As a youthworker, I’m in a position to see a pattern emerging over the last 15 years. It’s more prevalent now than it was when I started working with young people and their families and by my observation, it’s a bit of a Trojan horse. It’s the desire to be ‘cool’ in the eyes of their kids, the need to be cool in every part of a child’s life. It looks and sounds great, but can be the cause of more heartache and trouble than you intend.
Advice For Right Now.
If your child is under the age of 21, don’t try and be their friend. Not yet. You have a job to do and they need you to do it. The study of adolescence would tell us that our young people are potentially still developing physically, emotionally and intellectually until they are 25 years of age. During that time of emerging identity, self-awareness and critical formation in the areas of sexuality, spirituality, vocation and passions – your children need you to take the role that can only be filled by one or two. The role of parent.
Friends vs Parents/Trusted Adults
Over their lifetimes, your kids are going to make a lot of friends. They’ll lose some, keep some for life. Probably make poor choices about a couple and they’ll make some of their best memories with friends. Friends are, the family you choose. But it’s precisely because you choose your friends (and the older you get the more time you spend choosing, or the more choosy you get), that a distinction applies. In choosing your friends, you’re never obligated to choose the ones that rub up against your rough edges but make you a better human on the way.
Friendship is often equally paired and transactional, there’s a mutual exchange of esteem and confidence boosting. Take away the esteem boosting and the value of the friendship fades. For starters, a parent’s relationship with a child should never be transactional. “You give me this, I’ll give you that.” It’s the core of dysfunction between a parent and child. Starting down this path is the opposite of building mutual respect.
Friends give bad advice from time to time.
Ultimately friends have less investment and often less meaningful context. During periods of potential instability, if you can build a foundation of reliable, secure advice with your young person – whether they take your advice or even like, won’t be able to refute the quality of the advice they are receiving. The offering of wisdom and the application of it are two very different things.
Few friendships ever fall of the sword of the greater good. In other words, your children need to have a steady and reliable person/s that will look out for their greater good during hardship and upheaval.
Friends don’t necessarily have the same values at a time when values are an important part of identity exploration. Having people in the life of a young person who can safely give permission to explore different applications of values and challenges to the status quo is vital, but those people are often not peers. Peers have equally limited experience and little alternative insight to offer into the process. Having people with similar values to process and discuss alternate possibilities with is strengthening.
Friends don’t always sharpen iron these days. In adolescent friendship, commonality is often the lynchpin of otherwise fragile emotional connections. Thus, iron sharpening iron isn’t a practice commonly found until early adulthood or when identity is more fully formed.
So what’s the role of a parent anyway?
I was visiting with a friend the other day and watched her young tween daughter lash her with drippings of adolescent behaviour – pushing boundaries to see how far she could go, sassing up the room with a mix of childlike comedy (quite enchanting) and whiny brat (less so). I watched my darling friend take a beating from her kid. It’s not intentional, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid the trap of our children influencing our self-esteem, but it’s ten-fold if we let ourselves get into the role of friend rather than parent. It’s natural to want to be liked by your kids, but it’s healthier to accept that how much they like you isn’t a good measure of how well you are parenting.
Children and especially adolescents desperately need parents who can provide companionship and wisdom along the journey, but in the unique and gifted role of Trusted Advisor.
Too often, parents want to avoid the stereotypical roles of Taskmaster, Bossy Bitch, Nagger, RuleMaker. Fair enough, they are not easy titles. But if you can push through the pain and pride-pinching accusations, there are alternate ways of looking at those roles.
Imagine being the parent who’s child never had a reason to doubt or question their advice. Who had been invited into the learning process alongside their parents? Who had positive frameworks for discussing conflict, disagreement and the establishment of their own, individual values. Most of the time, it’s not until much later stages of life that peer adults are capable of forming such competent bonds; yet these bonds and interactions are key for the development of healthy, well-adjusted and well-rounded young adults.
That’s why it’s so critical that parents accept the challenge of Not-Yet-Friends with their children and adolescents.
Friendship with your children is the privilege and honour bestowed on those who survive well, the teenage onslaught and adventure ride. It sounds crazy, but it’s true. As with a number of things, decisions that were yours as a parent of a toddler, become the decisions of the young adult themselves. Friendship with you and the nature of it will largely be their choice by the time they hit their mid-20s.
Like it or not, the level of friendship and trust they establish with you in that phase of life will be proportionately based on what they learned from the most recent phase of life and interaction with you.
Pursue parenting then, because it’s in parenting that you become a trusted advisor. It’s in your investment and commitment to them, you can demonstrate wisdom, perseverance, forgiveness and grace. It’s in your interactions and conversations that transcend a mere exchange of esteem building moments that you invest in the concrete foundation of the Parent-Child-Friends relationship.
As youthworkers, encourage parents to parent and not to try to be friends with their young people ahead of time. There’s a season and you shouldn’t rush it.
There are a few myths that need to be put to bed.
‘If I’m cool and can handle anything, then my child will tell me everything and I can be a better parent.’ Nope. You will never be cool enough that your child will tell you everything and why is your esteem wrapped up in it. It’s only building trust and a communicative culture with your child that opens the doors to communication.
‘It’s better to let some things slide and not say what I think, than to lose relationship with my kid.’ Strictly playing devil’s advocate here, but how will demonstrating holding back true honest feedback in your relationship with your teenager possibly help them learn how to be honest and true to themselves? If you want to teach your kids to deal with conflict well, you might as well start with the conflict you have with them.
‘I don’t really like the influence of that friend, but it’s not really my place to say.’ See above. There are limited opportunities to teach and demonstrate how hard but how important it is to offer truthful and graceful feedback to the ones we love. Talk honestly.
‘If I do what my parents did, I’ll turn out just like them and my child will have the scars I have.’No parents are perfect. It doesn’t matter if your kids are angels, scalliwags, 12 months old or 17 year old pop stars. There are no perfect kids, there are no perfect parents. Each child will carry both good and bad experiences from childhood, but learning constructive and positive communication will ensure that both build strength, resilience and character. Your children are not on a repeat cycle, unless you don’t engage in the process. They’re not perfect, neither are you, no one is. Therefore, there is freedom and grace to make mistakes.
In closing, my conversation with my friend was to encourage her to stand her ground. Friends don’t always speak in the nicest manner to each other, especially not when they are entering the teenaged years. I reminded her, implored her to take the higher ground and remember that she is the parent, she does have more experience, more wisdom and more intelligence than her tween daughter. That may not always be the case, but for right now, it is absolutely true. Therefore, there are many things in the day to day that require reframing. The simple recollection that there is a window where adults and children are not all equal. Equal rights, yes, equal concern yes. But equal footing – not.
Parents, enjoy the privilege you have to parent and don’t forgo it too quickly for the sake of friendship. It might sound and feel cooler momentarily, but it cannot deliver the same rewards as being the most trusted and faithful advisor of a young person.