Chapel Hill: Opinion

Mary Carey: When the third parent takes over

Millennials, those born from 1980-2000, have been described as entitled and narcissistic. It seems we, Generation X parents, have failed miserably in raising mature, conscientious adults with healthy egos.

I would like to present a defense for myself, and my fellow Gen X parents. We are the first generation to contend with a new, hard-to-please authority that has moved in and taken over. This authority figure, a tyrannical third parent, directs nearly every activity in our households.

When we suggest our son should make his bed, this third parent says: “I don’t care what his room looks like. He has three A.P. classes. Let him study.”

When we insist our sons and daughters have more responsibilities around the house, this third parent laughs and asks what our kids have done for the community. Forget the family.

Who is this third parent?

It is the college application.

If your child is considering applying to one of our local, nationally recognized universities, this third parent is a cruel taskmaster. Parents get pushed aside, relegated to the roles of agent and manager to the celebrity of the student.

If two adults ran around making sure you were where you needed to be, were on the right team, enrolled in all the right classes, wouldn’t you start to think maybe you were someone very special?

If an entire household spent four years focused on your quests for glory in the classroom and on the field, might you become a little self-centered? If those adults packed your bags, made your bed, cleaned your room, and did your laundry, how would you avoid developing a sense of entitlement?

This third parent tells us our child can do anything, just not empty the dishwasher.

There is no time for playing an active role in the family. Practice begins at 7:30 a.m. School goes until 3:50, and then there is afternoon practice until 6:30. Hours of homework take up the evening. Travel teams and volunteering take up the weekends, and SAT classes are Sunday afternoons.

Previous generations said, “You can’t do anything until your chores are done.” Today’s parents, recognizing the stress on our overscheduled teens, absolve them of most responsibilities in the home.

A very wise woman, Priscilla Bratcher, offered me this advice: “Remember, you aren’t raising a happy child. You are raising a happy adult.” Those words resonated with me for many reasons. What struck me most is the acknowledgement that very often, what will produce a happy child, will eventually produce a very unhappy adult. Entitled and narcissistic is not how most happy adults are described.

Is it possible these negative traits are the unintended consequences of parents wanting the best for their child, and jumping through endless hoops to provide it? Are the tracks for the crazy train to get into Duke, N.C. State and UNC paved with good intentions?

What can we do to stop this parade of entitled young adults whose only family responsibility is to get the big envelope? How can we change a sports schedule back to being one season, instead of year round? How can we restore the evening meal?

Does this third parent ever examine its role in shaping millennials?

Universities claim to want students with grit and perseverance. The college application appears to want students whose parents can provide tutors, SAT prep classes, international travel for language and culture immersion, tuition for university classes while still in high school, the financial ability to play at least one sport. It also helps to be good at something really obscure, so it wouldn’t hurt to get some lessons in juggling or lampshade making.

Who knew you could buy grit and perseverance?

I don’t know which came first, the extraordinary accomplishments needed to get into the best schools or the helicopter parents providing everything for their children in order to get them into the best schools. I don’t know when we handed over the reins of our family to this third parent, the college application process. I do feel though, regardless of unintended consequences, we all did set out to raise happy adults.

Mary Carey lives in Chapel Hill.