Ideas that are destroying America: The Caitlin Flanagan Edition

Oh boy. Here it is, barely days before the start of a new school year, and yet another article about helicopter parenting has come out. Hooray. One of its more memorable drop quotes comes in its second paragraph, on teenage rebellion:

Kids don’t rebel against their parents anymore; why would they? Would you rebel against the concierge at the Hyatt?

Speaking as an individual who has taught high school for my entire life, I can tell you one thing: the above statement is complete, utter bullshit. I have worked with hundreds of teenagers, and I can assure you that they’re all rebelling just fine. In fact, when you encounter that rare teen who isn’t rebelling–the one whose relationship with his or her parents is warm, connected, and supportive, and who listens when they offer advice or feedback–as a teacher you lean forward and pay close attention. What are these parents doing right, that their kids actually listen to them?

Anyways, that second paragraph made it clear that this essay is pure bullshit. I could, from here, simply talk about all the ways in which this article is pure bullshit, discussing the complete lack of evidence or examples, and so on, and so on.

But that’s not really the problem with this article. Not only is this article bullshit, it’s dangerous bullshit. It is Bullshit That Is Destroying America. Let me explain.

1. Caitlin Flanagan is Destroying America Because She is Perpetuating Unnecessary Parent-Shaming. 

I’ve worked with parents a lot in my career, and I’ve seen a lot of parents through very, very difficult situations. Sometimes, their kid is in dire academic straits, having fallen behind by more than a grade level or having failed multiple classes in high school. Other times, their kid was struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. Or their kid was just severely depressed, upset, or anxious. Or, most of the time, their kid is just a normal teenager, and even being a normal teenager is hard on everybody in the family.

In all these situations, I’ve observed a common anxiety in parents. They all love their children more than anything else in the world, and they feel extraordinarily responsible for everything that happens to their children. And they feel both of these powerful emotions while at the same time feeling utterly powerless to influence their children’s behavior.

It would be easy for me as a teacher and think-piece author to say that this last bit is a cop-out, that clearly there are things that these parents could (and should!) be doing to ensure that their children have better outcomes. Maybe they should be paying more attention, or maybe they need to be less overbearing, or maybe they’re too permissive, or maybe they’re not with it in the way that they should be.

But the thing is, as I’ve worked with more and more students, I’ve come to see that parents’ feelings of powerlessness are completely and totally accurate. As important as parental influences are–and they’re probably the most important single external influence on a child’s life–in the grand scheme of things they don’t really account for much. Children are influenced by so many other things: school, peers, TV, music, random encounters on the street, and so on. And this isn’t even accounting at all for the fact that, in the midst of all those influences, children still get to make their own choices about what they listen to, what they do, and how they spend their time.

In my career, I’ve seen incredibly permissive parents raise well-adjusted academic superstars. I’ve seen “good” parents who establish limits and consequences raise drug addicts. I honestly haven’t observed any real correlation between parenting choices and teenaged outcomes.

This is why I think the kind of parent-shaming in which Flanagan indulges is such a dangerous thing. In our culture, parents of teenagers really badly need support and sympathy. They need the rest of us to let them off the hook for the things they can’t control, so that they’re able to focus on those things that they can control. They also need us to let them off the hook so that they can actually take a moment, and be present, and enjoy the teeny tiny amount of time they have on this planet with their children.

Instead, we get articles like this one.

2. Caitlin Flanagan is destroying America by giving us one more straw man to burn. 

Without once providing an example, or citing a study, or anything, Flanagan neatly divides the world of affluent parents of teenagers:

Good Parents think that alcohol is dangerous for young people and that riotous drunkenness and its various consequences have nothing to recommend them. These parents enforce the law and create a family culture that supports their beliefs.

Get-Real Parents think that high-school kids have been drinking since Jesus left Chicago, and that it’s folly to pretend the new generation won’t as well… On the nights of big high-school events, Get-Real Parents pay for limos, party buses, Ubers—whatever it takes to ensure that their kids are safe. What is an Uber except a new kind of bike helmet?

In a way, this distinction serves as a wonderful illustration of why we seem to love parent-shaming so much as a culture. When any author or public intellectual creates a binary opposition such as this, there’s always the desirable group and the undesirable group. The smart, moral, hard-working parents and the loony, immoral, lazy parents.

From the audience’s point of view, a division like this is an invitation to feel superior to someone else. It’s a way to place yourself in a category with all the other good people like you so that you can feel righteous indignation towards those in that second category.

It’s a seductive feeling, honestly. Nothing feels better than thinking–no, knowing–that you’re better than someone else.

This is probably why Flanagan so carefully avoids providing any examples. Because as soon as you have an individual, a person with a name, a face, a story all their own–as soon as you have all that, you have to feel some sympathy for their plight. You have to make some effort to understand why they made the choices they did, some effort to understand how they must feel in dealing with the consequences.

Reducing other people to a caricature, though, requires none of that. So we can pile on with glee.

That, of course, is why these stupid, stupid articles blaming all our social woes on coddled millennials and helicopter parents keep coming out, and thus the vicious cycle of guilt (“Am I coddling my kids too much? Am I not coddling them enough?”) and shame (“At least I’m not as bad as those people…”) continues unabated. It’s my sincere hope as a parent and teacher that, someday, it will break, and we can all simply be kinder to each other.



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