“I am not my child’s friend.”
Years ago, I overheard a veteran mom speak these words with a confident, dismissive shrug. My kids were tiny then. I was a new mom. Everything parenting was fresh as a summer’s day. Her callous words felt like a punch to my heart. Of course I was my child’s friend! His protector, his confident, his cook, his maid, his…everything! I was committed to being the best parent ever. And that surely included being my son’s friend.
Years later, I understand that momma-bluntness. I still want and expect to keep my children close. But now I see how much parenting wisdom (and responsibility) lies in going far beyond being my children’s friend.
In her bestselling book about parenthood, All Joy & No Fun, Jennifer Senior explains one of the biggest attitudinal shifts in parenting in the 20th century: children have gone from being our employees (doing chores, listening obediently, following rules) to being our bosses (little despots we desperately want to please).
I get the feel-good seduction of being close to our children, to being their closest friend and confidante. But Senior makes an excellent point: when we parents treat our children as the ones in charge, the results can be disastrous.
A few examples:
1. Who pays for gas?
My 17-year-old son bought half a used car with proceeds from his sneaker-resale business. I paid for the rest and put him on my auto insurance policy.
A few days ago he asked for gas money. He explained I should pay for gas for his car and for car washes. He argues it’s fair because I have more money, and he put several thousand dollars of his hard-earned dough into the purchase. I want him to like me, to be the cool mom with an open wallet…but doggone, if he is old enough to drive (without me in the car), shouldn’t he buy his own frigging fuel?
2. Obnoxious teenage sports fans.
My kids’ high school booster club chants provocatively at basketball games. “Winning team…losing team” and “Get the busses ready” when we are winning. Most of the parents find the chants unsportsmanlike. No one stops the kids. One adult explained to me sheepishly, “I don’t want to be the bad guy telling them to stop. Shouldn’t they have their fun? They are just kids.”
3. Back talk.
My sweet adorable 11-year-old is suddenly a font spewing sassy retorts and criticisms. Mostly directed towards me. “Mom, your hair looks…awful! Mom, your breath stinks! You breathe funny! You drag your feet! Your butt looks…” Do I laugh? Do I smack her? Instead I explain (again and again) why you cannot treat anyone, especially one’s mother, with nonstop criticism and expect her to continue to cook for you, handwash your favorite sweaters, and drive you to endless soccer practices/volleyball games/sleepovers.
None of this makes me feel like my children’s friend.
In my view, there came a time in the parenting life-cycle to refine my definition of a good parent. The days of self-sacrifice – when it was wise and good to spend hours in the middle of the night taking care of a sick child – have transitioned to times when it is just as important to teach my kids boundaries, respect, and self-reliance.
It’s time for my kids to clean up their own vomit, so to speak. As well as their room, their booster club chants, their language, their automobile, and our kitchen.
Parenting is a non-stop exercise in giving. But the ways we take care of our kids morph as the kids themselves grow and change. Don’t we also need to guide them and set limits and let go? Didn’t we need our parents to do this too? Haven’t you seen firsthand how obnoxious and spoiled children become when their parents never say the magic word “no”?
This parenting phase, I am finding, can be even more challenging than the days of endless self- sacrifice. When my kids were young, I was their best friend, protector, and confidante. Now I’m their probation officer, their priest, their sex educator, drug tester, nag and disciplinarian. But the love behind these roles remains exactly the same.