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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

Ken Morrill Jr's picture

As a member of Gen X, an artist, a moderate bohemian, and lover of fringe culture, I completely understand some of Ms. Gregory Thomas' points in this article. As a son of two parents who have been married for 35 years and as a teacher, I feel a slight disconnect... note, only a slight disconnect. The greatest commonality we share is the care for the children in our care. Let's focus on that.

It seems to me, and not just handed down from evening news, but from life experience, that teachers are being held more and more responsible for students' failures and get no praise for extreme successes. As an art teacher I will not begin to imagine the stress levels of core area teachers. My problem with being held accountable for failure is much like a Gen X parents problem with the gold star system (as noted in this article), "it's punitive". If we are going to face such criticism from parents, who perhaps assume they know more about what is best for their children than their teachers do, we should at least be treated as if we know what we are doing. We have multi-year educations in the field of education. With that education comes child psychology, education theory, educational history, field experience, knowledge of Howard Gardners' Multiple Intelligences and how they effect our teaching strategies and our students' learning strategies to name just a few areas of deep study. I think the phone calls, emails, twitter posts, Facebook comments, and MySpace remarks should at least afford the respect we deserve.

Now, back to our commonalities. I have friends who's parents got divorced when they were kids. I have friends whose parents got divorced, they promised they would never do that to their own children, then they got divorced. I know their teachers had nothing to do with that. Their own expectations, reflections on their situations, and personal social skills played very large roles in that. I work with my students every day on those skills. My colleagues work with their students on those skills every day. Schools have become social academies, much like what private schools used to monopolize. As much as some parents think they are doing well by their children by barking orders at teachers, that sort of communication is what is seen as "getting things done" by children. The children pick up the idea that what ever they WANT is most important and either go home and manipulate the situation by telling their parents their own version of the story or they speak to teachers in a disrespectful tone because they know it will be backed up by parents.

Children are not called adults because they are not adults. They need guidance. That is the greatest goal we can set for ourselves as parents and educators. We can guide together. We need to be allied, not divided, parents against teachers as some sort of checks and balances system. Yes, their are teachers who are not the best at what they do, but they are few and far between. If you wonder about the choices a teacher, administrator, or school district is making, ask questions politely. If you don't understand the answers you are getting, look up all the laws we adhere to, call a state or federal representative and ask about educational legislation, or e-mail a teaching college and ask what educational theory they are teaching. There is an entire system behind what we do, and it isn't all broken like you hear on TV or spewing form the mouths of politicians who need some sort of common tie to voters.

We make a great team when we unite and act civilly. I look forward to working with more of my students' parents.

roadless's picture

I read quite a few blogs and responses from parents and your suggestions defy the comments that I've read. I've read things like, teachers expect us to help too much, they are always asking for us to do something, why are teachers giving more difficult homework, etc. I agree with a previous statement made earlier, this isn't about the kids, it's more of a therapy session.

Lynne Koles's picture
Lynne Koles
PreK-8th grade Visual Arts teacher from Cleveland Ohio

As an Art teacher for 15 years, a parent of GenX parents and a grandmother of the newest generation, I have seen it in many lights. In my Boomer generation, we were not told it was ADHD, we were disciplined for acting irresponsible or disrespectful when we got out of our seats or talked out of turn. No one told us that we were latchkey kids when we came home to an empty house and did our homework by ourselves until after mom and dad got home at 6:30. We started dinner because we were glad to be responsible, not because we felt neglected. In fact, we seldom did, because our parents were not making excuses for us, they were expecting the best from us and demanding it when we were slackers.
Unfortunately, my children experienced divorce in high school, later than they should have. But they are not pathetic GenX whiners because they know we weren't perfect. We admitted that we weren't and apologized when we made mistakes. They don't blame us for their flaws because they have become parents and realize they are not perfect either.
But we worked with their schools, as our parents did, and now our children do as parents in their children's schools. In fact, my daughter is now a teacher, because she admires and loves what teachers can do, with the help and support of parents. She educates her student's parents in PreK to be open to the possibilities of working together for the best education for their children, because she has seen me work that way with the parents of my students for the last 15 years. Listening is the first step. We must remember why we have two ears and one mouth.
Teachers used to talk all day, but few of us do this anymore. As we transform our classrooms to centers of facilitation for the digital learners we now teach, we must have students who can accept more responsibility for their own learning. We can't possibly teach them everything they will need to know, with the explosion of knowledge in the world today. Instead, once we cover basics, like reading and writing, math, history, science, art, music, physical education, health and life skills, then we must strive to teach them to decipher the truth from the fiction in what they discover via the media they consume, and to differentiate between sales pitches masquerading as facts and actual facts that can be empirically proven. We have to have support from parents to bring our struggling students into the culture of independent learning that they must enter to succeed in their future as 21st century learners. They will need new job skills about every 5 years from the latest stats about the evolution of the world economies ahead. Jobs they will do in 10 years haven't been invented yet. They must accept responsibility for life long learning and they must expect change throughout life. Enabling them will make them disabled in their future. The helicopters need to be parked and the training wheels need to be removed so these wonderful digital natives can develop their own minds at the lightning pace they are capable of achieving. Please unfetter them from your apron strings. Parents need to remember that they, too will be facing change soon enough if they aren't already, so the best example all parents can be to their children is to be pursuing education in any form that interests them. Visibly demonstrating respect for education's value to their children, questioning with respect, communicating with dignity and without abuse, and lighting the way for their children to follow in their footsteps, parents can lead their children on the adventure of the life-long journey of learning.

Mel Buendia's picture
Mel Buendia
ESL teacher (High school & College), teacher educator, consultant, ed-tech fan, mother , MEXICO

This article is so fun! As a genX'er & teacher, this was great to read. For a moment, I thought that living in Mexico City, attending a private school, and not having divorced parents would not check with some things, but oh! boy! now I understand some things better. Yet, I strongly believe that parents need to be more involved, in a healthy and cooperative way, not because they pay tuition.

The powerpoint presentation thingy is excellent! LOL
Great article! thanks

Elementary Teacher's picture
Elementary Teacher
Teacher in CT

I enjoyed reading the reasons WHY some parents are the way they are, however I strongly disagree with the suggestions for "solving for x". My job is to be the very best teacher I can be for my students. It does not include accommodating ridiculous requests to indulge a parent's selfish needs due to a hard childhood. Let them plan a field trip?? No. Parents have very little understanding of WHY we go on a field trip and what we hope children will get from the experience. They have no knowledge of our curricular objectives, nor do they understand the intricate and diverse needs of all of our students. Not to mention, if one parent plans a field trip, then all will want to plan one, and we do not have time to go on 22 field trips.

Invite a parent to "teach the class for the afternoon"?? No. This is the most ridiculous suggestion of them all. First, unless they are teachers themselves, much to their surprise- parents are not qualified to "teach". They do not know the first thing about planning a lesson that meets curricular objectives, modifying lessons to meet the needs of all the learners, keeping students on task so time is not wasted, sticking to an objective, etc, etc, etc. Turning the class over to parent for the afternoon is time wasted for my students. This suggestion indulges the parent's selfish need and completely ignores the needs of the students. Quite frankly, it is absurd. Do I invite parents into my classroom? Yes, as much as possible. But, I am always in charge of what goes on, and I am there to make sure every single minute is well spent for my students. I am the professional! Parents are great as "guest readers," sharing about their culture when appropriate, or helping with celebrations. But they are literally unable to "teach a lesson". I would never assume that I was qualified to go into a doctor's office and take care of his patients for the afternoon, simply because I want to feel important, and because I think if might be fun to be a doctor. How is this any different?
After 20 years in the elementary classroom, my suggestion for dealing with this type of parent (and not all parents are so self-indulgent), is to be as professional as I possibly can, and ALWAYS put my students at the forefront of every decision I make. If a teacher is professional, and confident in their abilities as an educator, then they are able to respectfully explain to parents WHY you are denying such a request. Most of my parents are smart, and genuinely want the best for their child. The teacher has an obligation to her students to manage unreasonable parental behavior and requests. Simply put, I would be a BAD TEACHER, if I allowed parents to "teach" for an afternoon, or plan field trips. I would be putting the needs of my parents before the needs of my students, and I am absolutely not willing to do that. My students' instructional time is way too valuable to be used in such a frivolous manner. Teachers who allow this type of behavior from parents are doing their students, and ultimately the parents themselves, a huge disservice.

Sarah Elkins's picture

Great insight into my peers as parents. I was one of the lucky ones, born in 1970 to parents who DID pay attention to me and my siblings. I see, though, the awful truth about some of my peers. I understand where they grew up and why they are the way they are, but please take responsibility and give up some of this 'helicopter parenting'. It will not help your child for you to advocate for him in high school against the 'c' grade he earned. It will not help for you to advocate for him in college against the 'd' grade he earned. You coddle your child and then you seem surprised to see him come back to your home after high school and live there, rent-free.
As a parent of two boys, one nearing middle school and the other in the middle of elementary, I have come to the conclusion that the school cannot provide everything my children need to become empathetic, intelligent, socially responsible adults. I have to provide enrichment to my children by celebrating holidays with them, cooking with them, taking them to museums, and sitting down to do homework with them.
Thank goodness my parents knew so much.

kiriaka's picture

I would like to note, after carefully considering this article, and as a Generation Xer (1972), the tone of the article was constructive, and accomplished what it needed to.
One poster gave the opinion the writer should have been more humble, contrite - whatever (lol, jk, see! That's Genx for ya!!)Listen, humble pie aside, what helps us is understanding how to deal with parents in a mutually beneficial way - I could care less about who is sorry or not, I have seen that this rarely changes someone's behavior anyway. You are the only person you will ever effectively be able to control. This actually helps me do that. I think the writer was spot on - because I would never ask "my" parents to be sorry or contrite about how they parent, they won't be - maybe they shouldn't be? Maybe all of these generational differences are fated to help children thrive in an increasingly change-driven world. If all parents throughout history parented the same, never changing, children would never be able to adapt - hell we'd probably die off! Look, latch-key kids are innovative, and we need that, baby-boomers came equipped with their necessary strengths and so on...someone should do a study. Everything has it's reasons - people sense more than they know. What comes for us in the next 20 years God only knows...but as an educator, and a mother of three girls - 5, 6, and 19 years old, and as a GenXer married to a Baby-boomer I sense the winds of change and feel I am preparing my children for those winds through my parenting style, albeit subconsciously.(I never really thought about it till now, but I think it makes sense.)Thoughts?

kiriaka's picture

Reply to:
Elementary Teacher \ Teacher in CT
Posted on 3/06/2010 10:09am
Original post:: Not Indulging Gen X

Wow! I just read this comment, after I posted...I am glad I caught you. I too am from CT, and you so remind me of a teacher I loved. No-nonsense, aren't you? I think that's fabulous. I love how you take pride in your profession, and also how absolutely dedicated you seem to be to your students' well-being.
Respectfully, and regrettably I must humbly disagree with your view that parents cannot possibly teach their children. I am a parent, I teach. I home-school. I am also an educator in MA. I have been homeschooling for 16 years. I have a 19 year old, accepted to WPI, MA and Berklee School of Music, with academic scholarships. It was actually my love of teaching (my love of little ones) that pushed me to become a "professional" teacher. I have made my mistakes, and my methods are by no means orthodox, but they work. At five and six yrs old, my youngest girls are more than 2 grade levels ahead of their peers. I can take credit for two of those performances, as the six year old is gifted beyond my understanding.
I do not boast or challenge. My comment here is a support to the millions of parents who take their role as primary educators seriously.
When I was 17 and married, I never thought I would home-school (they were religious wackjobs in my eyes), I didn't like kids enough...until I looked one in the eyes, in that hospital bed still delirious from the labor, all I could think was that I would dedicate my life to being the wind beneath this angel's wings (corny but the only analogy that explains my feeling).
Parents are not all worthless at educating properly. The problem seems to stem from people believing that a government granted education is all a child requires!!
Public schools should supplement continued learning at home, with parents. I am eternally frustrated by parents who cannot even check a child's homework, send a signed note back to me (or report card), or help them with their vocabulary words. These parents believe You, when you tell them they don't need to concern themselves, that you'll handle everything...that is, in my opinion a wasted opportunity. Can we as teachers realize the importance of involvement to a young mind? Just having your parents care enough to take an interest in what you are learning and teaching you what they know is of immense value. I have no doubt your teaching career is an amazing asset to your class(es), however you may also be overlooking parents as amazing assets to a student's learning career. Thoughts?

scochrane's picture

I have similar experiences with my parents divorcing in the 1970s. It has helped me keep parent communication lines open. I have a strong belief that parents have rights and try to work with that. Sometimes the pendulum swings the other way and a teacher can be offering a rich curriculum and a parent comments on too much learning/homework/practice as well. It's hard to find the happy medium but all teachers strive for just that.

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