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Adding to the puzzle is the attitude of parents themselves. As much as parents rue their kids' disregard for courtesy, decency, and common sense, they semisecretly like, even celebrate, their offsprings' freewheeling ways. The contradictory nature of kids today makes parenting itself more complex than it used to be. It's more confusing for therapists, too, who are supposed to help parents take the correct tack with their kids. Old ideas about what constitutes "healthy" family dynamics, "appropriate" parental roles, and "reasonable" rules and regulations for kids just seem at odds with reality.
For example, 16-year-old Matt describes the way his buddies advise each other about romantic and ethical dilemmas. His mother is amazed that teen boys can be each other's emotional caretakers and show such a keen sense of relational ethics. Then, a minute later, she's shocked by her son's rampant, obscenity-laced homophobia; he sure didn't learn that from his liberal parents! The next moment, she reminds herself that some of Matt's closest buddies are openly gay.
Fourteen-year-old Mary's mother is awed by her daughter's ability to discuss just about everything with anybody; she herself was often shy and tongue-tied at that age. But Mom is confused about how to respond when her sweet-faced young daughter casually describes a friend's "going down" on a boy, and then segues into an offhanded discussion of what body part she's thinking about having pierced: navel? nose? lip?
Parents love their kids' expressiveness and the way they stand up for themselves, but cringe at their self-centeredness and sense of entitlement. Yet the same parents brag about how wholeheartedly kids take up worthy social and environmental causes. In home after home, we see children "greening" the family, or getting parents and siblings involved in neighborhood-service agencies and faith-centered charitable programs.
Even parents depleted by relentless negotiations—bargaining that begins as early as the nursery-school years—twinkle with pride when describing what a little "litigator" their elementary-school child has become. And kids continue to hone their skills. I recently sat with a mother and son during a session in which the mother tried to negotiate limits around her son's out-of-control screen time, while the 11-year-old nearly succeeded in convincing us that "research has shown" that video games increase brain development, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. I caught myself wondering whether I should increase the videogame time allotted for my kids, just to get a leg up in the college footrace!
More paradox: today's adults allow for backtalk that would have brought down the house in my generation's families. Only once did I say "shut up" to my parents at the kitchen table. A deafening silence followed, until my horror-stricken mother asked me, "What did you say?" "Nothing," I mumbled as my parents loomed above me and I imagined myself scurrying away under the floor. Yet most parents today, committed to keeping open the lines of communication with their children at all costs, display a tolerance of backtalk and attitude that previous generations would have marveled at. As one mother indignantly said, "Don't pass judgment on me, Ron. I'd rather put up with some cursing than have my kid stop telling me anything about what's going on in his life."
To be a parent today is to be regularly confused, dismayed, anxious, shocked, and furious, but also astonished, fascinated, entertained, impressed, and proud—sometimes in rapid succession. Trying to get it right while adrift in a sea of conflicting child-rearing fads, parents often hear that they're doing everything wrong, but even the criticisms are contradictory. They're faulted for being pressuring, wimpy, managerial, undercontrolling, and overcontrolling. They're accused of being helicopter parents, yet uninvolved—both pathology hunters and self-centered narcissists.
In spite of all this, most parents I meet, though buffeted by waves of severe self-doubt, more or less accept their kids as they are, and are committed to a roughly egalitarian relationship with them. They don't yearn for the old days of predictable order and top-down family authority. In fact, they seem guided by an entirely different, though imperfectly articulated, idea of good parent–child relationships, one that reconciles what most of us consider impossible contradictions: individual freedom with close family ties, a reliable sense of connection despite total anarchy, rules and accountability without family hierarchy, and quality time that doesn't take much time.