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|Bungee Families - Page 2|
The Beginning of a Paradigm Shift
From the 1960s onward, many boomers have consciously approached parenting with greater emphasis on connection and mutuality than our own parents did. In some kind of cohort reaction-formation, we started taking our exuberant 3-year-olds to dinner parties and asking our whiny 8-year-olds if they felt frustrated with us. Making up the rules as we went along, we were often sloppy and unclear about what the heck we were actually accomplishing, but in keeping with our values, we offered more empowerment and less hierarchy than we'd experienced. At the more absurd edges of this phenomenon, I remember hearing a mother beseech her fit-throwing 4-year-old to "Find your limits, Maggie," and I once treated a couple who'd resorted to having sex on top of the dryer because their young kids wouldn't leave the family bed.
Unlike our own parents, we've been doing away with all that hierarchy stuff and blurring the generational lines as rapidly as we can. Note how deftly we've passed along the three big markers of our youth: extramarital sex, recreational (and prescription) drugs, and the primal pleasure of good rock and roll. There's plenty of evidence for diminishing generational differences in many other spheres, too. Far more than our parents did with us, we function as a single sociocultural body, and are less apt to highlight the distinct and conflicting generational divides. We share with our kids our ideas about politics ("Yes We Did!"), casual language ("Don't dis this idea"), designer coffee, moral relativism, love of denim, and, perhaps most important, a mutual desire for this greater intimacy. Skeptics can suggest that we're suffering from steroidal narcissism, combined with delusions of eternal coolness, but they're looking at the new family paradigm through an outdated lens.
According to Jeffrey Arnett of Clark University, a pioneer researcher on emerging adulthood, the relationships between parents and their young adults are closer than at any time since before World War II. Similarly, a recent national survey of adolescents found that 80 percent enjoyed tight connections with their mothers; fathers fared less well, but still came out at a respectable 70 percent. Perhaps to the annoyance of the individuation diehards, these teens don't seem to be defining themselves by rejecting their parents and their parents' choices—and they appear to be growing up pretty well anyway.
Take a look at a favorite subject of widespread media derision: the clingy "helicopter parents," who stay directly and continually involved with their college kids. Surely, these parents, by refusing to let go and get lost, must be keeping college-going offspring from growing up. But when Jillian Kinzie, lead researcher for the National Survey of Student Engagement, recently attempted to tally the damage, surveying students at 750 colleges, she was astonished to discover that those with those highly involved parents tended to be more satisfied with their colleges, more engaged in their own learning, more collaborative, and more likely to interact with faculty members than students with less hovering parents. Another body blow to the old paradigm!
Growing numbers of the emerging adults (and parents) I treat are trying to stay deeply connected, rather than separate from each other. These days, I'm working to support them, rather than to challenge their dependence, as I might once have done. For example, Kelly, a 23-year-old recovering addict, recently told me that her parents would get anxious if they hadn't heard from her for 48 hours. Her parents help her pay for renting a room in town so she can be somewhat on her own, but she stays overnight with them quite frequently, whenever she wants to. I asked her to tell me how she made sense of their worrying, half expecting her to say she was feeling crowded and mistrusted by them, or angry that they didn't see how far she'd come. Instead, she explained that she was really glad they were fretting because after a couple of days without contact, she did begin to feel less stable, and they were right to point it out.
In an earlier time, I'd have wanted Kelly to disengage from feeling responsible for their anxiety and would have pushed harder to get her on her own two feet. I might have suggested to her parents that they back off and even encourage her to stay in her apartment for longer stretches so she could show them her ability to function as an adult. But right now, this consistent contact keeps everyone better regulated. Kelly isn't using drugs, and she demonstrates a different kind of maturity. She can recognize and name what she needs to be safe, and she appreciates her parents' help. They aren't being overprotective, as I might once have argued: they're providing her with the secure love she needs to take hold of her life.