grit
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When I Look At Teenagers, I’m Pretty Comfortable With My Decision To Be A Helicopter Parent

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As my brother-in-law and I were reclining comfortably in our mutual father-in-law’s living room after one family get together or another last fall, the weak glow of a West Coast college football game on low volume our only source of light, a salsa commercial came on. Naturally, our nonexistent conversation turned to the subject of closing off the border between the United States and Mexico.

Jerry blamed Mexicans, illegal ones, specifically, for taking American jobs. Possibly, maybe, including salsa creation and/or production.

I snickered. Jerry owns a commercial painting company. Jerry hires mostly illegals from Mexico.

The little Bernie Sanders in my head threatened to protest. I found myself mouthing the U.S. presidential candidate’s words: “Our visa system must protect American jobs instead of simply allowing corporations to score cheap labor via temporary work visas.”

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But the middle-aged American dad in me took over.

“I don’t blame you, Jer,” I sighed. “Most tweens and teens, they think that that kind of work, labor work, getting your hands dirty — they think that’s beneath them. And why would you, a small business owner, hire a bratty American kid who probably wants to be sexting his girlfriend or playing guitar, or, I dunno, YouTube-ing his opinions on Western civ, when that kid would just screw up the paintjob, and then you’d have to hire a Mexican — an adult Mexican, probably a man — to fix it?”

Why adult Mexican males? Because here in Texas, a.k.a the Center of the Universe, most, if not all, of the people I see getting their hands dirty around town — erecting the buildings, straightening the roads, painting the walls — are full-grown Mexican dudes. Also, a labor shortage that may drive up home prices is being linked directly to a distinct lack of Mexican-born workers in the U.S. construction industry.

How do I know that American kids think they’re “above” manual labor? Fewer of them are working summer jobs — for various, mostly external reasons — and more have become addicted to becoming famous. In 2012, Scientific American writes, “a study found that a desire for fame solely for the sake of being famous was the most popular future goal among a group of 10-12 year olds, overshadowing hopes for financial success, achievement, and a sense of community.”

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What’s true in 2012 must still be true today. Social media has only increased in preponderance since then.

Everyone has always wanted to be famous, I’m sure, but now with more digital means by which a young person can attract wide attention — Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr — he or she can feel as if fame (possibly notoriety) is only a few minutes or hours away, the upward-turned thumbs or heart symbols transforming every precious young son or daughter into Gollum and his magic ring.

“Fame-seeking is not new,” said Carl Pickhardt, an Austin psychologist and the author of Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence. “What’s new is you can actualize part of that. You can post pictures and data about yourself. All of a sudden, you can imitate what it’s like to be famous.”

Perhaps because it was late at night and because, like me, Jerry was half-snockered, he didn’t respond. Nice guy that I am, I let him off the hook.

“When we were young,” I continued (note: Jerry has 10 years on me), “we had to work our butts off to be able to afford a freaking, a, y’know, a popsicle stick. Am I right?!”

I thrust my palm into the air for a high-five. Jer left me hangin’.

The pressure that kids face today to be successful — popular, rich, loved by millions, happy, beautiful — is unlike anything that anyone from all previous generations has ever had to endure.

Oh, well. But while Jerry and I might blame illegal Mexican men for U.S. youngsters’ lack of work ethic, there are people out there blaming me. And fathers like me. I think we’re called “helicopter parents” or something.

“With more research showing hyper-involved parenting leads to more anxious and entitled kids,” say Robin Koval and Linda Kaplan Thaler, coauthors of the newish book Grit to Great: How Perseverance, Passion and Pluck Take You from Ordinary to Extraordinary. “It’s clear that grit and resilience will benefit our kids in school and once they get into the real world.”

But speaking as a helicopter parent, there is just so much more that goes into tweens and teens’ resistance to labor than their folks or industrious Mexican men within our borders. There is pressure, pressure that no team of researchers, as far as I know, has ever accounted for. The pressure that kids face today to be successful — popular, rich, loved by millions, happy, beautiful — is unlike anything that anyone from all previous generations has ever had to endure. The ubiquity of digital media is creating a generation of unfeeling, fame-lusting zombies, addicted to Facebook “likes” and driven, basically, to devour their peers.

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More parenting isn’t the problem here. It actually seems like the solution.

My wife and I will not allow our 4-year-old to have a cellphone until he’s in high school, which is around when we may permit him to date. I bet he turns out OK. Whether he likes it or not. The choices are ours, not his. He’s just a kid. My wife and I are (allegedly) responsible adults.

And unlike probably most of the kids in those studies, my wife and I have grit. The daughter of an Air Force colonel/fighter pilot, she spent summers as a teenager helping circumcise Filipinos. Just waded out into the rice patties with the doctors and patients. Used her middle finger and thumb to “thump” the boys and men to make sure they were numb.

Me? My entire youth was spent working for every slice of Sicilian pizza and handful of Swedish fish I could get my grubby mitts on: newspaper stand, construction with my dad, busing tables at the Italian restaurant up the street, work-study after football practice, stocking the shelves of the shoe store by the restaurant.

More parenting isn’t the problem here. It actually seems like the solution.

And perhaps unlike those kids in the studies, my wife and I spent lots of time with our parents.

Which is sort of a roundabout way to get to my point: All that our children want is for us to be involved in their lives. And of all of these studies, not a single one considers the parents’ behaviors. My guess: The tweens and teens locking themselves in their bedrooms to panty-dance on camera probably aren’t worried about getting caught or facing any other sorts of consequences from the “adults” in charge.

Kids’ lack of grit is just as much their problem as their parents’. Mea culpa, Mexico.

Anthony Mariani is Editor of the Fort Worth Weekly.

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