Millennials are not parenting 
like their parents did

Published in Quirk’s Media, June/July 2019

Editor's note: Allison O’Keefe Wright is EVP, managing director of research and strategy at New York-based research firm Open Mind Strategy.

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We’re in this together – sort of

Millennials are now the centerpiece of the new family dynamic. Nine in 10 new parents today are Millennials (ages 22-38) and so if your goal is to “talk to parents” – especially parents of younger children – you need to understand how to talk to Millennials. As data from Open Mind Strategy’s Youth IQ syndicated insight tool (which surveys over 1,500 respondents between the ages of 13-37 twice a quarter) clearly conveys, Millennial parents are a cohort who is approaching parenting with a new lens, making new rules, taking on new roles and not necessarily following in the footsteps of the parents who came before them. 

They want to carve their own parenting path and showcase their unique family experiences (and parental expertise) for all the world to see but deep down they are questioning themselves every step of the way. Our firm has the honor to consistently study these new, often stressed, always striving parents, both quantitatively and qualitatively and we’ve uncovered some major shifts, powerful dichotomies and significant unmet opportunity to better serve and connect with this critical cohort.

Often the boss

There once was a time when parents were the boss but when Millennials were kids that was no longer the dynamic – Millennials were often the boss of their parents. Those in the “baby on board” generation were their parents’ rising suns and the CTOs of their families. But what happens when the “boss child” becomes the parent? They want to give their kids the same respect that they were given but certainly don’t want to relinquish control or give up their own personal pursuits and passions to only fulfill their child’s. The result? The new family dynamic: We’re in this thing together.

Millennial parents have a different concept of “me time.” Eighty-six percent say they spend the majority of their free time with their kids but most still want to pursue their own passions, which means “family time” has taken on new meaning. Sixty percent of Millennial parents say that when thinking about things to do with their kids, they DO NOT only think about kid-specific activities. In fact, 40 percent of Millennial dads even say, “I have no problem with people bringing kids to bars.” Millennial parents want regular access to new, interesting experiences to fulfill them personally but they’re bringing their kids along for the ride.

But does this constant togetherness equate to quality time? One needs only to walk into the closest restaurant and observe a young family of four dining together, each on their own devices, sitting silently, to get the answer to that question. “Separate togetherness” is a rampant phenomenon and a social dynamic growing more acceptable from playgrounds to Silicon Valley corporations. Still, though Millennials themselves have led the charge on this social dynamic, that doesn’t mean they feel good about it for their kids.

Millennial parents are not happy about this “separate togetherness” when it comes to the family dynamic, making the original digital natives increasingly anti-digital parents. They are seriously concerned about the dangers of digital disconnection and as a result, are increasingly viewing TV as the “good screen.” TV has long been the screen that everybody loves to hate when it comes to evaluating the well-being of children but for parents who are über-concerned with the isolation of digital, TV is celebrated for its “safer content” and ability to act as a centerpiece of connection. 

When we put a group of Millennial moms and Gen X moms into a conflict focus group setting – first interviewing them separately and then bringing them together – Gen X moms initially assume that Millennial moms just let their kids “get up to no good” online because Millennials have always been so digitally driven themselves. But in deeper conversation we find the Gen X moms are actually much more lenient. They are more afraid that if they keep their kids off of certain apps and platforms, their kids will be out of touch – they’ll have no friends. Millennial moms, on the other hand, have no concerns about giving digital a “hard no” or at least some very strict limits. 

Millennials know all too well the dangers of digital peer-pressure and digital addiction: 62 percent of Millennial parents report being “very worried about the time my child spends on their own device,” while 63 percent would “rather my kid watch TV than be online.”

This is a big parenting shift psychologically, which again is ironic as Millennials have often been credited with the demise of linear television. The cord-cutting generation is very pro-TV screen when it comes to their children. This opens the door to real opportunity for content producers, because while these parents are pro-television, they also have significant unmet needs when it comes to TV content that connects families. Three-in-four Millennial parents say that when watching TV with their kids, they usually watch kids shows that they don’t particularly enjoy. Everything is now so tailored to specific audiences that “family TV” rarely lives up to the standards of the whole family. This means significant unmet opportunity around truly connective content, especially for this new generation of parents who prefer to blur the lines on “me time” and “we time.”

Expert crowdsourcers

Another way that Millennial parents have shifted the familial and parental dynamic is in their approach to figuring it all out. While previous generations of parents often turned to their own mom and dad for advice on the many trials of parenting, these young parents – though very close with mom and dad – acknowledge that they are raising kids in a completely different world than their parents raised them. As such, these expert crowdsourcers head online to find the answers to life’s many questions – and often spout their own expertise or POV while they are at it.

Google is often the gateway to countless opinions and recommendations related to raising kids but even more than the sources they find in their top Google results, Millennials are increasingly drawn to the more customized, tailor-made information they can find from like-minded peers in their social stream. Forty-three percent of Millennial parents regularly seek out advice from peers in their social networks and more and more they are relying on, even preferring, the information they can glean from the parenting-related Facebook groups to which they belong than information from more general parenting sources or experts online. Likewise, Millennial parents are sharing their expertise and perspective in the social realm – Millennial parents strive to live a life designed to display and significantly over-index on most every daily social sharing behavior (from posting pics to updating statuses to sharing photos and more) when compared to childless Millennial peers. 

However, though Millennial parents are often “overactive” when it comes to sharing their opinion, there is also a significant downside to the having 24/7 access to so many perspectives and so many digital displays of “perfect” parenting. An ongoing influx of outside opinion makes you question your own decisions … constantly. Forty-four percent of Millennial parents admit that they are overwhelmed with the amount of parenting information available to them. From groups telling you to choose breast over bottle to images of idyllic children’s birthday parties or the perfect packed lunch in your Insta feed, Millennial parents are stressed, overwhelmed and worried that they can’t keep up.

More than six-in-10 Millennial parents admit, “I am constantly stressed out and looking for relief.” More and more they are appreciating people, organizations and brands that celebrate the beauty in the flaws of reality. It is important to know that while these new parents demand and depend on super-customized, personally relevant information, they are also craving imagery and messages that keep it real and supportive – that act as the antidote to the overwhelming information, unachievable perfection and self-doubt. 

Dads are more active

And when it comes to “being supportive,” Millennials are a generation of parents who are co-parenting more than any generation before them. Millennials dads are significantly more active and engaged in childcare than dads of previous generations but they aren’t just doing more of the lifting at home: 78 percent of Millennial dads also say that they play the role of “the fun parent,” making Millennial dads more than 40 percent more likely to say this than Millennial moms. 

Enter one of the major strains at the center of the new family dynamic: the competition between the “fun parent” vs the “default parent.” Though mom is often working, she is still significantly more likely than dad to say she attends to many of the “technical requirements” of parenting. Millennial moms are 69 percent more likely to stay home when the child is sick, 53 percent more likely to coordinate the child care and 42 percent more likely to be the parent the school calls in case of an issue. Still, dad is more involved than dads of any previous generation and so he is constantly being praised for being an “amazing parent” – irritating mom, who feels like dad gets medals from his mom, from her mom, from society, when he executes the same parental duties that she is just expected to handle.

The “default role” and the lack of praise that comes with it is a major source of anger and frustration for Millennial moms. They too want to be the fun parent – not just the task master – and while they appreciate dad, they’d like equal praise as well. Dad, on the other hand, is proud of both his “fun parent” status and his excellent parenting skills and he’s frustrated because much of the media he sees paints dad as an idiot and mom as a genius. Two in three Millennial dads think the dad characters in their kids’ shows come across as idiots, while the same number think that the mom characters come across as smart. 

Diving into this strained dynamic requires both sensitive qualitative conversation and a detailed quantitative analysis of perceived responsibility level and actual duty execution in the home (hint: moms’ and dads’ responses TOTALLY contradict one another). But across both qualitative and quantitative analysis, a clear message emerges: Today’s parents are both cooperating and seriously competing at home and they need solutions to help them come together. Dad responds to brands and messages that reflect a dad who is “on it” like he is while also celebrating the fun side of parenting which he loves. Mom is deeply appreciative of messages that acknowledge the stress she is under (especially humorous messages) and that celebrate her tenacity. But she also wants in on the “fun side” – she wants opportunities to take the helm as fun parent more often and to find a truer balance with dad. She loves brands that “really see” her, that give her tools to express and to manage but also that help her live it up and disconnect.

Use research to stay on the pulse

As the Millennial parent cohort continues to grow in size and impact, it is increasingly critical to use both qualitative and quantitative research methods to stay on the pulse of the evolving attitudes, behaviors and unmet needs of these individuals at the center of new family. Not only are their actions and decisions relevant to brands seeking to connect and thrive within the modern household, their approaches to parenting are shaping the beliefs and values of the next generation of people. Just as their childhood roles as CTO, friend and often boss to their helicopter parents shaped them – leading to today’s “in this together” family dynamic, among other things – the roles that their children play in their family will be fundamental in shaping their future values. What will the evolution of “me time” to “we time,” stricter household rules to prevent digital dangers, a childhood publicized stage by stage on social media and a lifetime with parents who cooperate more – but also compete more – mean for the next generation of consumers and their take on the world? We can start finding out by closely examining the new family dynamic. 

How to talk to Millennial moms and dads

When targeting Millennial parents, remember some of the key shifts at the center of the new dynamic.

  • They are less inclined to separate “me time” and “we time” and believe in an “in this thing together” mentality but they are often held back by the separate togetherness of a digital world. They yearn for new connective moments – both in family activities and media.

  • They are expert crowdsourcers and über-sharers who crave tailored, customized information, value the perspective of likeminded peers and regularly share their own POV but they are also overwhelmed by this never-ending influx of info and the pressures of living a life designed to display.

  • They appreciate real and supportive messaging that acknowledges that perfection is unachievable, soothing their self-doubt.

  • They are co-parenting more than any generation before and striving for balance in their shared responsibilities but mom is frustrated that she is often stuck in the default role while dad takes the helm on fun and dad is annoyed that media often still features a bumbling guy who doesn’t have it together the way he does.

  • They need resources to help them better manage the modern work/life dynamic and they each appreciate brands that “really see” them, better reflect their realities and help them explore their passions, while junior comes along for the ride.