A Triggered Generation: How 90s Parenting Failed Us

An argument erupted in New York City’s Central Park between a dog walker and a bird watcher. How it could have ended so disastrously deserves a deeper dive.

Jeff Cunningham
5 min readMay 26, 2020

“90s parenting was intended to nurture the vulnerable but ended up encouraging the insecure.”

Millions have viewed the Central Park Karens’ video of Amy Cooper walking her dog. A passerby notices the dog was off-leash and politely asks her to leash it when she became hysterical and called 911. Readers of this article have most likely formed an opinion of Cooper and see her as a blatant rascist or perhaps someone suffering from a personality disorder.

Uncivil Behavior

My interest in public incivility began long before I heard of Amy Cooper and her dog. I have been examining why people behave as part of my work in the area known as leadership and society. To get a fresh perspective, I relied on the wisdom of a well-respected psychologist, NYU professor Jonathan Haidt (pronounced ‘height’) who appears on my YouTube interview. For those interested, you can find it on Youtube, and check out his brilliant book, The Coddling of the American Mind.

Interviewing Jonathan Haidt at NYU

Haidt identified a problem known as “overprotective parenting,” an approach to raising children that became popular in the 90s, also called “helicopter parents.” The intention was to nurture the vulnerable but ended up encouraging the fragile, which can result in outbursts like Cooper’s.

I have found one of the most debilitating effects of overparenting is that children never learn how to deal with confrontation and disappointment. The term used today is “snowflake,” meaning easily triggered by language that makes people feel unsafe. The older generation would say, “names can never hurt you,” but to this cohort, they appear to hurt very much.

The probable cause can be an unrealistic sense of one’s place brought on by indulgent parenting. I have had female students tell me they were “their mother’s best friend.” Previous generations of parents didn’t think that way. Parenting was a duty, albeit fun and fulfilling, and it engendered respect for elders and as they grew into adults, for others. Overprotective parenting can and does lead to self-righteous empowerment that suggests “the child is always right” and by extension, the teacher, nurse, or policeman is wrong. In Amy Cooper’s case, park regulations were wrong and she was right.

This is typical of children whose parents are always on hand to advocate on their behalf regardless of merit. As a result, some were never taught to rethink their behavior or to negotiate and debate right from wrong. They only know how to demonstrate and cry for help, insufficient tools for dealing with everyday challenges. Finding a powerful advocate like 911 becomes the norm when these children turn into adults. Antisocial behavior is acceptable when we are hurt because that is what gave us victim status. Haidt’s memorable synonym is “coddled,” which is why his book is called “The Coddling of The American Mind,” and at age 41, Cooper is the offspring of our coddled culture.

Have It My Way

While we know nothing of her upbringing, Cooper’s 911 phone call sounded suspiciously like a child crying out for a parent. The phenomenon represented a seismic shift from a “tough love” era to “have it your way.” A school case speaks to the problem. Society followed parenting and is now viewing misbehavior in the most tolerant light. It is what Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan worried about when he wrote, Defining Deviancy Downthe normalization of the radical. In South Carolina, The State news reported a teacher touched off a fierce online debate when she asked a student to get off her phone during class. Yet school administrators, 90s parents themselves, defended the student’s right. The teacher commented, “while teachers struggle to maintain control in their classrooms, lawmakers are arguing whether discipline policies are too strict, too targeted at minority students…”

Central Park Karen is one of the more recent consequences.

There are other recent examples. Students at Middlebury College assaulted a campus speaker. As a female professor tried to escape, she was attacked and suffered a concussion. At Oberlin College in Ohio, students organized a boycott of a local bakery because a black student was caught shoplifting. The administration accused the bakery of racism, and students slashed the tires of bakery staff cars. (Oberlin president Carmen Twillie Ambar tried to wave it off as free speech and lost a defamation lawsuit for 44 million dollars). I also wrote about a mob that attacked patrons at a West Cast bar for wearing a campaign hat.

These seemingly disparate cases all have something in common — they are of 90s peers of Amy Cooper.

Haidt would argue this explains why overprotected children erupt in unpredictable fury when challenged as adults, much like Amy Cooper. They are poorly equipped to deal with problems without the presence of a referee. The same instinct turns a coddled child into a “whistleblower” at work who can’t confront an offender directly or to call 911 when told to leash their dog.

Milk Containers

How it happened is not complicated. According to Haidt, over-parenting began in the 90s for several reasons, including several tragic incidents of kidnapping fueled worries about safety. Missing children began to appear on the side of milk containers and cable TV, the new new thing, sensationalized for the ratings to keep people glued to 24-hour news programming. It induced paranoia in parents who concluded threats were more significant than they were. Haidt concludes, “American parenting is now wildly out of sync with actual risk.”

In terms of a remedy to the problem, Haidt recommends reducing social media time for starters and then finding ways to listen to one another, even when we disagree. Third, find common cause in the narrow areas where we do agree. Finally, he offers the words of a baby doctor who cautioned against overprotective parenting, “don’t just do something, stand there.”

If Amy Cooper had the benefit of that kind of upbringing, instead of being a pariah on social media, she might be walking her dog in Central Park today, in all probability, on a leash.