Making the Inevitable Impossible: A Book Review of Generation Text
by Margann Duke
M.S. Counseling, PCI Parent Coach in training
A new book by clinical psychologist Michael Osit, entitled Generation Text: Raising Well Adjusted Kids in an Age of Instant Everything, explores why parents need to fight the influence of popular culture and explains how they can do it. The book describes how our current culture has undermined parental authority; changed the developmental tasks of socialization and individuation for teens; and contributed to the escalation of family conflict, personal distress, and learning difficulties for kids today.
The "culture of access and excess" is the foundational theme for this book and Dr. Osit illustrates how this culture has undermined the family. Today's kids have been raised in a time when none of us really needs to wait or work for most of life's conveniences. We are bombarded daily with too much information and too many choices. This plethora of choices and access to anything, at any time, has set parents up to fight many more battles than our parents would have ever encountered with us! To teach our children the lessons that we learned somewhat automatically, we must now become the agents of deprivation and hardship (at least in our children's eyes). In addition, children of today faces increased pressure to perform, to look a certain way and to succeed in material terms. They are faced with so many distractions in the forms of media "tools" that it is a wonder they learn to focus at all. And, compounding the struggle, they have experienced a marked decrease in both the quality and quantity of personal relationships in their immediate families, extended families, and community.
Dr. Osit points to two major trends which have contributed towards our acceptance of access and excess. The first is parental guilt and the second is modeling down.
Why do we feel guilty? Parents receive constant messages encouraging us to give our kids the latest and the best, couched in the persuasive language of advertising and supported by our competitive American culture. There is always something better: a better computer, phone, tutor, sport, vacation, etc. that will somehow guarantee our children's success in life…or at least that is the promise we are sold over and over again. In addition, parents feel guilty about working too long, being too stressed, and not being able to keep up, themselves. Modeling down refers to the phenomenon of kids being given things, both possessions and privileges, at increasingly younger ages. If kids get used to a sophisticated, expensive lifestyle as children, then what will they expect from adulthood? From the standpoint of development, it can be a blow to self-esteem to have to go "backwards" when as a young adult you cannot take care of yourself in the manner you have become accustomed to. When kids receive privileges or information that they are developmentally unprepared for it may become emotionally harmful or even lead to physically harmful situations.
Desensitization and normalization are two of the most damaging results of access and excess, and this doesn't just apply to our kids. As parents, many of us have lost confidence in our own wisdom, deferring instead to the messages of our culture about what kids need to be "successful." No longer do we help our children narrate their life experiences and author their own life story. Instead, we let the industry-generated culture take over that role. For our kids, desensitization and normalization effectively hijack their healthy developmental process. At this age, one of the primary developmental tasks for kids is to work towards independence and autonomy. One of the ways kids accomplish this task is through social referencing. In this process, children observe their environment in order to learn how to interpret information about social situations. Now, consider the "environment" created by the media culture. What messages about dealing with life, engaging with others, overcoming problems, or developing a strong moral character to guide choices are available to our kids?
Another developmental need for this age group is to fit in. It is not simply a desire, but it is part of their inherent developmental drive to define themselves outside of the context of their family in order to develop and assert their individuality. When they are exposed to too much: too much freedom, too much information, too much privilege…then this need to fit in can carry a high price. Kids will put themselves in dangerous situations without understanding the risks they are taking. They believe themselves deserving of any number of precocious entitlements, but exposure to these situations will in fact overwhelm their developing sense of self-confidence and self-worth, in turn creating the anxiety, depression and anger which we see underlying so many of the problem behaviors that are a part of adolescence today.
No parent would consciously choose to put their child at risk in this way, but we do so inadvertently when we buy into the popular messages of what we should do for our kids, abandoning our common sense. Dr. Osit writes, "The acceleration of our children's maturation is largely our own doing. Academic expectation and pressure are imposed on our children, their self-esteem is often compromised." In this vulnerable state, our children become even more receptive to the false promises of advertising and more willing to use popular kids' television characters with their easy, entitled lives as a social referencing tool. If kids are allowed, or encouraged, to participate in social, acquisition, or academic acceleration they will think of themselves as being older which can lead to dangerous attitudes and situations.
Kids are not only receiving an excess of "things," they are also getting a lion's share of the attention and resources in our families. Osit asserts that "generally, in today's society, there is an inordinate amount of attention and unbalanced focus on the children. There has been excessive expenditure of family resources on children, causing parents to sacrifice their own needs." This in turn creates parents who are fatigued, sometimes too tired to fight, and then rules get bent and broken until no one even remembers that they existed. Kids, for their part, are well versed by the industry-generated culture to take advantage of their parents' confusion, fatigue, and competitiveness for the kids to be and to have the best. Kids know how to ask, beg, manipulate and connive to get what they want in what Dr. Osit calls "the relentless pursuit of 'yes.'" Just turn on the Disney Channel and I will guarantee that you will see a program with the entire 30 minute plot revolving around some cute little child doing everything imaginable, regardless of fairness, honesty, or morality to get what they want. In turn, the parents in their world will seem dorky and clueless. This is the messaging that invades our kids' brains, hearts and souls if we let it.
This constant messaging that kids deserve whatever they want has significantly affected their development of a solid work ethic. Popular culture teaches that our desires come before our obligations. It promotes a vast number of gadgets marketed to "help" our kids, while actually providing more distractions than many kids can handle. In addition, instant access and excess has created a low threshold for frustration and an orientation towards instant gratification. When required to work hard, kids will often fall back on a feigned sense of helplessness. With parents too willing to jump in and minimize the challenge so that kids will succeed, plus easy access to technology that gives them answers in seconds, kids have become unmotivated when help is not available and when they must be self-reliant to get the job done.
In the world of our kids, interpersonal communication has given way to inter-machine communication. Kids have quickly adopted all of the most modern communication technology and used it to create elaborate social networks and a virtual teen culture that few parents penetrate. However, parents must understand the potential harm in this. First, our kids have access to people around the world, but they do not yet have the perspective to realize how easily the information that they share so casually can allow a person to actually find them. They have a mystifying belief that nothing bad can ever happen to them, no matter what danger they put themselves in.
The Internet adds a new layer of complexity to our job of keeping them safe by giving them access to the world, and the world access to them. Inter-machine communication also warps our children's views of what relationships really are. Self-esteem is becoming based on the number of "hits" someone gets on their self-published YouTube video or Facebook blog. The qualities of friendship, such as empathy, support, sacrifice, trust, and integrity, have little relevance in this social milieu, significantly impacting our kids' development of important social skills. Their reliance on machines and abbreviated texting language to facilitate their communication is seriously impacting their ability to develop empathy, responsibility, richness of thought and communication and self-esteem. For many young adults today, confusion, stress, and anxiety result when their lack of authentic social and communication skills impact their real day-to-day lives.
Living Systems principles, as put into action by PCI Certified Parent Coaches®, give us a life-affirming place to start, as families, in helping our kids navigate their developmental tasks. When we remember that relationships are primary we are reacquainted with that inner compass that keeps us connected to our kids. Our best and most powerful weapon against the influence of popular culture is our relationship with our children. When we participate in our kids' lives, set the expectation and provide the opportunity for them to participate in the life of the family, then any change we seek can happen. When we understand the impact of our environment then we can create the change we need, not only to protect our kids, but also to enable them to use the good things that technology and our information age do offer to make our families strong, successful, connected, and happy. In Generation Text the author provides many practical suggestions that when used in an Appreciative Inquiry framework can empower parents to not only successfully transcend this culture of access and excess but also to use parts of it to our advantage. As parents, we can empower self-generated individuality (versus media-generated conformity). By connecting with our kids through their interests, accentuating their strengths and accepting who they are, we will champion them on their quest towards individuation. We can set a good example, putting the poetic principle into action. And, we can ask our children questions about their lives and choices in a way that illustrates our belief and respect in their strengths and capabilities, setting them up for success.
PCI Certified Parent Coaches® have a wealth of information to share about the effects of television and culture on families. We can validate the reality of our clients' struggles, affirm their wise inner voices and champion them on their adventure of raising healthy, happy teens. Our PCI model lends itself beautifully to helping parents address their concerns in this arena. Simply by moving through our 4D process they will learn to recognize and refocus on the strengths of their family and kids (discovery); articulate their preferred reality in order to combat the imagery invading their lives from the industry-generated culture we are living in (dream); become empowered to take the action steps needed to protect, support and encourage their children (design) and complete their coaching experience firmly grounded in their own wisdom and strength as a family (destiny). The experience of this process, grounded in a caring relationship with their coach, will catalyze clients to realize that they do have the skill, wisdom, energy, authority, and ability to reclaim their family from the deceptive allure of popular culture.
Generation Text is a valuable read for parents of adolescents. It offers practical, contemporary information that is compatible with the Appreciative Inquiry approach of our PCI model. I believe that it is especially valuable when used in conjunction with the concepts of the Vital 5 and Brain Compatible Parenting as these are important concepts that Generation Text doesn't really touch on. The Vital Five are described in detail in Gloria DeGaetano's book, Parenting Well in a Media Age. As parent coaches, one of our goals is to transform the culture through our support of families. In Generation Text there is an unfortunate conclusion that the absorption of our kids into a high-tech, media driven world is inescapable and we must, as parents, work within this inevitability instead of against it. I think that one of the invaluable benefits of parent coaching is that we can share with clients the inspiration, enthusiasm, conviction and vision to escape the "inevitable," dream the "impossible," and make their heartfelt desires for a high quality family life a reality.
Margann Duke holds an M.S. degree in counseling/psychology and is currently enrolled in the Parent Coach Certification® Training Program at the PCI. She lives with her husband and four children in Reno, Nevada.
Copyright © 2009 Margann Duke, all rights reserved. Used with permission.