Recently, I was eating in a fast-food restaurant while looking over old Little League team photographs I found at my mother’s home nearby. At one point, three tween-aged girls and a mom sat next to me. The girls started making fun of a teacher from their school, focusing on her appearance. The mother chimed in, “Yeah, she could really stand to lose a few pounds. And what’s up with that hair, right?” she said, panning the other side of the table for response. The girls squealed. “I know, right?” one of them said. The mother smiled.
“Hey!” the mother said. “Who wants a pumpkin spice latte?”
Hands shot up. “Can we get extra shots in it?” one girl asked.
The mother nodded. “Uh, yuhh!”
Lord knows this wasn’t a gold medal moment in parenthood, let alone adulthood. But, honestly: How many of us aren’t guilty of pandering to our children at times, solely in the name of “Likes?”
How many of us wouldn’t love to be the snarky dad on the Cheerios commercial who’s as unflappable as Bugs Bunny as he swaggers through his home, wooing his adolescent children with cereal and bon mots? As one mother opined on Salon.com, “I want to see a commercial where Mom is never cranky. Where her kids are following her like a pied piper—by choice!—with a Black Keys soundtrack cranking in the background.”
Cool parent cred seems to be the rage in this age when we’re paralyzed with the fear of appearing old in front of our children. But there’s a problem with the cool parent moniker no one seems to talk about. (Well, many problems, really.) As someone who teaches at a large, diverse public university, I see firsthand the collateral damage that occurs from kids who are schooled in cool. And if there’s one thing I see, semester in, semester out, it’s that we do our children an epic disservice by modeling behavior that hurts them—sometimes with tragic consequences—in the long run. If we want to do right by our children, then we should cool it.
Many of them begin their riffs on classmates’ comments, even if they disagree with them, with the refrain, “First, I agree completely with what you just said…” It’s gotten to the point where I have to ask students to put their heads down whenever I take an in-class poll because, like the middle-schoolers I once taught, too many of them are quick to side with the majority. Interestingly, the few students who consistently vote with their own conscience sometimes arrive from home schooling backgrounds. This begs an interesting question: Is there a causal connection between self possession and learning if mean girls, the ‘cool’ lunch table and the pressure to stay looped in with classmates around the clock don’t exist?
But that’s far from the worst of it. Every semester I pore over personal essays, reflections and doctor’s notes from students recovering from eating disorders (and bullying) and fighting battles with debilitating depression and anxiety. Of course these illnesses have roots in chemical imbalances, and, that said, many of these imbalances are triggered by excessive stress and duress, sometimes from peer pressure.
Apparently, those aren’t the only factors. A 2013 study “Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults” found that the more college-aged students used Facebook, the more they experienced declines in moment-to-moment happiness and overall life satisfaction. Other studies have found links between excessive Facebook use and spikes in anxiety and depression.
Part of the problem with ‘cool’ today is that it means something radically different from what it meant for a long time. Before the late 1960s cool or hip was a singular protest—a vacant stare here, a mute nod there—by disaffected Americans. Since then, cool has been morphing from a political statement to a self-serving, at times desperate, need to simply fit in with a culture of conformity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the place where our children spend most of their time, the Internet.
A big part of cool today means curating a Photoshop-perfect (read: Extraordinary) image in social media, staying constantly looped into whatever pop culture news has gone viral and blithely dropping pithy, snarky tweets and text messages, as if this was the way we talk all of the time. In other words, you’re cool if you’re relevant.
Americans have been at it since post-World War II, when they started fretting over the Joneses next door. But the Internet and smart phones have ratcheted up this outwardly focused definition of self to distressing heights.
In an age when we’re expected to be always on—a 2014 study finds that Generation Y spends 18 hours a day plugged in, more than five of those hours devoted to such user generated content as social media, YouTube, blogs—the pressure to be relevant is overwhelming.
This means that our children, even some of us, are forever gauging what we should be thinking and posting based on what will reel in the most ‘Likes.’ The bottom line: In an age when we rarely have the time or resources to critically process whether we even cotton to what’s considered relevant, we unwittingly learn to define ourselves from without—by whatever is trending.
Clearly, this pressure to appear relevant around the clock is taking its toll on our children. Yet some parents unwittingly encourage it. They wean their children on smartphones, and plunk their toddlers down in front of tablets, under the conceit that such popular technology will give their toddlers a leg up in the digital age.
The problem with this, just like the problem with buying your daughters’ friends rounds of espresso, is that many adults who fear their own irrelevance look to their children or whatever’s trending for guidance.
Not that long ago adults didn’t worry about appearing culturally relevant. They had no interest in being their daughter’s BFF. They accepted their square grayness and modeled an emotional maturity that taught self possession.
Before I left that fast-food restaurant, I looked at the photos of the coaches of my Little League youth. There they were—Mr. Schutz, Mr. Compar, middle-aged guys with buzz haircuts, wearing baseball caps, white undershirts and trousers (as they called them) practically hugging their chests. The word ‘cool’ never would have been batted their way. But time and time again they encouraged and supported the wincingly awkward and nerdy kids—the ones many parents today smirk at along with their children.
I grabbed the bill of my baseball cap that was facing backwards and turned it around until it faced forward. The tweens nearby stopped tossing bits of bagel across the table, looked at each other and giggled. I channeled my old coaches as I pointed and said, “You’re going to clean that up, right?”
Andrew Reiner teaches writing and cultural studies at Towson University.
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