For Parents, a New Level of Big-Picture Anxiety

To parents with a penchant for it, worry is a love language, so primal as to feel eternal. It’s not. By and large, fretting over our offspring’s happiness is a modern hobby, the invention of a society that now regards children as more than just small factory workers. As their prospects gradually improved, our concern evolved. Over the last century, parents came to agonize over their children’s character, morality, spirit, work ethic, sexuality, insolence, social marginalization, violent impulses and more. Parental anxiety isn’t just a sporadic twitch — it became a full-on strain of American culture, from Tipper Gore’s record-warning labels to worrying about insufficient masculinity or femininity in our boys and girls. Our hand-wringing reflects modern life, and it shapes it.

Now that modern life is a nonsensical, crumbling hellscape, it’s hard not to look back with a major eye roll. Remember when Teen Talk Barbie said “Math is hard!” and everyone lost their minds over what it would do to the children? OK, the Barbie thing is actually bugging me all over again. But my larger point stands: We are fretting on a whole new frequency now. A national habituation to mass death? Arguments about whether science is real? Sprawling fires burning one side of the country? What is all of that doing to the children?

Meanwhile, our worries won’t hold still. As other calamities reared up alongside the pandemic — police violence, wildfires, fraying democracy — fears befitting those took shape, too. One mother told me that the past two months in California have her worrying about her kids’ climatological well-being on an entirely new level. It was a little abstract before, she said. It’s not abstract anymore.

Then there’s the demented new pace with which huge crises now vanish from the headlines, nudged aside by the next crazy story. What will it do to kids’ sense of proportion, to their internal metabolisms when hugely significant events no longer make a dent in reality?

A father told me he doesn’t have new worries so much as a new catastrophic backdrop for his old ones. Suddenly his daughter’s interest in dumb romance novels feels not just like a subpar literary habit, but at odds with the global state of affairs.

Worry is devotion curdled into fear. It is also misplaced half the time. Who knows, maybe we’ll look back and observe gratefully that we jettisoned some of our dumber baggage during this phase — say, preoccupations over our kids’ professional achievements or social skills. Maybe that’s how progress happens sometimes: You trade old worries for new ones, and one day you can’t even remember why Sally’s skirt had to go past her knees.

I recently came across a poll from 2018 — sponsored by, of all places, the Lice Clinics of America — reporting that the average parent spent up to five hours a day worrying about their kids. What were we so worked up about? Participation trophies? What college they would go to? Sagging pants? These concerns feel faded to the point of being dreamlike.

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