There’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.