She’s rolling her eyes at me again. I can just read what’s in my daughter’s mind, but it’s the boy who pipes up “Ma, we are different. Times have changed.” And I guess that about sums up the generation gap between parents and kids. A term popularized in the West during the 1960s, the generation gap is used commonly to refer to differences that cause conflict and complicate communication between generations. Specific names have even been given to each generational group. Thus Baby Boomers are today’s parents (like me) who were themselves born in the 50s and 60s. Their children are grouped as Gen X (born 1960-1980), Gen Y/Millennial (born 1980-2000) and Gen Z (born as from 2000). I have 3 Gen Y under my roof and some 200 Gen Z in the kindergarten where I work. It doesn’t take a genius or an expert in child psychology to appreciate that there are distinct differences in attitudes, opinion, perception, norms and values in today’s children as compared to their parents who grew up in the 60s. Like it or not, what my own kids state is indeed correct, “Times have changed.” Generation myopia is the mistake we make when we apply the values and attitudes of our own generation to those of a different generation.
The world is hurtling along at such a frenzied pace that it can be difficult for a parent to keep up. Phones and computers used to be so bulky and limited in usage. Now, new models are unloaded onto eager consumers every few months. The hand-phone has now become smarter than people. ‘Tablet’ used to mean the pill we pop into our mouth. Viral was a type of infection which caused sickness. Back in the 60s, when I was growing up, my parents worried about my life getting messed up by drugs, sex and rock-n-roll. Parents today still worry about those things, but they have a whole list of ‘extras’ to lose hair over – cyber bullies, online addiction, identity the? and inappropriate content – due to something called social media, which keeps today’s children (and adults) instantly and constantly connected with www (my acronym for whole wide world) via Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Instantgram, WhatsApp, etc etc.
However to ‘blame’ technology for the differences between generations is surely too facile an assumption. Technology by itself is neutral, like money. As with all ‘things’ it can be abused or misused in its application. I believe there is something more fundamental that accounts for the vast gap between children of yesteryears and today that goes deeper than the prevalent use of hi-tech gadgets. It’s a matter of attitude really which translates into behavioral patterns common to each generation.
Traditional and particularly Eastern families in the 60s put importance on respect for authority, getting a secure job, working hard so that one could have a decent and increasingly higher standard of living, which would include a house/s, spouse and kids. At least that’s what I learnt growing up in those days, and that’s what I, and undoubtedly my ‘kind’ did. However the adults of yesteryears having paved the way to an ‘easier’ life, their children today tend to take a lot of things for granted. Thus Gen Y and Z have been accused of being ‘laid-back’ – that’s to put it quite mildly. More unflattering terms are lazy, self-focused, greedy, rude and unappreciative, which leads to their being tarred as the “I, Me and Mine” generation, where life is all about how fast they can get what they want.
I think that’s a bit unfair. It fails to recognize that the home environment in which today’s children grow up in, is created first and foremost by the parents themselves. Of course the surroundings eg technological advances and society’s influence play a part, but by and large, it’s the influence of the family that moulds a child. Instead of groaning, moaning and complaining about the mentality of the modern kid today, perhaps we should first look at how we ourselves contribute, intentionally or unintentionally, to the development of such a mentality. Parents want the best for their children. That’s the reason parents of yesteryears worked so hard to get to a position where they can give their kids what they themselves never enjoyed. In the process, since this generation never really had to ‘earn’ their stripes, so to speak, when almost everything is handed to them on a silver platter, how can they be expected to value hard work as how yesteryears’ generation valued it? My generation “live to work”, while my kids’ generation “work to live”. That’s not such a bad thing, because it means today’s children are highly adaptable to change, although it can frustrate parents who find their kids ‘forever’ changing views, studies and careers without any fore-thought.
Yet if parents themselves are always indulging and giving in to all their children’s demands from young whether it be for toys, the latest smart-phone, or staying out till dawn, how are children to recognize boundaries of behaviour and respect for authority? I hear of parents who leave their 5 year old kid to decide their choice of play-school. I am all for encouraging independent and critical thinking but children need to be taught first about parental authority and submission.
There is a rebellious streak in every one of us; irrespective of how old we are. Try telling a child not to touch a hot plate, and for sure, he will touch it. It has been said that of all the species on this planet, only human beings are capable of acting deliberately contrary to their best interests, even when they know where their best interests lie. This is a self-destructive impulse because it is clearly in the best interest of a child to submit to legitimate adult authority, beginning with parents’ authority, especially in their tender years, when they don’t know any better.
Certainly it isn’t about yelling at or threatening the child; rather it’s about consistency and clarity in communicating expectations and decisions. At some point in time, as the child matures, it becomes essential that he/she understands the moral principles behind an expectation or a decision. To me, a moral compass is necessary as the reference point of coherence and consistency for inculcating right values in the shaping of a ‘good’ character. The discipline of a child isn’t just about proper outward behavior. In fact it should be all about shaping internal character, attitudes and values. Get the internal right, and the external will follow. Like a wise proverb says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Child psychology experts expound that basically, normal toddlers and pre-schoolers learn by being told what to do and by constant repetition, as the parent is their "external conscience," reinforcing their memory of what they're supposed to do. By about age 6, normal children are developing an internal conscience, where they know almost instinctively for themselves right from wrong. At age 9 or 10, they grasp the idea that we have to have rules so people can get along, and we don't have chaos. That’s why children need to learn about structure, order and boundaries to deal with the outside world that they interact increasingly with.
Gone are the days when “Your father knows best” or “Because I say so” will work with the child of today. Even the trusty old cane is more of a rarity now. Indeed school teachers are wary of using the cane to discipline their charges for fear of lawsuits from protective parents. But I also know of parents who have used the cane on their kids to good effect, because of the obvious fear factor, lest they spare the rod and risk spoiling the child. I myself have never been the worse for all the canings I received in my childhood, because looking back, I knew it was done out of love for me. Having said that however, there comes a time when the rod will just not work anymore. Besides fear is at best only a temporary motivation for good behaviour. Unless the value is internalized, physical discipline ceases to be effective when a child matures.
Ultimately, no society, group or family set-up is free from the tension and trauma born out of the generation-gap, for undoubtedly society and times do change, and sometimes not necessarily for the better. But there is one thing that will never change; and that is love. This isn’t to say love makes everything right. It simply means that along the road of human relationships, even when we don’t understand the children of today, and they don’t understand us who keep on talking about the ‘good old days’, the love that binds each family member together can still hold strong. And that’s the only thing that will bridge the generation gap and break down barriers, love that never fails.