Adrienne: Things like #metoo and Black Lives Matter are part of an ongoing generational change. But these societal changes can play a big role in our individual parent-child relationships. For a look at how the last major generational change affected many of today’s Baby Boomers, we are joined by our Wellness Columnist, Scott McPherson. Hi Scott.
Scott: Hi Adrienne
Adrienne: So, maybe we should start by defining what a ‘generational change’ actually is.
Scott: Well, in reality it’s a pretty slow and subtle process. But the history books mostly talk about the tipping points –like now. They when a society realizes that a bunch of its base assumptions about itself aren’t true, and that it actually leads to action towards real change.
Adrienne: So how do those shifts end up impacting families?
Scott: When we’re the parent, we can see the shift because we know what the world looked like before the change happened. But to the kid who shows up during or after it happens, the change seems less obvious. For instance, up until recently it was somehow acceptable to pay a woman less for the same work. Today– a majority of people find that practice unjust and wrong. So there’s more pressure on politicians and companies to offer or mandate equal pay. Their fear of losing votes or money or employees is what ends up leading to change. The trick for family relations is that, after a societal shift like that has happened, without anyone realizing it, all the kids grow up in a different zeitgeist; with a new ‘spirit of the times.’ The issues that tumble out of that confusion can lead to anything from arguments to long term estrangement.
Adrienne: Tell us more about how this wider change plays out between parent and child?
Scott: If a daughter looks at the idea of women’s liberation they will see the idea through the lens of her Mother, not the whole society. A 20 year old woman can think her Mom was weak for not standing up for equal pay, when in reality she did win some gains. But on equal pay you need the whole society to make it happen. So that’s a child coming to the conclusion that their mother wasn’t a strong woman. But, if we adjusted for the change in the zeitgeist, and looked back, we could easily see that the mom might have been a pretty impressive feminist in her day. But because her performance from years ago is being measured by the standards of today, they can be seen as weak when they might have been particularly strong.
Adrienne: So can these differences actually develop into anything serious?
Scott: For sure. A lot of families can think their serious fights are between each other, when in reality they’re fights between opposing realities. And if those differences don’t get resolved, they can have a huge impact on who the child will become, and what their mental health will look like as an adult.
Adrienne: Are there any really common examples? Something that maybe our listeners could relate to?
Scott: There’s a pretty common one that can sour the relationships that a lot of Boomers have with their parents. It involves the last big cultural upheaval, back in the 60’s. So to set the stage, we have to remember that Boomers were born between WWII and Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream…’ speech. They were raised by parents who were born in the first third of the 1900’s. Their parents were the first generation to be food secure. But they were still pre-vaccine, and there was a lot of diseases going around at the same time. So for a Boomer’s parents, just like all of the generations before them, just keeping your kid alive past 5 years old. And their parents were one of the first generations to succeed at that. Which created the population explosion that gave the Boomers their name. But before the Boomers, the idea of taking time to parent a kid’s performance or psychology didn’t really exist. People just had kids that they sent to school, and who grew up in their house, and those kids got in trouble when they misbehaved and moved out ASAP. But there was no over-arching idea about ‘parenting’ until about the 1960’s.
Adrienne: How did that lead to the issues some Boomers can have with their parents?
Scott: Up until the 1960’s, life was about survival, so toughness was a valued trait. Behaviorists at that time believed that too much body contact and affection made children soft, so it wasn’t seen as good parenting. And affection is dangerous if it’s excessive. But so is neglect. But until a scientist named Harry Harlow did some pretty questionable experiments with some monkeys, almost no one realized that affection could be good for the kid.
Adrienne: I’m almost afraid to ask but, what were those experiments?
Scott: There were a lot of them, but the most famous one was when he offered baby rhesus monkeys the choice between two different kinds of ‘mothers.’ One was a group of individualized, knobby, uncomfortable wire dolls that gave milk. And the others were individualized soft terry-cloth dolls that were nice to hug but had no milk. No surprise. The monkeys ducked over for the milk but stuck with the softer Mom. And they always preferred the same Mom. And that, and all of the experiments that followed it, was the start of the idea that openly loving kids was good for them. And that experiment was only done in 1958. It took until the Millennials were born before those ideas filtered through to most parents. So a lot of Boomers and Gen-Xers grew up learning that it’s good to cuddle and praise your kids. So they understandably wonder why their mothers often didn’t do that.
Adrienne: So they feel neglected, when in reality, their mothers were doing what parents were told to do at that time?
Scott: Exactly. It might have been quite hard for the moms to resist giving that affection, but they did it because they genuinely thought it was good for their kids. So like the feminist mom, they weren’t negligent, they were dedicated. It just looks like they were neglectful from the more modern perspective. And that can lead to their children developing really powerful resentments.
Adrienne: So can families get around this issue? Can the estranged Boomers reinvent their childhoods and have better relationships with their parents?
Scott: For sure. But they will have to invest some time in rewiring their understanding of their parent. New thinking will create a new identity. So, once the Boomer or Gen-X child starts to see the withholding of affection for what it was, then they tend to be ok. Communication can still be tricky because of their history. But if they sort that misunderstanding out, they can have way better relationships. So if any Boomer or Gen-Xer grew up feeling unloved, they can sort of relax one notch because they’re in really good company We have to remember, back then, even the nicest TV Dads just gave great advice, but they didn’t hug their kids.
Adrienne: Hmm. I’m thinking back, to what those looked like. I think you’re right about that. Thank you so much Scott.
Scott: My pleasure.
Adrienne: Scott McPherson is our Wellness Columnist. He teaches mindfulness at relaxandsucceed.com here in Edmonton.
Every couple of weeks I have the pleasure of joining Adrienne Pan, the co-host of Radio Active on CBC Radio One. You can listen via AM740, FM93.9 (in Edmonton), through the CBC Listen app, or via the web on Radio One at CBC.ca. Today we’ll be on at 5:20pm.
Once the show has aired, if there is an audio version available I will add a link to it here. A listing of all of the columns is here. For those without audio versions, I will attach a transcript of the column to the bottom of this post after its airing.
Major generational change can leave parents and their adult children working with very different realities. In the case of changes in the 60’s, Baby Boomers were often led to have strained relationships with their parents all because of a generational misunderstanding. Today we’ll be talking about how clearing up that confusion can help resolve a lot of pain.
Consider checking us out. If you’ve never heard the CBC Radio Active show before, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. They have a great team.
Take care everyone.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.