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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

ENL Teacher's picture
ENL Teacher
English as a New Language Grades 6th-8th

ST, I see what you're saying, but I think you're slightly off too. I am a minority and grew up poor (as did many of my friends), yet we would definitely identify with Generation X. The difference I see, is not in whether you are a minority or not, but rather, where you were raised. If you were not raised in the United States, you probably won't relate to Generation X even though you were born during that time. On the other hand, if you were raised here most of your life, you probably will identify even if you grew up poor or came from a minority home.

Steve's picture

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.

Pattipeg Harjo's picture
Pattipeg Harjo
High school Spanish teacher, Norman, Oklahoma

But for decades psychologists have said that divorce and mothers working outside the home doesn't affect children!! Hmm... Anyway, as one of those rare baby-boomers whose parents divorced, I actually understand the GenX parents (even at 60)--but I note that those parents drive my baby-boomer colleagues crazy. Thanks for providing the structure to explain why they are like that.

TD's picture

Is it different for HS teachers? Most of my student's parents are Generation X but I rarely see them around. Another reason may be, we are a low economic school. I wish that more parents did care.

Eva Lightner's picture

As a Baby Boomer teacher and parent teaching all generations since 1976, I understand the author's feelings for understanding. All I ask from any group of parents, no matter what the generation, is to support their child's learning needs, listen to the teacher's concerns and be ready to work TOGETHER to make their child's educational experience a success. I'm open to suggestions and help, and I value parental insight into the needs of their child, but if you have an agenda, then homeschool your child.

David's picture

Is it just me, or does this article quote two Waldorf educators? Has anyone else noticed a definite shift in the content of Edutopia in recent months? There seems to be a deliberate push to promote the Waldorf agenda. This has already been debated extensively in the Waldorf article's comment space, but the simple reminder is Edutopia's motto is "What Works in Public Education." Anyone who knows anything about Waldorf education knows that the spiritual elements are absolutely and undeniably foundational to the Steiner philosophy (though much more subtle than the spirituality of say, a Catholic school).

Just because the Waldorf spirituality is more palatable to today's secular sensibilities and the self-focused zeitgeist, does not mean it should be publicly funded.

susan hollandsworth's picture

I read the article with an eye from a principal who meets with parents from this era; many of which could be my own children. You are correct when you say the parents want to orchestrate and control many aspects of their child's daily life. I had not really thought of the motivation, I just thought they were very involved. One thing that I do talk with parents about (we are a public school) is the value of a heterogeneous public school classroom. I believe so strongly that we must expose children to general society and learn to get along with all types of isms. Our public school strives to offer a strong balanced education that considers the "whole child" so as a consequence we have parent support that helps us provide such an environment. But I do recognize your comments - new parents coming to our school often seem nervous, untrusting, and wanting an individual program for their child. If they stay with us, they soon learn how caring and embracing our community is for all kids. Your article gave me pause for reflection and I will be a little more understanding and patient as a result.

Douglas Winner's picture

I thought the article was fantastic. being a Gen Xer and an elementary school principal, I now have a little better understanding of some things that i deal with. It makes sense though and the article really nailed it with a good description of our generation.

Amanda's picture

Your article is right on and I get the sense that you are proud to be a helicopter parent. Did you not think that your school was acting in the best interest of your daughter? Teachers and administrators do have a college degree in education and work with your child daily. Do you wonder how your actions will affect the rest of your daughters educational career? What kind of message did you send to your daughter during this time: "You can't handle this." "You're not ready." It's a very powerful message for a child.

Teachers certainly do need to meet Gen X where they are,but Gen X needs to understand that the world does not revolve around them, they don't actually know everything and experts in fields certainly do exist. Gen X, pick your head up and see the big picture.

Malaika Costello-Dougherty's picture
Malaika Costello-Dougherty
Former senior editor at Edutopia.

[quote]Is it just me, or does this article quote two Waldorf educators? Has anyone else noticed a definite shift in the content of Edutopia in recent months? There seems to be a deliberate push to promote the Waldorf agenda. This has already been debated extensively in the Waldorf article's comment space, but the simple reminder is Edutopia's motto is "What Works in Public Education." Anyone who knows anything about Waldorf education knows that the spiritual elements are absolutely and undeniably foundational to the Steiner philosophy (though much more subtle than the spirituality of say, a Catholic school).

Just because the Waldorf spirituality is more palatable to today's secular sensibilities and the self-focused zeitgeist, does not mean it should be publicly funded.[/quote]

Hi David,

You're right in noticing that a Waldorf educator is quoted in this article. When I was reporting the piece on Waldorf-inspired schools, I heard a talk about Gen X parents, which got the teachers in the audience fired up. Suspecting this would be a conversation-starter piece, I assigned it to Susan Gregory Thomas and suggested the speaker as a potential source. (This is a common practice, and simply for the story development rather than to push any agenda.)

I hope this explanation helps.



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