I have spent more than ten years, criss-crossing the country, talking to parents, helping them cope with the demands of raising children in very challenging times. Parenting is tough. No one gets through it without making mistakes. Many well-intentioned souls vow not to make the same blunders their parents did. They don’t. They make new mistakes that their children will try to avoid.
There is one mistake, however, that all parents should avoid. And we have some very public examples of what happens when that advice is ignored. Parents should never confuse parenting with friendship. Your kids will find friends among their peers. They need you to be a parent, not a friend.
I think of this parenting mistake every time I read a gossip column or magazine and see photos of young starlets doing all the things your mother told you not to do, particularly in public—underage drinking, getting drunk and either falling down or throwing up, snorting drugs, flashing private parts, and making out with a different guy each night. Not only are the mothers of some of these young celebrities doing little to rein in this bad behavior, they also are joining in!
While these stars are the most public examples of “friendship” parenting, there are many other cases that are not as high profile. A father or mother may not even realize they have morphed from parent to friend. Let’s face it. Sometimes being a parent means having an angry, resentful kid on your hands. You may not want to deal with the slammed doors, tantrums, dirty looks, or silent treatment. So you give in. You may even bend over backwards to avoid a confrontation. But over time, taking the road of least resistance relegates you to a lesser role. Your child may no longer see you as an authority figure, but as a contemporary. And she may begin to treat you that way.
One complaint I often get from parents concerns “mouthiness.” Talking back is rampant. There is a development issue here. Young adolescents feel they have little control over their lives, and so verbalizing their frustrations is one way to strike back. Still many parents put up with language that they would never tolerate in a spouse, co-worker, or even a friend. “You’re so stupid! How could you forget my lunch!” Will the mother apologize for being forgetful, as I have heard some mothers do, or react as any sane parent should react? The punishment is up to you, but, make no mistake about it, there should be consequences.
Some parents may be shocked to see a celebrity’s mother partying with her, but the phenomenon is not as uncommon as you would think. On several occasions, I have met a mother who believed she should be the one to introduce her daughter to drinking or, even worse, marijuana. The excuse always is that the experience will be safer if a parent takes the lead. The result is often very different. Underage drinking and marijuana are illegal. What message does a parent send when she uses with her child? Again, the parental role has been compromised. The daughter may think her mom is “cool,” but the next time she is offered a beer or a joint, will she accept, thinking she has parental approval?
A parent may believe that acting like a friend will bring her closer to her children. In fact, the opposite is true. Young adolescents and teenagers need boundaries. They need to feel there is someone there who can keep them safe and tell them when to avoid risky behavior. Once you have planted yourself in the friendship camp, your child has nowhere to turn. And that’s not something, as a parent, you would want for your child.
Charlene C. Giannetti is the co-author with Margaret Sagarese of The Roller-Coaster Years: Raising Your Child Through the Maddening Yet Magical Middle School Years.