You can almost hear the “Tsk, Tsk” as those from a previous generation bemoan, “You know what’s wrong with parents these days? They choose to be friends and refuse to be parents.”
I heard it the other day and had to disagree. You see, I think we can be both.
I can be a friend to my 4 year old when he is looking for a play mate. I can deal UNO cards and trash talk in good fun and play my Draw 4 Wild when he is almost out of cards, and then I can be a parent when he loses and throws a tantrum. I can encourage better sportsmanship and show him how silly it is to melt down over a game. Then, I can teach him this same lesson, over and over again.
Because if I am in those toddler trenches with him, maybe he will understand a little more about winning and losing and that games are just games. So, when he is 8 and playing baseball, as a friend I will cheer for him embarrassingly loudly from the stands and play catch with him in the yard, and when he strikes out and throws his bat, I will be a parent. He will catch my eye and know that he will be sitting out the rest of the game because that is not the way we play. Then, we will go home and work on his hitting and on his temper, and we will move on to the next day and the next game and let him have a chance to be better. And he will know I love him even when he strikes out and even when he throws tantrums because that is what I have always done.
I can be a friend to my 9 year old as we cook and bake together in the kitchen. He can tell me about friends and sports and school and I can use the time to listen. Then, later, when I notice he is playing with a coveted toy that doesn’t belong to us, I can be a parent. I will share my feelings about honesty with him, and then take him to return the stolen toy. I will stand by his side as he takes responsibility, apologizes and offers up something to make things right again.
Because if I can gently guide him towards honor when he is 9, then maybe when he is 14 and someone offers him an answer key to an upcoming test, he will remember how important integrity is, and he will refuse to cheat. Or, if in a moment of weakness he chooses the other way, he will remember our friendship and lean on that past support and love and choose to confess, knowing that my love is not only available to perfect children. As a parent, I will again support him as he walks through the painful process of ownership, accountability and restitution. I will let him sulk for a moment as natural consequences play out and help him make a plan to fix what has been broken. Then, when it is over, I will praise his bravery and amazing heart and encourage him to let go of the past and put his energy into the future.
I can be a friend to my 11 year old as I listen to him tell me about his crush. I can keep his first love a secret and smile knowingly at him when someone mentions her name. I can ask him about why he likes her and what makes her special and tell him about the boy I liked when I was in 5th grade. Then, as a parent, I can encourage him to like girls for who they are not what they look like; I can remind him to be respectful and conversant; I can encourage him to always be a good friend and to not take romance too seriously; and we can establish some reasonable rules together.
Because if we talk about girls when he is 11, then maybe when he is 16 and thinks he is in love and gets his heart broken for the first time, he will come to me instead of pushing his hurt and anger inside. As a friend, I will give him play by play of my worst break up. We will go get greasy food and over sized ice cream and list off all the reasons it is nice to not have a girlfriend. And as a parent, I will remind him of his goodness, his talents, and of what he can offer to the world. I will try and share perspective on high school love and how fleeting it can be and remind him to focus on the good times he had and the lessons he learned. I will help him make plans for the future and then I will let him cry and squeeze him and hold him like I used to because that is what parents do. Then I will promise him that he will find love again.
I can be a friend to my 13 year old when he tells me he has struggled with using good language. I can share with him my experience from 8th grade and how it just didn’t feel right for me to have a potty mouth. I can listen as he tells me why its hard and what others say and how it is so easy to get caught up in it, especially when he feels frustrated or angry. I can hold my judgments and lectures (even though I want to explode) and just let him talk. I can thank him for letting me into his life. As a parent, I can model the better way. I can make a plan with him for improvement. I can teach him what the words really mean and how degrading and hurtful they are. I can put a quote up on the mirror, check in on his language regularly, keep an open dialogue, and encourage better thoughts, kinder words, and a more peaceful life.
Because if he is comfortable letting me see his faults and weaknesses when he is 13, then maybe when he is 20 and has a crisis of faith, he will ask me soul searching questions instead of Google. If we have been conversing and sharing openly for so many years, maybe he will let me love him on an uphill road of restored belief. Perhaps my own struggle with testimony will mirror his and he can lean on my strength and love of God while he feels unsure. Regardless of where his journey of faith takes him, there will be hope and respect because he knows that I will always be a constant source of unconditional love for him. I always have been.
Today, it is not enough to be only an authoritative parent. That culture often comes with shame and scandal and a desire to look good instead of be good. But, it is not enough to be only an indulgent friend. Our children need boundaries, rules, direction, accountability and expectations so they have something to rise to and work towards.
For the sake of our children, we must find a way to be both. Gone are the days of letting them raise themselves in a permissive bubble of popularity and entertainment or pushing so hard and controlling so much that we crush their spirits and raise strangers full of secrets. There is a balance, though it is admittedly hard to find. It starts with honesty, openness, expectations, consequences, respect, shared experiences and, most of all, that undying knowledge of unconditional love.
It is a difficult path. It is exhausting and confusing and frustrating and loving and rewarding all at the same time, but I have to believe that it is worth it. So next time I hear that disapproving “Tsk, Tsk,” I will say boldly, “I disagree. In this crazy world, we are trying for something better. I think we can be both parents AND friends.”
Photo Credit: Jodi Fulks