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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

We're Your Parents, Not Your Friends: Avoiding a HUGE Parenting Mistake

Who doesn't want to be loved by their kids?  I mean, we're human, right?  We have an inherent desire to be valued and appreciated and cared about. . .especially by those we treasure most.

So it's completely understandable that we'd want our children's admiration, approval, and just plain friendship.  Isn't it?

Well, yes and no.  The 'yes' part comes from our basic human need to be wanted and loved.  But the 'no' part comes from the fact that parents aren't actually meant to be best buddies with their kids. . .at least not while they're growing up.  What they're meant to be is, well, PARENTS.

Although we're called to love and nurture and care for our kids, one of our most important and sacred parental duties is to prepare our children to enter adulthood as equipped as possible.

But that's hard to do when we're chillaxin with them at the mall.

Not that having fun with our kids is a bad thing. . .it most certainly isn't.  But they have friends to hang out with.  What they need from us is more than that.

Take me, for example.  I had a decidedly less than ideal childhood.  Abandoned by my birth father before I was a year old, my brother and I were then adopted by our mother's second husband.  Unfortunately, he turned out to be a vicious, sadistic, abusive 'parent' whose cruelty decimated the next 12 years of our lives.

By the time we escaped from that situation, dysfunction had well and truly ingrained itself into what was left of our family.  My poor mom, who had endured so many years of trauma and terror, had felt for years that she needed to compensate for my step father being a tyrant and therefore had slipped into the gentler role of 'friend.'  In fact, if anything, our roles somehow reversed.

As I went through my teens, my mom was struggling to emerge from the years of abuse, and I found myself encouraging and supporting and nurturing her, instead of the other way around.  I didn't know at the time that reversing roles was not good for either of us.  It was just how we both coped with over a decade of abuse and trauma and it was what it was.

In fact, at the time, I thought our role reversal was swell.  I had more responsibility and freedom than any of my friends.  I worked long hours through junior and senior high, but got to save and spend my money as I saw fit.  I bought my own clothes, bought and maintained my own car, paid for most of my own college education and generally paid my own way from about 14 onward.  I thought that was cool and grown up and mature.

But it wasn't.

I needed a parent, not a friend or companion, during those transitional years.  But after so much trauma and then several years of a 'buddy' relationship, my mom didn't know how to be a mom.  I didn't know how to be her daughter.

And we both paid for that for a very long time.

On the one hand, I was responsible and level-headed and did 'okay' on the surface.  But never having been successfully parented by anyone left HUGE gaps in my practical and emotional skill base and even bigger scars on my heart.

It wasn't until the year before my mom unexpectedly (and way too early!) passed away that I think we both finally made our peace with each other and the past.  But it was too late, then.  My chance to be 'parented' was over twenty years gone.

So I know what damage a person does when he or she circumvents the natural role of parent and child.  Whether from circumstance or intention, the damage is real and lasting.

We have only one shot at this parenting thing.  It's important to not let the opportunity pass.

Laughing with our kids and enjoying them is so important and so necessary.  But they need more than that from us.  They need us to help them navigate the complexities of human relationships and loss and challenges and success.  They need us to reflect their strengths as well as their weaknesses back to them so they have a realistic understanding of who they are and what they have to offer.  They need us to be trustworthy. . .not merely cheerleaders praising every facet of their being, whether it's praiseworthy or not.

They need us to teach them that the trying is more important than the achieving. . .because they won't get that from anywhere else.  They need us to anchor them in where their value really lies:  not in their looks or talent or abilities or successes. The world will shove that rubbish on them.  If we haven't taught them something different, they might buy into that. . .and then where will they be?

They'll need us to teach them to finish what they start, always do their best, and give things a try. Life is going to be full of jobs they don't want to do, mundane tasks that they'll be tempted to slosh through with little effort and scary paths they must walk.

They'll need us to teach them that failing doesn't define them. . .it's whether or not they have the character to get back up and try again that does.  And they'll need us to model that actions have consequences, and some of those consequences aren't great.  If we shield them from the results of their choices, they'll never learn to make different, better, healthier ones.

And they'll need us to love them.  Completely.  Unconditionally.  And just as they are.  The world is going to try to make them find their value in what they achieve or how much money they make or how pretty they are.  But those things come and go.  The fact that your kids are wonderfully and fearfully and purposefully made won't.  They need to know that.

I won't lie.  In the short term, it's more fun to be a friend.  But over a lifetime, it's more important to be a parent.

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