Helicopter parents. Snowplow parents. Tiger moms.
Sometime starting around the early 1990s, raising kids turned into a pursuit populated by caricatures. There was an implicit hierarchy among these archetypes, one designed to validate and divide. Don’t do baby-led weaning? Your child will never raise a fork at a Princeton eating club. Not a violin virtuoso or a soccer superstar? Prepare for a lifetime of mediocrity. Do not pass go, and do not collect six figures.
Parental tribalism was amplified by the media, of course. The phrase “Mommy War” first cropped up in Texas Monthly in 1989, with The Washington Post and Newsweek following suit. But the polarizing headlines reflected something real: the commercialization and commodification of middle-class childhood. In this worldview, American adulthood is a highway, goals masquerade as milestones, and achievement is always just over the horizon — but never quite within reach.
But I’m calling it. Perfectionist parenting is on its way out, and lower-stakes parenting is the way of the future. My generation of parents in their 30s and 40s does not want to have it all — it is a false bargain. We are tired, our kids are stressed out, and our values have changed.
One of the places this shift is clearest is in education. The January 2023 Parenting in America Today survey from Pew Research Center puts numbers to what I’ve sensed ever since COVID hit: We’re over it. Eighty-eight percent of parents think it’s important for their children to have jobs or careers they enjoy once they reach adulthood, while just 41 percent say it’s important that they have a college degree. In contrast, a Pew survey released in 2012 found that college “remains a near-universal aspiration in this country,” with 94 percent of parents expecting their children to attend college.
Parents’ number-one concern is now their children’s mental health, according to the most recent Pew data. How could it not be? Approximately 1 in 6 youth reported seriously considering attempting suicide in 2019 — a 44 percent increase from just one decade earlier, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kind of puts Advanced Placement classes and enrichment programs into perspective.
Earlier generations of kids were raised on Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind. Lesley University education chair Lisa Fiore once described it to me as a holdover from the Industrial Era, which trained “children to sit, to be vessels, to listen, and to go off and be productive workers as we were shifting from an agricultural society to a more industrialized society,” she said. She spoke of it as a fear- and outcomes-based education model grounded in competition, not personal development.
This happened against the backdrop of women returning to work full time, turning camps and enrichment opportunities into de facto child care — with limited availability and tough competition for places. Middle-class parents began to panic: Which camp did you get into? Which music class? Who can afford what? And what time do I have to be at pick-up?
“I feel like so much of what we do culturally originates in necessity versus a thoughtful process,” says Chris Owens, an Arlington dad who recalls his decidedly more laid-back childhood in South Boston during the 1980s.
“[This started] with so many parents needing care coverage,” he says. “So many extracurriculars, things like camps, after-school sports, music, and extra math . . . originated in the need for the kids to do something while we were at work.”
But parents are increasingly questioning the larger purpose of all that enrichment. Now our attitudes are shifting from perfectionistic to purpose-driven, with our own kids having the freedom to explore interests authentically instead of shuttling from checkpoint to checkpoint. A new generation of families is pushing back, thinking creatively about the very definitions of success and fulfillment.
I know this from interviewing hundreds of families for my upcoming book, Generation Yes, which examines how modern parents are making choices that align with our values. The interviews are revealing, but the data are telling, too.
Consider: More kids than ever are enrolling at vocational schools in Massachusetts, pursuing classes in nontraditional subjects such as Web development, biotechnology, and robotics engineering, in addition to the classic trades. It’s actually becoming an accessibility problem: Statewide, there were nearly two applications for every vocational program seat, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The soaring popularity of vocational education speaks to the fact that more parents are embracing this model as a new pathway toward success, preparing students to go to college or to begin well-paying careers straight out of high school. Vocational school leaders say that the long-held myth attached to the trade schools — that these were places to send kids who couldn’t succeed in mainstream high schools — is fading fast.
Kathleen A. Dawson, superintendent of the Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical School District in Lexington, points to the growing misalignment between unemployment and unfilled jobs.
“On a national and global level, [there was] an inflection point: Wait a minute, why is that? Why is that a disconnect? If you look at education, for a long time, everything was: ‘Every kid must go to college. Every kid must go to college.’ And what we’re realizing now is: Guess what? Some of our industry needs don’t require that typical college pathway,” Dawson says.
Families that once might have aimed for private colleges and universities are also reconsidering state schools. Think about the University of Massachusetts — sometimes known as “Zoo Mass” when today’s parents were doing keg stands. Now, UMass is more popular than ever. In fall 2022, all four undergraduate campuses (Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth, and Lowell) enrolled roughly 11,200 first-year students, an increase of 9.8 percent over fall 2021 and 13.1 percent over 2017. This year, they received 85,900 applications from first-year students, a 20.2 percent increase from 2017.
Why? Many families are considering return on investment instead of name-brand recognition. At the Amherst flagship, in-state annual tuition and fees total $17,364; at Amherst College down the street, the cost is $63,500. The state-school stigma has faded, and priorities are changing.
“UMass is a very good bargain. Let’s be honest. It’s got a very good reputation, and the price is right for Massachusetts residents,” says Eric Stutman, a private college consultant in Needham who urges parents to look beyond rankings and name recognition when making their choices. He’s a particular fan of the school’s Isenberg School of Management, now ranked the No. 1 public business school in the Northeast by U.S. News & World Report.
“It’s just super respectable these days,” Stutman says. “You got a very good education at a good price, and who could blame you?”
The safety school reputation has been supplanted by a strong track record of return on investment, and highly ranked amenities — it’s routinely ranked No. 1 for food by The Princeton Review — don’t hurt, either.
“The key to it is, in order to attract students, you need programs that are ranked highly in terms of ROI,” University of Massachusetts’ president, Marty Meehan, says. “I think the reputation of UMass has increased dramatically in the past 10 to 15 years [thanks to] high-paying jobs in life sciences, computer science, health care, business, entrepreneurship. It’s important to be strong in those areas where there are jobs.
“You combine that with private institutions raising tuition and fees every year by 4, 5, 6 percent, literally for the last 30 years,” he says. “People are responding to the more reasonable price point, but we couldn’t attract students if we didn’t increase in the rankings.”
Belmont’s Catherine Scott recalls a recent visit to an elite New England private college with two of her kids — a summertime day trip during COVID — where she suddenly wondered: What’s it all for? Are elite colleges going to be worth it in a few years?
“I thought: You know what? I’m not sure this is even something I should be trying to help them queue themselves up for. Why? For what?” she says.
Scott feels the tension between what’s “expected” in an achievement-oriented town such as Belmont and what true success means.
“There’s the presumption that, if you get your child into the right programs and make them train in the right ways and teach them what being a successful person means in these subliminal ways — extra coaching, extra tutoring, high-achieving summer programs, internships — if you teach them what being a successful person is and what it means, they will A) go to a good college and B) replicate the family structure of success themselves,” she says.
But is that trajectory quickly becoming meaningless in a changing world? My two sons are growing up amid the threat of climate change, pandemics, and more, in which standard models of achievement might not be applicable for much longer. I want them to learn adaptability and resilience — and if that’s taught in AP Psychology, great. But if they’re merely doing work for work’s sake? Well, I’d rather them enjoy life in the moment, because we can’t engineer the future. COVID taught us that.
“We’re on the verge of tremendous cultural, societal, institutional changes. We’re already seeing changes to supply systems, shortages, slippages, ruptures,” Scott says. “This means I’m going to think really hard about my children’s day-to-day life. I can throw pegs toward their future, but I also want to see them living well now.” Essentially, it’s finally time that we think twice about boarding the assembly-line track toward success. These days, who knows where it will end up?
That might explain why so many parents are also considering qualitative factors such as mental health resources when evaluating colleges, something that seemed unthinkable a generation ago. The number of students seeking help at campus counseling centers increased almost 40 percent between 2009 and 2015, according to Penn State University’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health. Colleges with proven track records of supporting those students, and that offer a healthy mix of academics and fun, are priorities for today’s parents. Happiness matters, regardless of school.
Kids say they want “academic and social balance,” says Marianne Thompson, a college admissions counselor based in Concord. But now “even the parents are saying they don’t want their child to be in an intense environment where they have to study so hard that they can’t have the downtime to hang out with friends or do extracurricular activities.”
“During and after the pandemic, we’ve talked about how to evaluate a college’s mental health resources,” she says. “When you’re going on a tour, raise your hand: Where are the mental health services? How easy are they to access? How long does it take to get an appointment? How many appointments are free? Are there therapists on campus?”
“Before COVID, we were reaching a boiling point [of] pressure for kids,” Kristin Marachi, a counselor at a local high school, says. “COVID shifted the conversation to mental health. People weren’t talking about it pre-COVID,” she says. “I am hearing less of: ‘Oh my God, my kid needs to get straight A’s and get into Brown,’” she says. “It’s: ‘I need my kid to go to school.’”
Outside the classroom, the face of high school sports is changing, too. According to 2021-2022 data from the National Federation of State High School Associations, enrollment in high school sports is down 4 percent overall from its 2018-2019 data. However, many noncompetitive sports are blossoming: The biggest participation increase among both boys and girls is golf, with bass fishing and bowling also on the rise.
There are also more options for students that go beyond mainstream, more cutthroat sports such as football or basketball. Competitive video gaming, known as eSports, is growing in popularity, giving an outlet to kids who might not excel in traditional sports. Adaptive and unified sports, wherein kids with and without disabilities play together, also registered a 163 percent increase from three years ago, the group found.
And then there are the parents — the burned-out, tired, pandemic-wizened parents who are looking for ways to simplify and reprioritize. Many parents told me that they just can’t afford expensive enrichment opportunities. But even some who can afford them are worried about more pressing issues such as social justice, and they feel that giving their kids those kinds of advantages isn’t necessary or even fair.
“This topic really resonated with me. I struggle with how much [of a] leg up I should give my already privileged child in this world,” says Amanda Rychel, a Somerville parent of a 10-year-old-son who is deliberately under-scheduled. “I hope I’m raising a kid who’s learning how to set his own goals and work for them with some intrinsic self-direction. If we are always pushing them and doing things for them, we may not be doing our kids any favors down the road,” she says.
Chris Owens, the Arlington dad, used to run eyeglass shops until he was laid off during COVID. He had arranged his work schedule for weekends and nights so he can spend time with his two young kids during the day. He’s trying to tune out the programming push.
“I see these kids doing all of these things that feel like achievements, right? They’re doing so many sports, or they’re in all these programs that theoretically will advance them academically. And you go: Am I depriving them of something? I’ve been involved in that, despite the fact that my sense of things is that childhood needs to be filled with a fair amount of boredom and downtime — time to process what’s going on in their school lives and in their personal lives,” he says.
Jules Batchelor, a former Division III athlete and personal trainer who lives in Boxborough with her sporty kids, is constantly resisting the urge to push more and more.
“I just want to say: ‘I miss 1985,’” she says. “In one of the best school districts in the state, with some of the best athletics in the state, some of the nicest homes in the state, some of the best opportunities and kindest people in the state, I often look around and wonder: Why isn’t it enough for so many? . . . Am I doing something wrong by not chasing the even higher aspirations of so many parents around me?”
For now, she’s resisting the overscheduling pull, but it’s hard.
“I worry that without the extra leg up that so many around them are taking advantage of, will mine end up in the bottom of the barrel despite my whole-hearted belief in their capabilities? Is that really enough?” she asks.
Batchelor recently traveled to New York City with her two teenagers. They went to the Museum of Ice Cream. For a moment, time — and pressure — didn’t exist.
“My fragile self wanted to freeze this moment, reminding me that they are still kids, and this is exactly what being a kid is about,” she says. “I want them to enjoy it.”