Feature writing


The slouch generation

The Times

July 7, 2012


When the American journalist Sally Koslow’s son Rory was at school, his class debated corporal punishment. Koslow, then a women’s magazine editor, let Rory research it himself. But the father of the boy he was paired with, a lawyer, enlisted staff at his practice to help his son. Rory was judged to be a better debater. Koslow later overheard the other boy’s mother, sure that with the expert support he would emerge victorious, say: “How could you have lost to Rory Koslow?”

Far from the “tiger mothers” ruthlessly focused on their children’s academic and professional success, Koslow, the author of a new, much talked-about book, recommends “unparenting”. Her book, Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest, doesn’t recommend an abdication of parenting duties, but a loosening of the stays modern parents apply to their offspring, whether it’s relentless high achievement at school, or the endless ferrying to and from sports, activities and extra tuition. She writes: “The best way for a lot of us to show our love would be to learn to un-mother and un-father . . . It’s one thing to provide our children shelter in a storm and another to function as their entire weather system.”

“Benign neglect can have its benefits,” Koslow tells me. Her book focuses on the return to the nest of adult children, including her own, and how parents can encourage these indulged slackers to embrace adulthood rather than remain “adultescents” existing “in a perfect storm of overconfidence, a sense of never-ending time and a grim reaper of a job market”.

To break the cycle, Koslow says, “mothers and fathers need to step back so kids can step forward. This may require some remedial classes in cooking, car maintenance and housekeeping in order to teach adult children to manage on their own”.

Koslow’s theory was highlighted, to much debate, in a recent New Yorker article. A raft of manuals have been published recently in the US designed to rebalance the mollycoddled generation,with titles such as The Price of Privilege, The Narcissism Epidemic, Mean Moms Rule and A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting. Today’s parents are not just “helicopter parents”, one former school principal tells Hara Estroff Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps. “They are a jet-powered turbo attack model.”

Koslow lives on New York’s Upper West Side and sees stressed children and stressed parents all the time. “Overparenting is a natural trend,” she says. “It’s very tempting for parents to become concierges, especially able women who have had demanding careers and given those up to become full-time parents: it’s like an extension of their professional selves to micromanage their children’s lives. It may be rooted in the best of intentions, but I think those parents are holding their children back.”

Koslow “un-mothered” Jed (now 35, a lawyer) and Rory (29, a film executive). “I was editor-in-chief of a magazine. I didn’t have the time to be there [at home]. My children learnt to do things for themselves. In the two-hour gap between him getting home and me, one of my sons learnt to cook.” Her children attended “very competitive” schools: one private, one not. “They were less spoilt than their friends. At the private school, my son’s friends’ parents would give their children $200 [£130] for after school: sushi, movies, going to a club. He stopped hanging out with them.”

Elisabeth Guthrie, associate clinical professor of psychiatry and paediatrics at Columbia University, says: “Children suf- fer when they are made the centre of atten- tion. Parents put them through all this extra tuition and activities with the best of intentions. Today, we like to do things quickly, but it takes time for a child to develop. There is no fast-track.”

Parents can be “kiddie-whipped”, as Guthrie puts it, by spoilt children. She has seen New York parents “giving in to requests for plastic surgery for 16-year-olds” and children taking medication for “neuro-enhancement”, to help score A grades. Un-parenting means “letting kids fall where they may and letting them dust themselves off. It’s hard to do, especially when ‘parenting’ is sold so hard by advertisers. Anxiety sells.”

Koslow recalls talking to another mother on the phone. “At her end, her child was demanding attention and she was talking to us both. Instead of saying ‘Mummy will be five minutes’, she was giving the message that ‘You, my child, are more important than anything’, that the Universe would bend to the child’s will — and, of course, it won’t.”