I wanted to call this post “I am not friend with my kids” but it really sounds awful doesn’t it?
It was in reference to this widely shared blog post: I am friends with my kids. I started answering in my head before reading the text, on the basis of the title alone. When I finally took the time to read, I realized that, gah, I completely agreed with the gist of the author’s ideas. The title is definitely an attention grabber but her position is more nuanced.
Parenting with respect is crucial to the development of a strong and healthy relationship with our children. If the importance of mutual respect in parenting is eluding you, you haven’t reached the teenage years yet. When we live in the fast-paced and eminently physical world of young children, the immediate nature of parenting with a Big Stick can be appealing. But when you wake-up one morning with the real, potentially life-altering, problems of the teen age, it’s too late to wish for wide open lines of communication if they never existed. Our children need to know that they are loved and that we appreciate their presence in our lives. It is not a guarantee of smooth sailing but how would you rather cross the Atlantic? In a sailboat or a canoe?
While a healthy parenting relationship has a lot in common with friendship, it is a unique relationship that shouldn’t be so readily assimilated to the sometimes fickle and often temporary nature of friendship. Especially children’s friendships. My children have dozens of friends but I’m their only mother. If I am their friend, who will be their mother?
The type of parenting illustrated in the blog post I am friend with my kids stands in opposition to what I would call “traditional” types of parenting. As a parent who opposes — as I do — corporal punishment, harsh consequences, isolation and threats as parenting tools, the author draws parallels between parenting and friendship along those lines: I don’t hit my friends, I don’t threaten my friends, I don’t isolate my friends when they are sad, I seek to understand my friends, I don’t yell at my friends. But if parenting can have some of the attributes of friendship, it is also so much more! I have skin in the game. My children’s friends do not.
Skin in the game matters because it gets us through the sort of tough times that friendship would not weather. Children can be little jerks. They can be rude, ungrateful, demanding. Year after year. Like friendship, the parent-child relationship is reciprocal but the giving and the receiving play-out over a lifetime. If my friends treated me like my kids do over a 20 year period, the relationship would probably die by the wayside, as the ebb and flow of life took us along different paths. My kids are a ton of fun, don’t get me wrong. But the giving sure outweighs the receiving. In other words, the fact that my children have not yet died of exposure is the surest sign that not being their friend works to their benefits.
Skin in the game is also what motivates us to teach hard lessons and uphold unpopular principles for their own long-term good. My friends don’t care what I eat. My friends don’t care if I never eat a fruit. They may care if I eat like an animal and never invite me out but that’s about it. In fact, much of the learning that happens in the family such as self-discipline, impulse-control and good, caring manners, enables us to have and maintain healthy friendships later in life. Healthy relationships don’t start with friendship. Family is the root relationship from which all other healthy (or unhealthy) relationships flow. Learning to eat a healthy, balanced diet, learning to make way to others, learning to love people we don’t always like, learning to work when we don’t feel like it can all be taught in the family and better prepare our children to face the big wide world of relationships: from friendships to partnerships to employment relationships. But they are not always easy lessons and may not endear us to our children (or vice versa). How would you feel if one of your friends was on your case about your eating habits the same way we are with our children? Sounds a little off, doesn’t it?
As the giving and receiving of the parent-child relationship plays out over a lifetime, I can see the relatively-near future when our parents will become more dependent and, as age takes its toll, more fragile and irascible. Caring for an elderly parent bears some eerie resemblance with the care they provided us as we were growing-up. They can become demanding, ungrateful, and frustrated by their limitations. And just like they cared for us when we were little jerks, we will let them treat us in ways we would never accept from a friend. We will give of ourselves in ways we never thought we could. This is the way unconditional love flows.
I want my children to expect more than friendship from their parents. I want to be more than friends.