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My wife and I, both 36, are expecting our first child, a boy, this coming April. Our emotions are a mix of joy and fear, enthusiasm and pause, hope and anxiety. We are simultaneously awaiting the greatest gift of our lives and bracing for a sleep-depriving time bomb to explode. We’ve been told, repeatedly and at length, that this is perfectly normal.
The logistical preparation is worry-free: The baby’s room has been determined, most of the furniture selected, and our soon-to-be son’s three living grandparents reside within babysitting distance. Check, check, and check.
That leaves the longer-term question of how to go about actually raising this kid. And with less than four months to go, I – uber-opinionated me, who often writes op-eds that read more like papal encyclicals – am completely void of any ideas toward a comprehensive parenting strategy.
I don’t even know where to start. Besides seeming overwhelming in general, the process of combining broad, proven parenting practices with subjective, far more personalized principles has no defined, logical point of commencement.
Rather, I find myself in a pre-planning phase – certainly remedial, hopefully helpful – with which, I hope, other formerly expecting parents can sympathize. Specifically, I have strong feelings about what type of parent I don’t want to be.
Before I broadly bash the hellscape of shoddy modern-day childrearing, allow me to point a finger squarely at the mirror. I do not want my son to follow in my flawed footsteps. Motherless since age three, I was raised by a father from a broken, alcoholic home, one who struggled mightily at parenting for lack of example. I grew up angry, afraid, and alone. The result was a 20-something man-child with untreated depression, anxiety disorder, and, eventually, alcoholism.
As it stands, my four years of sobriety does not a role model make. In terms of sound parenting practices, the only valuable takeaway is a solemn determination that no son of mine will replay the mistreated, misguided, and altogether miserable childhoods of his father and grandfather before him.
That leaves me looking out into the world around me for input, and I can’t say I’m in love with what I’m seeing.
Me Me Me first
The most obvious and immediate subject matter is Generation Y. Though it seems like tiresome target practice to pile on the already much-maligned Millennials, the set of young adults a decade or so my junior is, quite simply, the latest and therefore freshest crop of humanoids available to fully showcase parental handiwork. I can’t judge the parents of a ten-year-old because… well… the kid’s 10 for God’s sake.
To retread all traits good and bad associated with Gen Y is unfair in its generalization, and unhelpful in its inconclusive verdict. I’ve alternately liked and disliked Millennials displaying a range of opposing tendencies: some lazy, others diligent; some cookie-cutter, others creative; some wise beyond their years, others 25-year-old children with checkbooks.
But far above all others, one trait is shared by the vast majority of Millennials I’ve known: self-absorption. And though self-absorption is certainly nothing new to our American way of life – Baby Boomers, after all, were given the moniker “The Me Generation” in the 1960s – there’s a reason that, two years ago, Time magazine titled its Gen Y cover story “The Me Me Me Generation.”
When such a trait is so overwhelmingly found among young adults, it is almost certainly the result of broad, sign-of-the-times parenting. This is nurture, not nature.
Millennials are the result of an extreme, low-altitude form of helicopter parenting buttressed with perpetual, dubiously warranted praise. They are the participation trophy generation – an undeservedly confident set that, far too often, never learned what their special talents were because, they were told, they were so damn good at everything.
Self-esteem – liking oneself, flaws and all – is healthy; self-assuredness – pompous confidence in one’s own supremacy despite clear signs to the contrary – is not, because that mindset doesn’t foster a hunger for knowledge and personal growth that, for example, any 22-year-old recent college graduate should exude. No son of mine is going to enter the real world thinking he knows everything, or that he’s special to anyone except his family, because making him think otherwise would set him up for a series of avoidable rude awakenings.
Especially in their adolescent years, Millennials also were shaped by the Internet, social media, and on-demand entertainment, each perpetually available through requisite gadgetry like smartphones and iPads. As technology gets increasingly and exponentially sophisticated, those growing up behind Gen Y – my son’s generation – will experience ubiquitous, potentially inescapable connectivity in ways we’re only beginning to see take shape. It already seems too inundating – too noisy, too disruptive, too constant – and it’s only going to get more saturating.
Some of the parental pitfalls associated with this cyber-omnipotence are already common knowledge. Bullying is no longer limited to playgrounds, while violent and pornographic content is far too accessible to impressionable youths.
What worries me just as much is the expansion of consumerism – or, rather, its expanded meaning. Today’s consumerism isn’t just a frenzied collection of extraneous, superfluous items, but also a frenzied collection of extraneous, superfluous experiences. Smartphones, iPads, social media, and 500 channels of mostly mindless television combine to form a fool’s paradise where no one ever has to be bored for a single second.
We’ve all seen stories about the best ideas coming in the shower. Undoubtedly, an important factor is that the shower is one of the few remaining times we’re actually disconnected for 10 consecutive minutes… at least until someone, inevitably, invents an iShower.
This isn’t only eating away at attention spans, but fueling the unattractive notion that we somehow deserve to be entertained 24/7 – that the world should cater to us, at our beck and call. No son of mine is going to feel so entitled that he can’t stomach sitting silent for five minutes. Patience is a virtue I wish I possessed in far more plentiful reserve.
True or false?
Adding to my concern about the ever-present media is its ever-declining content.
Any reasonably-responsible parent can warn their kids that, for example, what they read on the Internet isn’t necessarily true. It’s easy to communicate that the World Wide Web has opened the door for anyone to become a blogger, and that some people online, just like some people in real life, simply don’t know what they’re talking about.
Today’s media landscape requires far more than such a standard disclaimer. We live in a bitterly partisan society divided not only by differing opinions but, to an extent unprecedented in modern times, by facts and morality. Settled science like climate change and evolution is somehow disputed. Bigotry and racism are not only tolerated but encouraged.
The media is fully complicit. Under the guise of telling “both sides” of any given story, news outlets give weight – sometimes inadvertently, but often purposefully – to things that simply aren’t true. The result is a free-for-all where even reasonably intelligent adults are either hoodwinked or, equally dangerous, disgusted to the point where they completely disengage, abandoning responsibilities of informed citizenry such as voting, protesting, and supporting worthy causes.
This essay has no clean conclusion; that was never the point. Hopefully, it at least provides a few counterpoints – some bad examples and unhealthy trends for me to be mindful of as my baby becomes a boy, my boy a young man. For now, “I’ll do my best” is the best I can offer.
No son of mine will have a father who doesn’t, at least, try.
This was originally published January 2016 in The Good Men Project.