Connections Between Generations

J. D. Salinger's 'The Catcher in the Rye' speaks equally well to my generation and my parents' generation. In the age of Facebook, can we find another cultural phenomenon that can connect us to our children's generation?

Reading the New York Times obituary of J. D. Salinger yesterday brought me right back to my profound feelings of adolescent alienation and angst. No work of art touched me more deeply in those years than his classic novel, The Catcher in the Rye.

What’s intriguing now, looking back at my deep connection with Salinger’s timeless protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is how a semi-autobiographical story from the 1930s, published in the early 1950s in a dominant medium of that age (i.e. a paperback novel), could touch an adolescent of the 1970s so deeply.

Will our little kids, adolescents of the 2010s, connect deeply with a story from four decades before – i.e. the 1970s? Will they consume it in a medium of the early 1990s, before the Internet explosion?
I certainly hope so, but I’m skeptical. I hope so because that would mean that my children could connect to adolescent experiences from my era, and they could do it through a medium I grew up with.

I’m skeptical because today’s children’s day-to-day experiences are changing so much faster, to the point that some people are talking about mini-generation gaps between kids a mere 10 years apart. The huge chasm between kids today and us parents is vividly illustrated in the recently published Kaiser Family Foundation study on children’s electronic media consumption. (See my article on this.)

The study finds that children spend practically every minute of their day that they are not sleeping or in school consuming electronic media that didn’t exist when I was a kid. What’s more, during roughly half of the time they spend consuming these media, they are multitasking – i.e. “consuming” more than one medium at a time.

Two electric media have come to dominate teenagers’ social lives: the Internet and mobile phones. Decades ago, teens would go to physical places to hang out with friends and romantic interests. Now, they spend far more time hanging out on online social networks and texting on their mobile phones.

In fact, today’s teens play out entire romantic dramas on Facebook. They “sext”. They get driven to depression, even suicide, by people they’ve never even met physically. They live “second lives” all from their bedrooms in immersive virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and Second Life. Everything about these experiences is totally alien to most parents today.

I and many others have lamented the objective, psychological effects of this radical change in children’s lives. Here, though, I’m concerned with another issue, a much more selfish one.

To what extent will I be able to connect with my children, and them with me? Salinger’s novel spoke equally well to my parents’ generation and mine. We all mourn his passing equally.

I realize that every generation of parents laments how different their children’s worlds are from theirs, but the cultural difference between us parents and our kids today is unprecedented.

I want my children to grow up in a culture that I understand, so that I can maintain some fundamental connection with them. Sadly, I worry that this is becoming less and less possible.

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5 Responses to Connections Between Generations

  1. Mike Lanza says:

    BTW, here’s an article that asks some teenagers of today whether The Catcher in the Rye resonates with them. In the article, at least, the “nays” slightly outnumber the “yays.”

  2. Grace_Cha_FB says:

    This is my trick. I try to stay ahead of the times, catching up with my kids if not ahead of them in most trends they are getting into, so they get the idea that mom will always be there and mom knows. A bit creepy, I know, but I am glad to say that they feel very comfortable with talking to me over MSN, playing games with me. I also get to become familiar with what pitfalls they may encounter out there.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Mike,

    In my opinion “Catcher in the Rye” reflects a particular state of a child’s psyche, which is pretty much limited to the 50s plus minus 20 years or so in some most developed Western countries. It’s an insightful look into this state, indeed. I would be more worried if my children cannot relate to characters from “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” what is completely possible, so thank you for raising this issue. Yet there is another one, which is continuing as a leitmotiv through several of your posts and which I would like to address here.

    A desire for parents to be able to relate to their children, to be emotionally and intellectually close with them is, probably, quite universal over time and space. “Childhood’s End” by Arthur Clark has a very vivid description of what happened when children suddenly joined with the Overmind, which was infinitely more advanced than humankind’s collective mind, making all parents’ skills, abilities, knowledge and experience irrelevant for them.

    The strong connection between parents and children can help with creating an efficient inter-generational learning channel. But in fractured societies, where adults are severely deprived of deep relationships with their peers—both long-time friends and relatives, the desire for connection may have different roots and may easily become dysfunctional. The instances of widespread hovering and, in general, keeping children away from their peers may be an outcome of this mostly subconscious attempt by parents to fill this void in “human” relationships. In this case children are forced to spend too much time in adults’ society and to grow up too fast, depriving them of childhood and producing creatures that look as adults on the surface, but never had sufficient time and intensity of experience for becoming really self-assured, compassionate, intellectually and emotionally capable individuals. There may be other forces acting in the same direction–for example competitiveness-induced desire to bring children fast to the level of adult achievements—but the disproportionally large desire for connection is more subtle and less discussed, I believe.

    The unbalanced strive for connection with their children may trigger a self-reinforcing spiral working against the parents’ aspirations. Namely, being deprived of interaction with peers, children are whiny and uncomfortable while being in company of their parents, making parents to spend even more time on establishing the connection, which takes away time, which children need to spend with their peers.

    If parents are not damaged by a life-long continuous participation in competitive relationships to the point that they are not capable for anything else (as captured in Bob Dylan’s “All I really Want to Do”), as a rule there is an innate connection between them and their biological children: the same connection that serves as a foundation for unconditional love. This connection influences any interaction of parents and children and determines the extent and kind of their influence on each other. Can it be improved? I think so, but in a smaller degree than most of us would like to believe. And this kind of resistance may be not so bad, because the connection cannot be easily destroyed by parents too. So, instead of constantly worrying about losing it, we can go on with doing what is actually good for children rather than what makes them feel good at that moment.

    I wonder if anybody else sees it as a problem that in order to maximize the connection many modern parents try to be friends rather parents to their children and actually become an obstacle for children to find friends among their peers?

  4. Perla_Ni_FB says:

    Harry Potter – that’s our generation’s connection with our kids.

  5. lr_khaimovich says:

    Perla, could you please elaborate for those of us who are clueless like me about Harry Potter.