It’s hard not to cringe at “that kid” or the eventual adult who doesn’t stop being “that kid.” You know the one: whining about not having this or that, complaining about boredom while surrounded by a million games and toys, making demands like the universe revolves around them, feeling entitled to another person’s possessions or that their opinion is infinitely more important than the rest of the world. Part of the time, there’s incontrovertible proof that he or she is just “made that way.” Most of the time, however, the fingers like to point at the parents and place the responsibility and blame on them.
Moreover, the blame is placed on parents who are too “friendly,” the ones trying too hard to be their kid’s friend, supposedly, in the never-ending crusade for peace in the home. The problem I have with this statement? The assumed idea of what a “friend” actually is in these trying times.
If You Don’t Do What I Say, You’re Not My Friend!
The idea behind “parents who try to be friends” is a scene derived from stereotypical monarchy, with the kid reigning over his/her parents. “Mommy do this.” “Daddy get me this.” “If you don’t get me that toy/shirt/etc, I’ll scream and/or do something equally drastic!” And so the parents run hither and thither at their child’s command. The mantra running through these poor parents’ minds is, “So long as it makes them happy.”
For whatever reason, people assume that a quiet child is a happy child, especially so in public. So parents often find quick fixes to “shut the kid up,” which usually means placating the child with their whims and wishes. Some parents cater to their children because parents think it’s their “fault” for bringing the child into the world. And so begins the ongoing quest to satisfy the wants of their child. No matter which way you slice it, everyone loses out, including the child who thinks they’re happy with gaining what they want for the moment. Moreover, the child begins to think such behavior is appropriate and, best of all, effective. Just as your child learns that the coffee table, rather than the empty laundry basket, is a good item for pulling oneself up to standing, he or she learns that in the absence of words and sentences, crying and screaming is a good way of getting what one wants or needs.
Just as people in public assume a quiet baby is a happy, content baby, parents assume that if their child is upset with them it means they’re put on their child’s bad side and have to find a way to be in their child’s good graces once again. We probably remember such behavior on the playground when at least one of our “friends” shouted, “If you don’t get me [fill in blank here], you’re not my friend anymore!” How devastating! We wanted people to like us, not hate us. And that’s what happens in the relationship between stereotypical “friendly” parents and their kids, turning it into a vicious cycle.
Right Now! Hey, There’s No Tomorrow.
Unfortunately, parents forget that there’s an extra line at the end of that “So long as it makes them happy” mantra: “For now.” Babies and kids tend to live in the “now.” They have a hard time conceptualizing “later,” and if something doesn’t happen now or in the next minute, it seems like an eternity to them. I remember from my daughter’s newborn phase that if the bottle wasn’t in her mouth the moment she started raising a complaint, she’d wail furiously, thinking we were letting her starve to death. She doesn’t know that the bottle is warming up and will only be another minute more, or that we’re obviously not making her wait in “utter starvation” out of malice. She just knows she’s hungry. And she’s hungry NOW.
It’s easy for parents to get caught up in that emotion. They remember the stress they felt when they hear the baby cry and the urgency to stop the crying. So it carries on into the later years when children, generally, get the idea that nothing happens instantaneously. But the parent’s don’t realize that, thinking that their children are still unable to control their raw emotions and must have what they want at that very moment.
When you think about the word “nice,” there are conjured images of smiles and rainbows, cheerfulness from horizon to horizon. No tears, no frowns, no whining, no “bad” feelings. Everyone likes everyone else. When people don’t like one another, they fight and say mean things to one another, right? It’s easy to get sucked into the childish perspective that maintaining those smiles and rainbows means peace and tranquility, two things that parents yearn for the most. And so parents attempt to be nice and stay nice: their child gives them peace and tranquility when they give him or her what the kid wants, and their child gives them proverbial Hell when the kid doesn’t get what it wants. It’s a bit like Pavlov’s dog, except instead of the bell, it’s a child’s whine or scream or tears.
You’ve Got a Friend in Me
My main concern about “parents who are friends” is, as I said, the definition of the term “friend.” We know as adults that those so-called friends who threatened us at every protest or resistance to their demands weren’t really our friends– they were just playmates, at best. Our true friends stick by us when we’re in a rut; sympathize with us when we’re sad and down but don’t coddle us into thinking self-pity is okay; give us reality checks when it seems like our heads are getting too big for us; and emphasize and celebrate the good qualities in us while helping us overcome the bad ones. If anything, that’s a good deal of what the intangible part of parenting is all about. The difference between strict friendship and parenting is the fact that, as a friend, you really don’t get to enforce what you say.
Perhaps it’s because I’m actually a terrible friend since I don’t give in to the wants and whims of my friends. I voice my concerns if they’re dating someone who gives me the vibe that he’s a dirtbag or just plain creepy. I can, in the same breath, say, “Yes, it sucks you haven’t found a job yet but sitting there, complaining about it for the ninth day in a row isn’t helping.” It’s a matter of perspective, perhaps, but I do know that when someone truly cares about someone else, they don’t just continue heaping material goodies onto them.
As parents, we see the long road ahead and work toward paving the next step. While our kids don’t see much into the future short of what’s for dinner later or, sometimes, a vacation in a few months, we can help them along to look past what’s beyond their toes. Sometimes that means some really bad spats when it comes to teaching them, “What you do now will affect your future,” or very simply, “Start thinking about your tomorrows.” When kids hear the word “future,” it seems mysterious and fantastical, filled with ideas of what career they’ll have, how many pets, how big a house and if they have robots for butlers and transportation. There are going to be moments of peace and tranquility and moments of open warfare. We all have to be okay with that.
My mom used to tell me that I had to look ahead on the journey of life to make sure I don’t walk straight into a ditch, but that also I had to look down every so often to make sure I don’t step into the pile of dog poo less than a foot away. When it comes to being a parent, I have to discern what I need to take care of in the immediate future and what can wait for a little while longer: the difference between feeding the baby and buying her another book because she seems bored with the others, for example. Kids learn by example and, hopefully, they’ll eventually catch onto what you’re doing to show that having everything now, now, now isn’t the way to go.
By teaching our kids what’s acceptable and what isn’t, by molding them into adaptable social creatures, by showing them that life means taking the good times with the bad times and the impermanence of said bad times, we’re still being their friends. We can let them express their negative reactions and, yes, endure the inevitable “I hate you!”s but we aren’t doing our jobs as parents or friends if we let such things deter us from helping them understand a concept as simple as, “Not getting what you want this exact moment isn’t the end of the world.”