What Mad Men Tells Us About Why Millennials Feel Special

“I have a confession to make…  I am special. It’s not my fault that I’m special, I’m just living up to the expectations that have been placed on me by the people who designed my generation.”- – Dan Murphy, Millennial, The Student Affairs Blog

sally draperOne of the pleasures of watching Mad Men is reflecting on how much things have changed, mostly for the better.  Pregnant women no longer smoke and garter belts are a thing of the past.  One of the more jarring and unsettling reminders of how much things have changed is in the depiction of parenting styles.  

 It’s hard not to feel sorry for Sally, Don and Betty Drapers’ young daughter.  Sally is incidental to her parent’s lives;  even with a full-time, stay-home mom she is emotionally starving.  She is locked in a closet for trying one of her parent’s ubiquitous cigarettes. Don yells at her for being too noisy and Betty frequently tells her to go someplace and ‘play’.  When Grandpa Gene (the only adult in her life who shows her any meaningful interest) dies there is no grief counseling or even any sense that Sally might need some help processing what happened.  If the show goes on another 5 years, I forsee Sally’s transformation into a rebellious flower child who smokes marijuana, marches in anti-war protest rallies and runs away from home, to her parents complete befuddlement and dismay.  This is the scenario Philip Roth wrote about so poignantly in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, “American Pastoral”.

As someone who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, I relate to Sally. I had the exact same Barbie doll, the same play clothes and I can almost smell the secondhand smoke.  My parents’ lives were separate from mine, mysterious and adult.  I didn’t run away from home, but neither did I have any intention of returning once I graduated from college and as I recall I even spent a few summers working in other cities.  

My mother recently confided she wished she could ‘do it all over’, meaning she wished she could go back and do some of the things my sister and I do with our children. While there is no doubt that we lead more child-centric lives than my parents did, I assured her I don’t feel deprived. It was a different time.  We didn’t know anyone else who had parents who spent time playing dolls, cooking or making things with them. Parents were not a resource for homework help. We didn’t have any expectation of educational vacations, dinners out or nights spent at home bonding.  Kids were kids, parents got dressed up and went out. Someday we would be grown ups and have grown up lives like them.

Prevailing parenting styles for Millennials today are significantly different from those depicted on Mad Men or even ‘That 70’s Show’. Boomer and Gen X parents actively and consciously put their children first.  They are anxious about their children’s physical and emotional health and their self-esteem.  Boomer and Gen X parents have become famous for hovering, helicoptering, coaching, tutoring, chaffeuring and stage managing their children’s lives. The result is what is perhaps the first generation that feels no need to rebel against their parents. Why should they? Their parents are their biggest pals, advocates and cheerleaders.  

While most parents I talk to show no regrets about their parenting and the closeness they have with their Millennial kids, they have a new anxiety to worry about.  They wonder if perhaps they should have been a little tougher, a little less ‘unconditional’ with the praise?  They worry that they have made their children feel too special. Are they adequately prepared, as resilient and motivated as they will need to be?  Could it be that they over nurtured their children?

NurtureShock4A new book by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, titled Nuture Shock, hits this parental sore spot dead on.  The first chapter, “The Inverse Power of Praise”, cites research that claims it is a ‘fact’ that too much praise has unintended consequences.  

“Scholars from Reed College and Stanford reviewed over 150 praise studies. Their meta-analysis determined that praised students become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy. The scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students’ “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.” When they get to college, heavily-praised students commonly drop out of classes rather than suffer a mediocre grade, and they have a hard time picking a major they’re afraid to commit to something because they’re afraid of not succeeding.”

Millennials are a unique generation. Many of the characteristics we associate with Gen Y are directly attributable to prevailing parenting styles.  The pendulum may have swung too far and we may be seeing signs of a return to tougher type of love.  But, I doubt we will see a return to the ‘authoritarian’ style of the 60’s any time soon. Millennials are likely to take the best of what they saw modeled by their own parents and add their own unique spin.