly being chauffeured to play dates, all types of classes, sports practice and games. Usually one parent takes on a particular task for a neighborhood group, but the result is more time spent with the kids just going to and fro various destinations, even if it is in a car (SUV or minivan).
By contrast most boomers had no schedule whatsoever, other than going to school and coming home, and having family dinners. Some boomers were required to do homework after school, before heading outside in the short window between school ending and dinner time. During summer vacations we were on our own time, except for a week or two when family vacations were planned. If we participated in sports, we found our own way to practice and games — usually by bicycle. Likewise, wherever else we went — to the movies, stores or friends’ houses — we found our own way there and back. Even if our moms wanted to drive us, the vast majority of households only had one car. As a result, our parents often had no idea where we were, and they were fine with that.
Second, today’s parents have a fear of the threat of violent crime against their children. Perhaps it is the immediacy of the media and the Internet that fuels this fear, since crimes we would never have heard about 50 years ago are now instantaneously broadcast around the globe. While violent crime has dropped per capita dramatically since the boomer days of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, it is true that the sheer numbers are higher, due to the fact that more than 100 million more people live in the country today than fifty years ago. The U.S. population in 1960 was approximately 191 million, while today it is around 310 million. While there are still huge, wide open spaces in the country, most people live in cities, which are increasing in density.
Fifty years ago crimes might be reported in the police blotter of your local newspaper each week, but it would have to be a particularly heinous crime to make it on to the evening news. Even though our parents held similar fears — we did have to watch those “don’t take candy from strangers” films in school, after all — they had an inherent trust in society at large — that every adult was watching out for everyone else’s kids, and would help if necessary.
Third, it may be that parents want to spend more time with their kids. Some say this is out of guilt for their demanding work schedules, while others think it is the development of the overprotective “helicopter parent” that is the reason. Mister B also thinks some parents want to be more a part of their kids’ lives as a reaction to their own upbringing. Then there is the phenomena of wanting to be a friend as much as a parent.
Boomer parents approached parenting much the way their parents did a generation earlier in that a child was, after the “age of reason” of about seven or eight, left to discover life’s challenges on their own. Adults were separate from the kids, often with the kids relegated to other rooms during family gatherings so the adults could talk among themselves. There was a line between the generations, so the thought of a parent being a child’s best friend was nowhere near as prevalent as today. Since child-rearing was thought to be a woman’s job, fathers in particular could be perceived as cold and distant compared to today’s dads.
The other default boomer parents could fall back onto was that practically every family had multiple children. The oldest children had the assignment of looking after their younger siblings whenever they were together, which could be often. Whether that meant walking to school together or hanging out in groups where children of different ages were present, the older child bore the brunt of a tag-a-long or two.
Fourth, there is communication. Today’s parents can get in touch with their kids at any time in multiple ways. Texts, cellphone calls and even GPS apps pinpointing their children’s whereabouts give the communication edge to today’s parents. If a child is away visiting relatives or at a sleepover, video chats are another possibility.
In our day we were expected to always have a dime handy in case we needed to call home. That was our only means of communication over a distance, whether it was across town or a few states away.
There may be other sociological reasons for the shift in parental thinking. Mister B was told by one parent that she felt compelled to drive her son to everything he did because her subdivision didn’t have sidewalks, and neither did the busy roads that sat just outside the neighborhood. In the 1980s and ’90s, many developers thought it was a good idea to eliminate sidewalks, saving the cost when so few people seemed to use them. Thankfully that trend is reversing now.
The two generations before the Baby Boomers were transitional ones from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Baby Boomers lived mostly in suburbs, not on farms. They didn’t have farm chores to do any more, and mothers had more time thanks to space-age appliances and food technology. Yet the leisure time parents began to acquire was not appreciably spent with their children. Is it possible that it took a couple of generations for parental thinking to catch up with the change?
How do you perceive the shift in parental thinking on time spent with kids over the past fifty years, boomers?