Gen-X Parents Seek the Middle Ground to Raising Kids

If the so-called Gen-Xers were slackers in their youth, then they are proving to be anything but in parenthood.

In fact, if recent surveys are any indication, the generation born in the late 1960s and '70s — many of whom are only now starting to have families — are embracing a much more conventional, discipline-oriented approach to raising children than their baby-boom predecessors.

They have seen the results of what President Bush in his State of the Union address last week called the If-It-Feels-Good-Do-It philosophy — John Walker Lindh, who cast his lot among Afghanistan's Taliban, comes to mind — and they don't like it one bit.

"They've looked at the baby boomers and felt that maybe they were too permissive with their kids, gave them too many choices," said Parenting magazine Executive Editor Lisa Bain. "There is a return to certain traditional values, values of religion and spiritualism and giving them a sense of home and place."

But it's traditional with a twist. Gen-Xers don't seem to be falling back on the ultra-strict, obey-without-questioning child-raising philosophies their grandparents held dear.

"There has to be a balance," said Wayne, N.J., stay-at-home mom Judy Salmanson, 35. She describes herself as the family disciplinarian while her boomer husband opts for the familiar lenient-parenting style.

"You want to be your child's friend, so they're not scared to come and talk to you about things," she said. "But at the same time, there have to be rules and guidelines. They have to respect you."

Because Gen-Xers grew up in an era full of divorce and latchkey-kid syndrome, they tend to be more cautious and pragmatic about marrying and having children, and more flexible about molding their careers so they have time at home.

"One thing we've heard from our [Gen-X] readers is that they start planning how they're going to be parents before they even get pregnant," Bain said.

"They've seen their mothers try to juggle everything and they don't want to do that ... Family stability is very important to them. There's much more focus on getting jobs that are family-friendly."

According to a recent survey by the Yankelovich marketing firm, 89 percent of Gen-Xers in 1999 thought modern parents let their kids get away with too much. Sixty-five percent favored a return to a more traditional sense of parental duty and 57 percent wanted to revive traditional standards of marriage.

Experts and Gen-X parents say they're adopting their own philosophy of child-rearing, one that incorporates communication between the generations as well as firm rules. It's an approach aimed at fostering two-parent households in which both partners can be equally involved at home and in their careers.

"We think it's beneficial for kids to have both parents in the house," said Tim Johnson, 28, of Olympia, Wash., the father of a one-year-old. "We look at it as a shared privilege to be able to spend time with the child."

That translates into tricky scheduling maneuvers and flexible jobs.

Johnson is a self-employed contractor whose wife works part-time for the government; his wife goes to the office from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. while he stays with the baby. Once she arrives home to take over, he heads to work.

Like many others in their generation, the Johnsons think the dual-career, dual-parenting way sets a good example of balancing family time with a strong work ethic.

But since this parenting style is still in its infancy — with many Gen-Xers just now coming into their own as breeders — its success remains to be seen. After all, the older and more independent children get, the less control parents are able to maintain, regardless of their generation.

Yet 20- and 30-somethings seem determined to become good, involved parents and hope to avoid the mistakes of previous generations.

"It's not necessarily the same way their parents or grandparents did it — it's more pragmatic," Bain said. "They're coming back to some sort of middle: You can discipline a child and not destroy their sense of self."