Putting the generation gap to good use


At the dinner table sharing take-out pizza with my kids, I made a joke I thought was pretty clever. As I transferred the last slice of pepperoni from its box to a second box half full of cheese pizza, I commented: “And the cheese pizza was outraged when the pepperoni slice moved into the neighborhood.”

All four of them just looked at me. No one even chuckled. After a pause, my teen-age daughter asked: “Why are older people so weird?”

My first impulse was to tell her we’re so weird because we aren’t nearly as self-conscious as teen-agers. If we want to make silly jokes, we don’t hesitate. But that’s not entirely true. If I had known my joke would be received with blank stares, I wouldn’t have shared it. Then it occurred to me that this exchange at the dinner table was evidence of a generation gap between us, a sign that what was humorous to me was corny to them.

We don’t hear much about the generation gap any more. When we once heard about it, talk revolved around bridging it. That was a big topic in the ’60s, when the slogan “Don’t trust anyone over 30” was actually taken seriously by some. Thank goodness those days are gone. Yet sometimes it seems the generation gap went with them. Nowadays parents and their kids dress alike (though the kids’ clothes are baggier.) While we’re often at odds over music, we frequently like the same songs. Just about everyone from six to 60 can hum along with the them from “Titanic”. Thanks to reruns, our kids are as familiar as we are with the classic TV shows of our youth.

Yet, with all that in common, there remain significant difference among the generations. And that’s healthy. Our kids need their own place from which to view the adult world they’re soon entering. I find it unsettling when 40-something parents seem to have too much in common with their teen-age kids. If being perceived as weird means I’m maintaining a distance from my kids’ world, I’ll accept that. And I’ll distrust any adult who seems to fit in easily. Indeed, months ago, when my daughter told me a friend of hers, whom I’d never met before, thought I was “cool” the day I drove them to the water park, we both laughed about how wrong that friend’s perception was. And I kept asking myself what I said or did in the car that could possibly have given that impression. If I figure it out, I’ll make sure I never do it again.

Indeed, I’d rather be thought of as grouchy, old-fashioned, completely out of it, than be perceived as cool. I’d rather be a parent who’s always getting complaints about being too picky over curfews, rules and safety, than one who can be easily persuaded to go with the flow.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not entirely an issue of control. I realize that as time passes, how much control I exert over my children becomes less critical than how much self-control they possess. Even now that’s often the case. But the one thing I can provide my children while they live at home is a solid excuse for them to say no to behaviors and requests they aren’t comfortable with or ready for. “My mother won’t let me,” while not an excuse that increases their popularity, is a powerful excuse nonetheless. Up to now, it’s always worked. Yes, sometimes my kids become furious with me when I refuse to allow them to do something they shouldn’t. But I can live with their displeasure. I remember getting furious with my parents regularly. Yet the last time that happened was at least 20 years ago.

Sure, there’s something about becoming middle-aged that makes even the most practical of us want to drive a convertible, run a marathon, own a Harley. And we needn’t become consigned to our rockers just yet. But we must also acknowledge our youth is over. It’s our kids’ turn. Let’s maintain what little of the generation gap is left. Let’s keep cracking corny jokes, and when our kids call us weird, we’ll know we’re on the right track.

Mary Hood Hart lives in Calabash, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages six to 14. In addition to The Miscellany, Hart is a columnist for The Mirror, diocesan newspaper of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo.