05/20/2015 03:59 pm ET Updated May 19, 2016

What Was So Great About a Gen X Childhood?


I recently read one of those heavily-forwarded articles about how coddled children are today. I'm the father of a 2-year-old boy, so naturally, I don't want my son to be one of those narcissistic, easily overwhelmed, helicopter-parented wimps who are apparently the norm among our nation's youth. I thought that perhaps the article would impart crucial info on how my son can avoid such a distasteful future.

But that didn't happen.

Because the story was yet another screed about the glories of a Gen X childhood. You know -- the lack of parental supervision, the absence of bike helmets, the get-tough-or-die mentality.

Now, my credentials as a member of Gen X are impeccable. I played Atari as a kid, watched John Hughes movies as a teenager and blared "Nevermind" in my college dorm. I'm right at ground zero for my generation.

And I'm here to tell you that growing up the way we did was not a long-term favor or blessed accomplishment. Let me be clear that I don't blame my parents. In fact, I believe that I had the world's greatest mother (my father is another story for another time).

No, my disdain for nostalgia has more to do with cold, hard facts and unpleasant anecdotes than personal issues.

You see, many of my fellow Gen Xers are rhapsodic about their childhoods, dismissing our obvious cultural detriments as character-building or somehow endearing.

But if growing up Gen X was really so magnificent, truly so jam-packed with valuable life lessons and coping skills, we would, quite frankly, be doing a hell of a lot better.

Instead, we are the first American generation to do worse financially than our parents. We are more likely to have divorced parents, a trait that adversely affects our interpersonal relationships. We are culturally insignificant compared to the Boomers and the Millennials. We are closing in on retirement but have nothing saved for it. We are, according to some polls, the most cynical generation in history.

All that doesn't sound so great.

Some of this is the fault of the Boomers, of course (and don't get me started on them). But the truth is that for all of Gen X's bad-ass upbringing and its supposed ruggedness, we are more scarred than we are triumphant. And now, instead of saying, "Well, that sucked. The next generation will hopefully have it better," we rationalize and justify like abused spouses.

We say that disengaged parents were lovable, even admirable. We say our ignorance of other cultures was quaint. And more than anything, we are united in our stand that bike helmets would have turned us all into overly-cautious crybabies.

By the way, you can always spot an article that glamorizes a Gen X childhood because every one of them uses the image of the bike helmet as the de facto metaphor for the weakness of Millennials. Sorry to tell you, but serious injuries involving young bicyclists are a fraction of what they were in the good old days of Gen X. In fact, deaths among bicyclists younger than 20 have declined an absurd 86 percent since 1975.

While we're on this subject, let me mention that one of my good friends in middle school spent weeks in the hospital after he wiped out on his 10-speed. At no point in our subsequent relationship have I ever said, "Hey, remember when you almost died because our generation was too tough to wear bike helmets? Yeah, bet we all learned valuable life lessons from your skull getting cracked."

And of course, we hear endlessly that Gen X never got awards just for participation, and that competition made us stronger.

Where did this myth ever get started? When I was a Boy Scout, everybody in the troop got some kind of award eventually. In Little League, every kid started at least one game. And at my high school graduation, a dozen teens got a round of applause for perfect attendance, which is, by its very definition, praise just for showing up.

In contrast, today's kids are constantly being poked and prodded to excel. For example, the National Spelling Bee wasn't televised nationally when I was a kid. Today's competitors have bright lights in their faces and announcers critiquing them as they tackle spelling "autochthonous" on the first try. Gen X didn't have anything like that.

Further, the competition to get into a good university, if anything, has gotten fiercer. For Gen X, if you got stellar grades and a solid SAT, you were a cinch for a top college. Today, a 4.0 GPA might get you waitlisted.

Of course, there are some things about Millennials that annoy me. For example, could they stop with the obsessive-compulsive group selfies under any and all conditions?

And there were some great things about growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, many of them gone forever. But for the most part, it's better to be a kid today.

Today's kids are safer (the safest, in fact, in American history). They are more knowledgeable about the world, and they are kicking myriad noxious cultural biases to the curb (although they can thank us for being the first generation to say homophobia wasn't cool).

Now, every generation glamorizes its childhood while slamming the current crop of kids as spoiled and oblivious. And every generation is correct, to some extent. But all this nostalgic pining for a Reagan-era childhood is a sad thing to witness.

My son will no doubt catch me reminiscing about my adolescence, and my college years, and the period of time when it was just his mom and me. But he will rarely hear me go on and on about my childhood.

Because it really wasn't that great.

He will have a better one.