The generational gap

Aug 29, 2022
4 min read

It is perhaps a rite of passage for the upcoming generation to feel they are doing it “better” than the generation before them, whilst simultaneously having it “tougher”. 

Back when we were teenagers, it felt like our ‘sole purpose’ was to challenge our parents, their generation, and everything that they stood for. We were determined to do things better. And we certainly weren’t going to be so out-dated!

It is to be expected that our parents’ generation hold a similar view, but in the opposite direction: they feel like they did things better than the generation that has come after them, and the way they did things seemed so simple in comparison. 

There are many debates that can ensue between generations. Some such examples include politics, affordability of housing, technology, plastics, global warming, social media, and, of course, parenting.

For many new parents, one of the hardest challenges is in fact the conflict or misalignment that they have with either their own parents, their partner’s parents, or perhaps even their grandparents. While some disagreements can be shrugged or laughed off, other disagreements can have profound emotional and practical ramifications. For example, it may shake their self-worth as a parent or make them doubt whether they are parenting “correctly”.

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In some cases, these disagreements or misalignments can make parents feel really down, belittled, or judged. Practically speaking, it may also stop them from asking their own parents/in-laws to babysit, due to the fear that their routine or parenting style may not be respected, adding further to the conflict. 

So how does this generational disagreement play out? For some, it can be subtle. For example, remarks such as “Gosh, we didn’t use any of these expensive sleep aids for you” or “My babies never needed help settling during a nap”, or even “Baby sleep somehow seems so much harder these days”.  While not outrightly upsetting, often these off-the-cuff remarks can eat away at a new parent’s confidence and make them question (a) whether they are doing things ‘right’ and/or (b) whether there is something wrong with them or their baby if their parents didn’t have these issues ‘back in the day’. 

In other situations, the generational conflict can be more outright and harsh. For example, “Why are you bothering with this white noise? This is ridiculous. Babies should just sleep, no matter what’s going on in the background!”, or perhaps, “I really don’t know why your baby isn’t sleeping, you were perfect at this age – I never had to get up multiple times per night!” or “You are spoiling your baby too much; we’d just put you down in your crib and that would be the end of it – you’re too soft!” However it plays out, the conflict between a new parent and the ‘new grandparents’ often isn’t a great experience. 

When we go to analyse this potential issue for parents, one of the most important messages I want to convey is that, in many cases, the parents/in-laws are not even aware of what they are doing. Most likely, they have no idea how much it is upsetting you. In fact, in many cases, they actually think they are helping out; or showing that there is an ‘easier’ way to do things. Sometimes when we connect with ‘why’ we are receiving this feedback, even if unwanted, it can help to take the sting out of what has been said. 

That being said, if you are becoming really upset or hurt, my second bit of advice would be to talk to your parents/in-laws and tell them how their comments are hurting you. This can be tougher to do than it seems. Especially if you are emotional and exhausted, or, if you feel uncomfortable challenging your parents/in-laws. If you feel this way, perhaps get your partner to help. 

When you go to talk to your parents/in-laws, I suggest you do this at a time where it ‘feels right’ - so not during a busy catch-up, or in front of lots of other people.  I would also encourage you to be direct with your feedback. For example, “I’ve noticed you have made a few comments about my baby’s sleep. I know you’re just trying to be helpful, however, as I am still learning to be a parent, I am finding some of those comments a bit upsetting”. 

You could even add “I know you’re not trying to, but sometimes when you say these comments it is making me feel like I am not doing things very well” – or some variation of this. You could even mention that you want to try it your way for a while to see if it works, and if it doesn’t, you’d love their help. It is a good idea to play around with what you might say. Put it into your words, so you feel comfortable and connected with what you are saying.

This is not about ‘attacking’ the new grandparent. It is about letting them know that you believe they are trying to help, but need some space to figure things out for yourself. Staying calm and direct, but still kind, when you have this conversation can really help the message to get through in a way that limits any ongoing conflict. 

Try really hard to take the emotion out of it. Do not say anything you may regret and try not to yell when you deliver the message. Keep it light, simple, and straightforward. If you do receive any push-back or they try to argue with you – again – keep things calm. You may consider saying something like “I know you have so much you want to teach me, and I know I can learn a lot from you. But right now, I really want to give this strategy a go, and feel committed to trying it out” (or some variation of this!). 

The third bit of advice is to nip these types of disagreements in the bud. Do not let yourself fester on comments, as this can build up tension and possibly some resentment too. When we deal with things early on, we are less likely to get really wound-up about the issue and, therefore, are more likely to deal with things calmly. 

My final bit of advice is to remember that your parents, their parents, and all of the parents that came before them were just like you once upon a time. Forging a way forward and trying to work out what was the best way to parent. And, just like us, they too were probably receiving lots of ‘helpful’ feedback about their parenting. In many ways, this is a rite of passage; and one day you might be doing the same to your children! 

So, hold lightly onto the ‘feedback’ from the elders and try to remember they are just doing what they think they need to; and what was done to them. Calmly, kindly, and directly, tell them if it hurts or doesn’t feel helpful right now. Take a deep breath, then focus on the type of parent YOU want to be, the values YOU want to live by, and the decisions YOU want to make for your family. When you parent in this way, you can be sure that you’re making the right decisions, and for the right reasons, irrespective of what anyone may say!

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