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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Teacher's Guide to Generation X Parents

How to work with well-meaning but demanding moms and dads.
By Susan Gregory Thomas
Credit: Jessica Hische

Not long ago, administrators at a small private school in New York City were reorganizing two mixed-grade elementary classrooms. Looking at the third grade, they determined that one girl was particularly well suited to switch from one class to the other: She was adaptable and genial and loved working with teachers and friends. The administrators called the girl's mother, assuming she would be flattered.

Wrong. The mother was distraught: Her daughter had started at the school only last year! She would be leaving friends in the other classroom! She had enrolled her daughter in private school for its stability and intimacy -- not for disruption! The administrators didn't understand what had been happening at home!

The mother, in tears, needed to have a conference -- now. Educators were stunned. Who was this mother?

That would be me, and here's why: I am a Generation X parent, a member of a demographic that has been making teachers' and school administrators' jobs a pain in the butt for more than a decade.

The Pendulum Swings

Born between 1965 and 1979, Generation X counts for about 48 million people in the United States, a group that's a sociological sentence fragment compared with its predecessors, the baby boomers (1946–1964), and with Generation Y (1980–2001), which followed it.

But size, as they say, isn't everything -- as parents, I daresay you teachers have known who we are from day one. In preschool, we're the ones anxiously arranging developmentally appropriate playdates for our Siouxsie-and-the-Banshees-T-shirt-clad three-year-olds. In kindergarten, we're frantic that other parents' children are starting to read cat and rat, while our Ruby and Dylan are still having trouble identifying lowercase letters. We think the gold-star system and its ilk are archaic and punitive, and we want to have a meeting to present our suggestions for alternative achievement systems.

By grade school, we're demanding to know why the math program is not challenging enough for our child. We email our complaints about the seating chart. We openly deride the arts instruction and may rally other parents to the point of a coup d'état. By middle school, our kids have schedules and professional support staffs that resemble those of corporate lawyers. Look out, high school: We're coming.

Why are we so obnoxious, self-righteous, implacable? When I was working on a book about very young children and the marketing industry (Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds), I learned more than I'd ever wanted to know about Generation X as parents.

But the most important discovery was relearning a truism from Psychology 101: If you want to know what's unhealed from your own childhood, have children. Key to decoding our parental behavior is understanding that we are, albeit often unconsciously, doing for our children what no one did for us.

For starters, we are ferocious advocates for our kid. "One of the chief things I've noticed is the demand for power from these parents," says Betty Staley, program director of Waldorf high school teacher education at Rudolf Steiner College, in Fair Oaks, California. "They demand to be involved in making decisions for their kid -- even interviewing potential teachers -- regardless of what is good for the group."

A Neglected Generation

A little background here: Generation X, according to a 2004 study conducted by marketing-strategy and research firm Reach Advisors, "went through its all-important formative years as one of the least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history." Little wonder: Half of all Gen Xers' parents are divorced. We were the first to be raised in record numbers in day care, and some 40 percent of us were latchkey kids.

We've been taking care of ourselves since we started going to school, and we don't trust authority figures, because they weren't trustworthy when we were growing up. Our parents didn't know what was going on at school, and our teachers didn't know what was going on at home. We're not going to let this happen to our children -- not even for a second. We'll do whatever we have to do to make sure our kids get what they need.

"They'll go over your head if they don't get the results they want from you," says Anita Thomas, who taught science in a public school in Beaufort, South Carolina. That makes sense, says Lisa Chamberlain, author of Slackonomics: Generation X in the Age of Creative Destruction. "Anything that smacks of bureaucratic red tape or protocol is an irritant," she explains. "We had to fend for ourselves, which is great if you're an entrepreneur, but not when you're a parent."

This also may explain why Gen X parents are so quick to whip together a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation to show you how to reorganize your classroom, even the entire school. Remember, we're the technology-revolution generation, and we're familiar with making presentations in front of venture capitalists.

That kind of know-it-all-ism makes sense, too. "Boomer parents assumed that since they had turned out fine, their kids would, too," continues Chamberlain. "Gen X doesn't have that assumption -- we've seen what it's like to have the rug pulled out from underneath us."

Indeed, economic collapse has punctuated every milestone of our adult lives. When we graduated from high school in the 1980s, Wall Street fell. When we graduated from college, the first Bush recession made jobs impossibly scarce. When we started having children, the Nasdaq crashed. When we finally bought our own homes, the housing bubble burst.

The Good Fight

We can also be a little snotty. Another common teacher complaint is that Gen X parents rebel against worksheet-based homework, or kvetch that the curriculum isn't challenging, rich, or imaginative enough.

"A lot of Gen Xers have this artisanal affectation, which comes from having sought out the margins of mass culture in independent bookstores, record shops, politics," says Jeff Gordinier, editor at large of Details magazine and author of X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking. "For many Gen Xers, the education that defines us is the one we got for ourselves, outside of school."

As adults, however, we seem to want schools to do everything: provide our children with rigorous academic instruction, socialize them flawlessly, and offer them the rich cultural experiences we value so much. We're angry and disappointed when they fall short of our impossible expectations.

Poignantly, at the heart of all Gen X parental behavior is probably what it is for all neglected children. "Generation X is looking to teachers and schools to heal childhood wounds," observes Waldorf educator Betty Staley. It may not be fair, but it's true. We want you to pay attention to us, to take us seriously -- to give us your time.

In the end, the school administrators kept my daughter in her original classroom. But it wasn't because I'd threatened a tantrum. I had, they said, given them information that helped them make the decision in "her best interest." In other words, we listened to each other.

Solve for X

With all this context, knowing more or less why we act the way we do, here are a few tips on how to cope with our lot:

Listen to Us

As insufferable as we can be at first contact, listen to us first. We may look and act like adults, but there is a part of us that still feels like a neglected kid inside. Paying attention to our concerns may be a little more time consuming, but the effort will pay off. We're loyal allies, and we love to be helpful.

Include Us

Invite us to teach in the classroom for an afternoon. Or assign students free-choice homework one night a week, to be completed with a parent. Many Gen Xers are genuine intellectuals with interesting ideas and hobbies. We'd love to share them!

Put Us to Work

We share your passion for making schools more successful learning environments. Besides letting us help you in class or share a homework assignment with our kids, harness our energy by asking us to help plan a field trip or do background research or otherwise help you prepare a class project.

Give Us Limits

"I let parents know that I'm always willing to listen to their concerns, but that there are certain issues that are negotiable and others that just aren't," says Shelly Wolf Scott, an administrator at Brooklyn's Rivendell School. Parents are not allowed to alter their children's classroom placement, curriculum, or administrative decisions.

They are, however, permitted to offer information about their child that the school might not know and that could assist in making such decisions. "This group of parents seems to respond well to those boundaries," she says.

Work with Us

"Parents don't seem to know how incredibly carefully all teachers and administrators think about their children," says Lynn Levinson, assistant director of Upper School (and a parent of two) at the Maret School, in Washington, DC. "I always reassure them that I know how many conversations have revolved around these children and their classmates, so I know that it's the right decision, even if I'm not happy with it as a parent."

Susan Gregory Thomas has written for U.S. News & World Report and the Washington Post.

Comments (66)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

LS's picture

[quote]Gen X'ers are not the children of baby boomers. I am the outer edge of Gen X, being born in 1965, my parents were part of the so-called, Silent Generation (children during WWII). I'm not sure that half of that generation is divorced although it is the first generation where larger numbers women were beginning to work outside of the home (which contributed to latchkey status for children). Some dispute exists about whether Millennials (Gen Y), the schoolchildren you are talking about today, are by and large children of Baby Boomers or Gen Xer's or both. If Gen Y begins as the author notes in 1980, people as old as 30 are in this generational cohort (certainly these are not the children of Gen Xers). So today's school children are the products of three generations at least (Baby Boom, X and Y). So, while the psychological underpinnings of the author's thesis are interesting, their usefulness as a working theory is questionable. One might do better to consider the client/customer model and business language adopted by many educators (certainly in Eastern cities) as a contributing factor.[/quote]

As a Gen-Xer, I find today's parents to be self-entitled and irresponsible -- worse than the kids.
Am I atypical? Perhaps.
My parents were Depression kids and not self-centered Boomers, so I find more in common with the principles of that age set than my own.
Likewise with Xers with non-Boomer parents.

Catherine Falknor's picture
Catherine Falknor
Secondary School ESOL and College English

I don't agree with the above administrator's comments. I am weary of teachers applauding this simplistic attitude toward parents. It may sting when they say things they claim they'd recant after, but trying to see it from parents' points of view is essential. Going the extra mile to reach a partnership is worth it, since these parents are very helpful in carrying out the learning that needs to be continued/buttressed at home.

Xer parent of 3's picture

This article amounts to a prolonged tantrum about unresolved childhood issues! There is no seeking for a common ground. The article describes vividly the interaction between Gen X parent and the teacher/school, but where is the child in this dialogue? Where is space for the child to grow and learn outside the shadow of the long ago neglected child/parent? And the "practical tips" for teachers at the end are at its core therapeutic active listening skills. All this for the parents? Shouldn't we be applying active listening skills to our children and students? This article is not about education. It's more about the author's wounded child than anything else. Let's shift the focus back to education.

Patrick's picture

The classroom model seems to presuppose a certain trust in the teachers who are responsible for your children. This goes beyond safety and socialization. Children spend at least as much time around teachers as they do around parents and the psychological/emotional states of those teachers have a direct impact on their students whether they want it to or not. Similarly, the faculty culture of a school serves as a model for the social culture of the students again, even if unconsciously. It is not wise to harass and pressure teachers to the point of bitterness and breakdown, this has a direct, adverse affect on the health of the child.

Patrick's picture

Children spend at least as much time around teachers as parents and the emotional state of those teachers have a direct impact on those children. Likewise, the social culture of the faculty acts as a model to the children's social culture. Harassing teachers to the point of bitterness and breakdown and politicizing schools to the point of backbiting and power-plays has a direct effect on the values and welfare of children. You wouldn't distract and verbally assault a pilot as he's landing your plane, why would you want to do that to a teacher as he/she is educating your child?

Elizabeth Barba's picture

I must say i think i agree with this article but i also think it would be great to have more parents like this. better an obnoxious parent than an absent parent. i rather have a parent that wants to be involved than one who doesnt care much about the happennings of their child school or class.

Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
English teacher

Well, hey, now. As an involved parent, I've been crusading to win support from other parents, community members and school board members for project-based learning, social and emotional learning, collaborative and experiential learning, and other education innovations championed by Edutopia. I want great schools for all kids, not just my own, and I feel I'm supporting teachers when I defend their efforts to develop children's creativity and critical thinking skills. I always try to be respectful of my children's teachers' decisions, even when they might differ from what I would do.

So many articles and discussion threads on this site have asked how to involve parents more in their children's education and engage them in fostering better schools (as these parents did: http://www.edutopia.org/parents-activism-urban-public-schools), and yet many of the comments on this article seem to be asking how to get parents to go away and leave education to the professionals. What's a parent to do?

Eric Zeissig's picture

Great article, but I must say, as frustrating as it may be at times, we should be thankful for the parents that challenge us. Okay, I admit, I am a GenX'er, so I get it. So you might understand why I too would rather have a parent who is involved (even if that seems like too much) in their child's education than one that isn't. Sometimes we get stuck in our ways, not necessarily keeping up with the times. Working with such parents forces us to think out of the box, helping us come up with ways to keep instruction from getting stale, and modify or methods so that we can better meet the needs of all children.

As the article mentions, we should have certain non-negotiables, but beyond those there is no reason you shouldn't take a moment to listen and collaborate with parents. In my experience, a parent gets nasty because they think there is no one listening or doing anything about their problem. We should take time at every meeting (be it IEP meeting, parent conference, etc.) to thank parents for their participation. You might get a suspicious look or comment from the more outspoken ones, but it's important to let them to know that their input is truly valued.

Isn't collaborative problem-solving one of the behaviors we are trying to model for our students anyway?

Melinda Cameron's picture
Melinda Cameron
Elementary Gen/Sp Ed. Certified

I'm almost certain MOST (or even better yet) ALL of Gen X does not live life under the impression they are "Entitled" or that "The World Owes Them" for their terrible childhood. It's actually quite the opposite in my opinion. I am a Gen Xer and I am 100% certain my childhood taught me more than it should have but I feel fortunate today. It took some time all the way into my college years but finally I realized I was meant to grow stronger and wiser (Even though my mother died when I was 4 and my father dying before I was 10). I have respect for those who face difficult times. But my respect is MORE for those who (eventually) realize they can become a better person through their struggles. I LOVE who I am today and by no means do I feel "the world owes me" (Gen Xers are tough and I never met anyonne who regrets learning all that we had to ). The main purpose of this article (and please correct me if I'm wrong) was to bring awareness of what types of parents evolved from Gen X so teachers could be more effective at building strong parent/teacher/student relations. The best teachers are the ones who take the time to really UNDERSTAND their student's needs and strengths based on many aspects (surely we all know that). The author did a great job to define Generation X based on facts and statistics. To me it was quite clear that she was trying to EXPLAIN why Gen X parents are the way they are today so we can then better understand our students. Yes, GEN X might have some issues but (come on people) who doesn't. Peace

Joseph Burke's picture
Joseph Burke
Senior Agriscience major, future teacher!

My mother is a Gen-Xer and she definitely did many of the things that are mentioned in the article but I am incredibly appreciative of that. In the 3rd grade I had a teacher that said because of my dyslexia I would be lucky if I could get a job flipping burgers at McDonald's. She didn't stand for it and I later found out she would mail all of my successes to the teacher and still does to this day. In a year I will have a classroom of my own and I hope that all of my parents are that interested and absorbed in their child's education. It seems like a challenge that works best for developing their children, bring it on!

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