Post-Millennial Parenting

Why Gen X is Ready to Help Kids Navigate the Digital Landscape

If Gen X parents grew up in a time when “swiping” referred to petty theft and “Windows” were something you actually rolled up, then how can they possibly be ready to parent the next generation of tech-savvy kids?

As a Gen Xer myself, I can say that the world was a different place for our generation (born 1965–1979) as we grew up. Seat belts were optional, and bike helmets were unheard of. We played outside, unsupervised for hours at a time. Our hair was big, our pants were cuffed, and we drank carbonated, caffeinated soda with mouths full of Pop Rocks. These were reckless times.

The movie War Games may have given us a glimpse into the potential problems that a home computer could present, but most of us merely saw it as a source of light entertainment. Only social outcasts like Gary & Wyatt in the movie Weird Science would stay home on the weekend in front of a computer screen. We could not predict the future challenge of parenting a generation of young people who would want to be tethered to an online world of Netflix, Minecraft, and Instagram. While we no longer fear that our teens will inadvertently cause a nuclear war from their PC, we are afraid that the fallout from this advancing technology is creating a wasteland of non-communicative, low-attention-spanned, sedentary digital zombies.

In addition to the threat of raising kids who are so stimulated by the virtual world that they appear disengaged from the real world, there are other dangers lurking online. Their credit scores can be ruined by the time they are 10 years old from identity theft. Cyber bullies have been responsible for shattering their self-esteem. Child predators can stalk a 14-year-old from hundreds of miles away. These new challenges put a lack of bike helmets and kneepads into perspective. At the same time, it's undeniable that these advances in technology will continue to shape the way society educates, interacts, and does business in the future.

So what comfort is there for Gen X parents? First, they should be reminded that throughout history, as technology advanced, older generations worried how it would impact young people.

  • Socrates warned that writing would "create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories."
  • In the 18th century, when newspapers became more common, the French statesman Malesherbes argued that it socially isolated readers and detracted from the spiritually uplifting practice of getting news from the pulpit.
  • When radio arrived, “the wireless" was accused of distracting children from reading and diminishing performance in school.

One could make an argument that each of these predictions was valid. The ability to write things down did weaken our dependence on memorization. Access to printed news reduced the need to congregate. Radio did make school a little less interesting. Yet, none of these advances destroyed society. They did, however, create a new layer of responsibility for parents to help young people balance new technology with traditional skill sets. Humanity has navigated past periods of transition and technological innovation, so why should these new challenges be any different? And arguably, Gen Xers are uniquely suited to help with this transition.

Here are some reasons why Gen Xers are especially qualified to parent Gen Edge (Gen Z) into the future:

#1: Gen Xers are extraordinarily involved in their kids' lives.
We took the term “helicopter parent” and turned it into “jetfighter parent." Gen X does not just hover, they are on active duty. This is due, in part, to the threats that face our kids, but it is also a reaction to the lack of supervision that most Xers felt when they were kids themselves. Having endured an era when the divorce rate was three times higher than it was for their Boomer predecessors, many Xers grew up as latchkey kids caring for themselves.

As parents, Gen X has vowed to pay closer attention to their kids. They are quick to tell people how they used to do most things on their own, but when it comes to their kids, they are even quicker to jump in and take care of everything for them as well. While this may frustrate coaches, educators, and employers, it is an attribute that is proving beneficial to protecting Gen Edge from some of the threats they are facing online.

#2: Gen X has been there and done that.
Gen Xers have unknowingly acquired a set of life skills that can be drawn upon to coach kids through the potential hazards of overdosing on screen time. Seemingly overnight, two phenomena emerged during Xers' formative years: cable television and video games. Suddenly, the most precious metal in our childhood became the quarter. It gave us the power to defend against space invaders, chase ghosts on a board, or improve our pole position. At the same time, cable TV gave us HBO, MTV, CNN, BET, and the like. If these channels were not addicting enough, our pixel dealers gave us even more access to this visual stimuli through Atari and the VCR. The video goods were everywhere and we were hooked.

The average Xer watched 23,000 hours of TV by their 20th birthday. Our parents warned us that we would go blind by sitting too close. Our homework suffered and baseball bats were set aside for joysticks. If you liked the show, What’s Happening, you could now manually rerun your reruns of Rerun. Even though these advances fell far short of the convenience of Netflix or the graphics of PlayStation, they were powerfully captivating and time-consuming. Yet, somehow we managed to graduate from high school, complete college, and go on to navigate our professional journey. The question you have to ask yourself is, “How?”

With all those distractions, how did we manage to get homework done, show up to our part-time jobs on time, and look people in the eyes? It was not easy, but having been there ourselves, I believe we are well positioned to help this next generation of digital junkies find balance.

Gen Xers have long demonstrated their ability to “Hang in there,” “Get 'er done” and “Just do it.” We are now tasked with our biggest challenge yet. How do we raise the first generation of children who literally have all the answers in the palm of their hands? They may not truly know it all, but they have access to all the knowledge. Fortunately, the specific life experiences that Gen Xers have collected over time will help both protect and inspire their kids with the one thing this next generation doesn’t have, but will desperately need. Wisdom.