There are many factors that determine the success or failure of parenting in any given generation and millennial parenting is no different. It seems that every cohort has a different set of resources and challenges that affect the ability of adults to parent effectively. The Greatest Generation had World War II and the possible losses of husbands and fathers to war. The generation before that had the Great Depression. In earlier times there were catastrophic diseases, famines and natural disasters that made life in general an “iffy” proposition. Yet still we persisted in bringing new life into the world in the everlasting hope that better times lie ahead. I love the line from Jurassic Park (the first one) where they have attempted to control the procreation of raptors on the island and one of the consulting scientists says prophetically “life will find a way.”
And so it does. Here we are in the 21st century raising a new cohort of children who are growing up with the virtual world at their fingertips. Children as young as 18 months know which buttons to press for games on an I-pad. To complicate the matters even further the parents who are raising have also grown up immersed in the virtual world. In the previous blog I talked about the positive aspects of this cohort of parents. Now let us look at the caveats—the challenges. After all they can be no worse than a typhoid epidemic or parents standing in breadlines to feed their families.
Perhaps the biggest challenge that I see for parents is that children—especially babies—don’t react like video games. Well, duh! Yeah! You might think that would be obvious but I don’t think that it is. I find that many new parents have never been around babies at all! They have never babysat or taken care of younger siblings for a spell. So allow me to enumerate some of the differences between a baby and a video game. First of all, babies’ responses are continuous. Unlike video games you cannot turn them off when you are frustrated. This has real meaning when your baby cries with colic for hours without stopping and even the most modern medicines have no effect. It happens! You do all you can and place it in its crib and close the door as some people may advise. But you know it is suffering. So you pull something out of the depths of your heart and soul and care for this little being. The thing is you care! That is not something that you learn from playing video games, no matter how desperate the beautiful maidens you are saving.
Babies and children are also unpredictable, infinitely so. If they are emotionally healthy they are spontaneous. They are constantly changing and developing physically and mentally. Now I am something of a novice when it comes to video games. I plan to have my grandson give me a crash course over the holidays. But I know that there are levels that you achieve once you meet certain requirements, so that you have a sense of advancement. It is not really that way with infants and children. There is no logical progression. You might think that once you feed a child she will be satiated. That is how it works when you feed a virtual baby, right? But no! A real baby may spit it out—all over you. Then she may start screaming ten minutes later. Or maybe you feed him scrambled eggs—a nice healthy dish–and he breaks out in hives. You put a child to bed and ten minutes later you are sitting peacefully on the couch. You think you are done for the day when you have the eerie sensation of being watched. A little face appears over the back of the couch and informs you that there is a huge monster peering through his bedroom door. You are on your last thread and if this were a video game you would certainly turn it off. But it is your offspring. So you reach once more into your bag of tricks and carry him upstairs. You help him look for monsters. After all, you may find one, and you both fall asleep on his bed.
But my concern is that millennial parents—accustomed to a world that is exciting and chaotic to be sure, but contained within a screen that ultimately they control–may struggle in their encounters with little ones who populate the world with uncontrolled anarchy. Have millennial parents exercised their “empathy muscles” enough to handle the intimate and never-ending needs of spouses and children? Do they comprehend that far-reaching kingdoms cannot really be built in a day but, rather, require infinite patience, acceptance of failure and unending forgiveness?
The parents are only half the equation. Next week we will look at what it means for children to grow up attached to a computer screen as if it were a surrogate mother.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.