“Parenting is Not Friendship!” (Let’s Deconstruct This)

youre-not-their-parentThere’s a saying: “I think the biggest problem is parents are so concerned with being friends with their kids. You’re not their friend. You’re their parent.” made by Charles Barkley, during a 2002 CNN interview where Barkley talked about his insights on role models and parenting.

Now this guy has done a ton of work with and for kids, giving to his community, building houses, speaking, leading, and I’m certain he can still dunk a basketball. He’s about a million times richer and more useful to the world than I am, and probably a better dad, but this Father’s Day, I’m gonna go ahead and disagree with him on this.

The sentiment sounds quaint, but over the years it has turned into something far more sinister. People now have ready access to immediate online commentary, on everything ranging from kids getting away from mom at the zoo, to freak animal attacks at amusement parks. You’ve probably shared an opinion or two on these incidents, and maybe, just maybe, you did some parent-bashing along the lines of “watch your kids” or “too many people try to be friends with their kids.” “Your Child is Not Your Friend” hector the online experts.

I don’t know if the idea originated with Barkley, but it has become more than just commentary. It’s become the driving force behind public child-shaming incidents, like making kids hold a sandwich board or shooting a daughter’s computer with a gun. An alarming number of people cheer these parents, as if they’re bringing a new wave of “Dirty Harry” style of parenting. Mom as Judge Judy. Dad as Chuck Norris. The imperious and harsh dictator of the manse. The vengeful Old Testament parent.

To me, this kind of thing only makes sense if you’re not emotionally developed much beyond a four-year-old yourself. It’s not parent as parent. It’s parent as chief-tantrum-thrower. It’s probably got a great deal in common with the trend toward authoritarianism and backlash populism that drives ever more aggressive political rhetoric.

Is it working? Or is it just a moronic escalation of aggression?

I’m not going the other way either. A lot of people rail against the ‘helicopter moms’ who ‘hover’ over their kids while they fill out homework assignments and apply for colleges. Much of this is total bullshit hyperbole at best, and it is, like the concerns over ‘friendship parenting’, based on the fact that most people really don’t want to know each others’ details. They just want to judge.

There is no rise in kids who are totally inept at everything in life because they got timeouts instead of a belt buckle. No studies have revealed that, though you’ll get the college recruiters and corporate HR professionals who give you anecdotes about applicants they’ve found wanting. I suspect that when they look at the bottom of the barrel, what they’re seeing is not new.

So if you can’t go back to the days of the woodshed, and you get frowns if you dare offer rewards or timeouts, how does the world expect parents to behave? Should we go the route Barkley and so many others have stammered about? Is it always my way or the highway?

I say screw it. I’m their friend.

After all, these kids are by far the two most important people in my life. How far? Well, if everyone else fell off the edge of the planet, it wouldn’t matter, as long as the kids are still with me. That’s the truth. My wife would say the same from her perspective.

It’s been a very long time since I raised a beer with friends down at the… It’s been forever since I rode the bike trails with the guys at the… Remember those late night sessions spinning business ideas at the… And didn’t we have fun jamming on stage with the boys at the… And how about after work, those dinners over at the…

None of that happens anymore. It’s unfortunate but also inevitable. There is no blame. We’ve all got our own things going on. Me, I’ve got the two closest people I’ve ever been with, to jump in lakes, ride bikes, shoot hoops, camp out, play video games. True, they’re kinda captive. They get some say in our adventures, while I get quite a lot. But they’re getting more input every day, and branching out a lot more with their interests.

Will they play music? Will they play baseball or soccer? Will they be dancers or gymnasts? Will they draw? Will they want to be architects? Scientists? Teachers? Will I have any influence at all? Someday I’ll lose them. They’ll have their own friends, and the bulk of their days won’t involve me anymore.

What then? I have no idea. Until that happens, there is really only one thing I can do, and that is to be their friend. Maybe the problem is that we define ‘friend’ incorrectly. I’m sure we agree we should enjoy hanging out with friends, sharing interests, and maintaining the capacity to understand each other when we don’t quite agree.

But don’t friends do much more than that? Don’t friends try to fill in the blank spots in our lives with their interpretation of what we need, whether we know it or not? Shouldn’t friends know exactly when to impose ideas, and when to hold off? Aren’t friends the people we can always turn to, no matter what, who will, with degrees of difficulty, drop everything and listen? Aren’t friends the ones we confide in with our darkest worries, yet knowing when not to burden them with our problems?

Doesn’t friendship mean absolute, unconditional understanding, if not agreement, knowing when to share and when to borrow? Doesn’t it mean doing everything we can to inspire each other to be better, to push harder? To lead when we should, and follow when we must? To be a foundation rooting each other to the soil, in a bond that will never, ever break?

Or did I just define parenting?

If friendship means being there to hold others up, to see them through their worst times and cheer them on through their best, then dammit, I’ll be the best friend they’ve ever had.

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The Blind Americana Syndrome

Last July 3, we took the kids to a fireworks show in Swampscott. They played with some friends, and soon enough their excitement overflowed. It became one of those evenings where they were particularly off the rails. A loud wolf pack running, yelling and laughing with wild abandon. You know, being kids, only more so.

There were some in the crowd that didn’t like this. At the ice cream shop, the kids ran circles around me, and the gent in line in front of us turned and worked his eyebrows into a thick black line of consternation, which I ignored.

An older couple on the lawn weren’t too happy about our choice of location, too near their chairs. The man even applauded sarcastically when I picked Riley up and took her away from them.

When I think back on these events, my regrets are not that I didn’t exert more control over the kids, but that I didn’t look these people square in the eye with a dark look that clearly and pointedly said “bite me”. I wish I had explained to my fellow ice cream customer that if he couldn’t tolerate noise, he should be aware there was a fireworks show about to begin. I wish I had looked right at the clapping man, then put my daughter down and told her to continue playing.

I consider it a duty of all parents to stand up for each other against ignorant judgment. We often share memes about how cool it was to ride your bigwheel across busy highways while listening to Zeppelin, and how we all spent hours away from the prying eyes of parents and neighbors, and how there were no electronics, no tethers, no medicines. Just belts and paddles. And how exhibits at the zoo, freshly built in 1978, were dismal concrete boxes where animals dwelled, if not lived, in deplorable conditions that could easily be breached by any kid who felt like pushing through a fence rail.

Well 1978, and everything that was cool about it, just came back to bite us in the ass. So we have to decide: Is it cool to build stuff that lets kids, if allowed to be kids, imperil themselves within seconds? Is it cool to take videos and photos of kids being kids so we can share them online? Is it totally rad to bitch about parents who happen to look the other way, at another child, or to rummage through their bags to get candy, a camera phone, a set of jingling toy keys or medicine while their kids happen to get in our way? Is it cool to think we’re completely reliable and superior to literally everyone else in the universe, while at the same time believing we grew up in some kind of golden era where monkey cages, bigwheels, seat-belt-less automobiles and acid rock were all part of a great big world where kids could easily die, or survive, depending on how drunk our parents were?

If you’re judging a mom harshly for believing she had shelled out $25 per person to bring her kids to a place that had been upgraded since those days, and for daring to ‘hover’ over one of her children while another was able to fall into this 1978 concrete box without needing a ladder and blowtorch, then you suffer from this disease. Blind Americana.

It’s probably not unique to Americans, but we sure corner the market in it.