Saturday, December 21, 2013

Parents: Be Your Children’s Friend—Give Them the Easy Life

“It's not our job to be our children's friend and make life easy for them,” so states a mom blogger recently. She is apparently responding to the modern disease known as “helicoptering,” the parental behavior of hovering over one’s children to make sure they suffer no pain in life.

Many issues are raised in the above false dichotomy. Let me focus on friendship and the easy life.

A friend, according to Webster’s, is “one attached to another by affection or esteem.” Presumably, we feel affection for our children, so what is the objection to being a friend? Plenty, according to a quick Google search (1, 2, 3, but also see 4). We should not use our children as confidant, we should not obsess over getting them to like us, we need to set limits—after all, we can’t let them run out into the street or hit other kids at the playground—and, in short, we need to make sure they obey us.

While there are valid points in some of these statements, the last is root of the friend-parent debate. Friends do not lord it over their friends, do not tell them what to do, and certainly do not scream at them to “mind what I say, or else.” As William Glasser has pointed out, we would not have many friends left if we acted that way.

Authoritarianism is what the anti-friend advocates are talking about. Or, external control psychology, as Glasser called it (p. 5). Demanding obedience to authority is the centuries old mantra of what it allegedly means to be a good parent.*

Discouraging the easy life also goes along with authoritarian parenting. After all, in days not too long ago, kids, beginning as soon as they could walk, had to milk cows, pluck chickens and scoop the poop in the chicken coop, pull weeds and hoe long rows, and perhaps even help out with the castration of farm animals. This was in addition to walking one to several miles to school every day. For such children, life certainly was not easy!

In short, what the anti-friend advocates are calling for is to “toughen up” our children, to make sure they don’t end up a bunch of “weaklings.” And they expect them to stand up to bullies like real men (or real women).

This machismo life is, or should be, ancient history.

To be sure, some less than honest helicopter parents have overreacted to the point of doing their kids’ homework and writing their college application essays. Others just lobby hard with their kids’ teachers, principals, and employers to make sure the children do not have to face any hardships, such as taking a course in school from a teacher one disagrees with or having to “pay dues” in a job to work one’s way up the corporate ladder.

Parents, aside from being loving nurturers, are, or should be, teachers of values and principles, not dictators who issue rules and commands. Among the most important values to teach the young are responsibility, independence, and, in their relationships with others, the principle of individual rights. Children, after all, do have rights. Ordering them to obey—to take out the trash or to wash the dishes, for example—is not teaching. Explaining, demonstrating, encouraging, and especially being an admirable role model are what teachers do.**

Friends do the same thing. Not every friend is a confidant and we certainly shouldn’t be discussing our sex lives with our children—except perhaps in general terms to let them know that we do have sex and that it is not dirty, bad, or something to keep secret. Critical judgment and discretion is required to be a good parent.

But so is good judgment as to which hardships your children should be allowed to endure in the process of growing up. Removing the need for effort to acquire values is counter to learning responsibility and independence.

Giving children everything without having to work for it produces a needy dependence. This is what the authoritarians correctly see in the hoverers. Denying your children the advances of modern civilization, however, is equally bad. Today, we don’t have to pluck chickens to have food on the table; we buy our chickens dead, cut up, seasoned, and well done.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying the easy life. As Maria Montessori (p. 258) observed, poor children who play with stick horses may be exercising their imagination, but what they want are real horses. Wealthy children may have the real thing but their responsible parents should still expect them to exert effort to learn to ride and care for the animals.

The easy life has its responsibilities just as the difficult life did.

The essence of good parenting is teaching principles and values, not making dictatorial commands or doing everything for one’s kids.  

Come to think of it, plucking chickens isn’t all that bad. A handful of wet feathers has an interesting texture. Modern parents should try it sometime!

*“When you stop controlling, you gain control” was Glasser’s recommendation, especially for teenagers (chapter one).

**Parenting is a twenty-plus year contract signed when children are conceived. Terms are to raise the children to adulthood in good mental and physical health. Coercing them to do menial tasks that their parents dislike (i.e., chores) only makes them hate work and feel guilty in adulthood when trying to enjoy genuine leisure (1, 2). Children are not “weaklings” who have to be “toughened up.” These terms are modern synonyms for original sin and doing one’s duty.

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