I overheard a disturbing conversation the other day between a woman and her 13-year-old daughter as they were giggling and looking at pictures on the daughter’s phone. The daughter told her mother that she met this “guy” who had just sent her his picture and wanted to “hook up sometime.”
The mother’s response? “That is cool. He looks hot.” Really?
I want to be clear that what follows is my opinion as both a parent and a professional. As a longtime psychiatric nurse dealing with children and adolescents, but more importantly a Mom, I continue to be aghast at a generation of parents who think it’s okay to be your child’s best friend.
I’m not saying all parents think this way. I know my daughter doesn’t while raising our 7- and 9-year-old grandchildren. But, unfortunately, I’ve seen evidence that many parents do. And this thinking is wrong, wrong, and wrong in so many ways.
Role of a Parent
The number one role of a parent is to be protector, model and teacher. And a large part of that teaching involves demonstrating good judgment and making smart decisions. Kids need to learn how to make the right choices in life. And the place they learn it best (or worst) is in the home.
The burning desire to be a “cool” parent can lead to big trouble. We’ve all seen evidence in the courts that parents have been sentenced for allowing underage kids to drink alcohol in their home, and even furnished the alcohol. Their reasoning? They wanted to be seen as the cool parent and a hero in their kids’ eyes.
Less drastic examples of poor parenting patterns are failure to enforce bedtimes and curfews, or buying all the latest tech gadgets without responsible monitoring. You get the picture. These “Peter Pan” parents have never grown up. Deep inside, they fear growing old. Their actions are self-serving. Not only are they are damaging their kids, they are setting them up for failure or worse.
Structure Provides Safety
Setting the rules, boundaries and expectations for behaviors gives a child a sense of security. I call it the “I feel loved, someone is watching over me” factor. Kids, unlike adults, do not have a clear understanding of the short or long consequences of poor choices. Staying up late results in lack of sleep. Lack of sleep can result in a poor test score. A poor test score can keep a child from getting into a class or program he wanted.
Laissez-faire parenting is dangerous. As adults, we are supposed to have a better grasp on the consequences of poor choices. We have walked this path before, hopefully with good parenting to guide us, or through the school of hard knocks. We have experience to draw on, our kids do not. When parents abdicate consequences, you give your child the message that everything is negotiable. You also send a message that their health and welfare is not of utmost importance to you. It may not be the message you intend, but, later, it may be seen that exact way.
We need to be consistent in teaching that all decisions have consequences, and behaviors and actions have accountability. The path of least resistance is fraught with potholes and landmines. Parents need to quit being afraid of denying their kids things that may not be in their best interest.
Your Child is Not Your Equal
And we shouldn’t want them to be. You are not one of them and they are not your kindred peer. Kids by nature need instant gratification and react with emotion when their needs are not instantly met. When told they need to do their homework instead of playing a video game because you're asking them to do something or holding them accountable -- you become the enemy.
But, if a child never hears "no" and behavioral expectations are unclear, how is she going to handle herself in the classroom, the workplace or in society -- places where rules exist? Kids who always get their way lack the judgement to understand the impact downstream. Life is about learning to wait your turn and accepting second choice when the first isn’t available.
Kids need you to parent, not be their friend. Having friends their own age teaches them how to work through issues. Parents who want to be seen as their child’s friend, and not as the enemy or a mean parent aren’t doing their kid any favors, and are giving mixed messages. You can hang out and have fun, and lots of it, but roles should never be confused.
And speaking of mixed messages, parents should not share stories about sex and adult relationship themes with their kids, even with teenagers. Generations of kids will agree that they never want to think of their parents as having sex (I call it the “ick factor”). They haven’t developed internal filters to accept these types of conversations.
During a family counseling session, a wise colleague of mine told the parents of a troubled young girl, “The mistake of making your child your confidant is that they are not morally, emotionally or intellectually prepared for playing that role. The message you send may be received differently in the child’s mind, and cause for drawing erroneous conclusions. This leads to erratic, confusing relational patterns that make it difficult for you to feel grounded in your role as the parent. At ALL TIMES, you are the Mom or the Dad”.
We also need to rethink the notion that saying no to our kids may result in “but, they won’t like me anymore.” Actually the opposite is actually true. A kid’s initial response may be “you’re ruining my life” or “I hate you” but they’ll very quickly get over it. They always do. Again and again I've heard it directly from the mouths of babes in my 30 plus years of nursing and counseling: “I needed my mother to be my mother, not my best friend.” It’s up to us as parents to shape our children’s lives and point them in the right direction. Do it right. Believe me, your kids will thank you someday.