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The Parentification of America
Today's youth feel the burdens of adulthood, not the freedoms.
It was kind of like being Cinderella, without the glass slipper.
Parentification happens when an adult places too much responsibility on a child. It’s a form of abuse. An adult might make them the primary caregiver of another family member. They might make them pay bills or get a job to supplement family income. They might confide in their child in ways they’re not prepared for. Meanwhile, the parent still tries to maintain the image of authority. The child might still have a curfew or a bedtime, even when they’re in charge of their mom’s medication, cooking dinner, or making sure their younger brother finishes their homework. Parentified children often deal with all the demands of adulthood, but none of the freedoms. As a parentified child, I know a little about that.
I’m not exaggerating when I say this:
We’re witnessing the parentification of America. We’re watching it play out on a national scale, as older affluent Americans shirk their responsibilities and fall back on childish logic to justify increasingly reckless, selfish, aggressive agendas. Teenagers are having to contemplate a sixth mass extinction happening in their lifetimes. Rather than help them develop the emotional tools to deal with that, most of the adults in their lives are telling them to pretend it’s not happening. They want them doing homework and chores, studying for tests, playing sports, filling out college applications, doing public service, and working jobs.
The perception is that young people are lazy or addicted to their phones. The reality is they’re doing more than ever. Among all the different articles out there on what teens and adolescents need, I almost never see this:
Give them a break.
Let them relax.
Let them sleep.
Listen to them.
Birthrates are declining. Rather than come up with sustainable solutions for managing America’s aging population, adults are telling young people, even 10-year-olds, they need to have more babies to keep the economy going. The far right in particular invoke innocence and purity as rationales for stripping rights away from everyone they dislike, while trying to give jobs to 14-year-olds to fill holes in the workforce, because America worked too many people to death during the pandemic. Meanwhile, they all try to present themselves as authorities, pushing pointless punitive laws for the supposed benefit of America’s youth, when they only seem designed to exploit everyone further.
Let’s look at what they’re doing to address the mental health crisis among young people. Have they cut back global emissions? No. Have they stopped war-mongering with other countries? No. Have they made housing more affordable? No. Have they done anything meaningful to lower the cost of food? No. Have they made education affordable? No. In fact, Senate Democrats voted to add retroactive interest to everyone’s student loans, set to resume later this year. Biden has vowed to veto the measure. Still, it’s a revealing look at priorities. Young people saw that. They appropriately view it as a knife in the back.
As one of my readers has pointed out, fascists and hardcore neoliberals are going for broke. They’re doing absolutely everything they can to ruin younger generations, hoping it burns them out quick.
They’re scared of young people and their power.
Republicans and Democrats only seem to agree on one thing: Young people deserve more rules and more surveillance.
Over the last few months, there’s been a major push to convince parents that their teens are spending too much time on their phones. Universities have been banning TikTok on their campus wifi networks. Montana recently outlawed the app altogether. The Biden administration has been pressuring the company’s owner to sell their stake to western investors. Apparently, that’ll make it safe.
It’s yet another moral panic.
The tone and tenor of the national discourse now echo the manufacturing of consent we saw as governments lifted Covid protections.
They said it would make us feel better.
Right now I’m reading a Twitter thread by U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, where he describes a conversation with some high schoolers about his plans to ban algorithmic boosting to teens. Murphy says, “It was as if they couldn’t contemplate having to work to find fulfilling content. I suggested that…maybe receiving rewards on a conveyor belt is kind of numbing and empty.”
(That’s a little condescending…)
He then goes on to bemoan how “young people’s mental health has been deteriorating as social media takes over their lives.” And with that, Chris Murphy utters the eleventy billionth platitude about young people’s mental health.
In the comments, you can see adults bickering back and forth over what teens need as they insult, gaslight, and block each other.
It’s one of the most ironic things I’ve seen this year—adults acting like children as they debate what’s best for kids.
Politicians don’t care about the mental health of children or teenagers. They want western oligarchs to control the world’s most popular social media app. They sat back and watched influencers destroy half a generation, and they did nothing. They’ll never convince me they’re suddenly concerned about “toxic content.” Now Twitter and Facebook are dying. So is YouTube. Even Instagram isn’t doing so well. It’s almost like ad revenue depends on people buying stuff.
Everyone’s on TikTok.
Far from being a cesspool of “toxic content,” TikTok exposes America’s youth to ideas outside the domain of western influence. God forbid teenagers get the silly idea that we shouldn’t fight endless wars, or they deserve a living wage. God forbid they use it to organize unions and protests.
It’s dangerous to let kids learn about socialism or climate change on an app where boot lickers don’t have a say over the algorithms.
If you look around, teens and 20-somethings are the ones driving our movements now. They’re on the front lines of the fight for climate adaptation and gun safety. They’ve heard the message loud and clear:
Nobody is coming to save them.
They have to save themselves.
I mean, please show me a broad coalition of adults who are making good decisions about their own health, much less the planet’s future. With a few exceptions, including my readers (wink), most adults seem to be doing everything they can to ignore the reality in front of them.
Young people today are the most practical and involved generation we’ve had in decades. They’re more informed about social justice and the environment. They’re voting in larger numbers. They’re diverse. They’re progressive. They lean socialist. They want the government to play a more active role. They believe in standing up for each other against bullies. They’re not afraid to show their emotions. They’re even better at resolving differences than older generations. And they’re telling us just how disappointed they are to see our “leaders” constantly fail to deliver on the most important issues of our time.
That’s the source of their mental health crisis.
They’re inheriting a wrecked world.
It’s not their phones.
The moral panic over social media comes far too late for it to sound like anything other than a distraction from our real problems and an excuse to silence young people. If we were going to regulate social media, that ship sailed and fell over the ocean’s edge years ago. It’s a moot point. I honestly don’t think younger generations will have the same problems with it that ours did.
Politicians constantly use the welfare of young people as political bargaining chips while selling their future to big oil, big pharma, and big corn.
Young people aren’t stupid.
They see it.
The far right have been the absolute worst offenders when it comes to exploiting children’s welfare for their own political gain.
They’ve invoked children as the sole reason for opening schools and dropping mask mandates, as well as banning books and drag performances. They’ve undermined vaccine campaigns, even for noncontroversial shots.
They minimize their own children’s illnesses.
They advocate for corporal punishment. They try to force 10-year-olds to give birth. They try to legalize and normalize child marriage.
They’ve called bomb threats into big box stores in the name of protecting children. Meanwhile, the same group has allowed guns to become the number one killer of children in the U.S. They’ve traumatized parents by using Winnie the Pooh to teach their kids how to hide from mass shooters.
They make children play dead in hallways.
They’re legalizing child labor.
The parentification of America’s youth is already well underway. In some sense, it’s necessary. They’ve already shown us they’re up for it. If we’re going to make them carry our responsibilities, let’s at least stop lecturing them on how to use apps and pretending it’s for their mental health.
Let’s give young people some space.
They have work to do.
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