On Parenting Teenagers (Part 2 of 4)
Thank You For Not Being a Friend
(...with apologies to Andrew Gold.)
Parents seem to make the mistake of trying to be their children's friends. Sure, children need friends, but they need parents, too! Conclusion #2: It is important to be crystal clear between both parents and children that the parent-child relationship is not identical with friendship. Parents frequently make this mistake even before their children reach their teenage years. As your children grow in their understanding of the world and in their ability to communicate and discuss adult issues, it becomes all the more tempting to try to be their friends. My wife and I told our daughters quite early and in no uncertain terms that we are not their "friends."
The natural response to this is, "Aww...but come on, have a heart..." If you have suffered emotional distance from your own parents, you will naturally want to reverse that with your children. However, I do not mean that your relationship with your child should be utterly devoid of playful fun, humor, camaraderie or an egalitarian atmosphere. I mean that your primary responsibilities as a parent remain in place—the physical and emotional well-being of your child, preparing your child for life as an adult, and all the rest. If fun, humor, camaraderie or an egalitarian atmosphere must be thrown under the bus in favor of these, then you must be willing and able to do so. These are the times when your children tell you they "hate you," and that you are being "totally unfair," but you must not concede merely on the basis of such name-calling.
If this still seems harsh, I would note that there are benefits to you and your child:
Reciprocity and Fairness
Children naturally expect reciprocity and fairness in relationships with their friends. However, the parenting relationship is simply not one of fair give-and-take. Don't forget that it started with the parent doing all the giving and the child doing all the taking! What this means is that even if your teenager makes demands on the basis of "fairness" or bargains on the basis of reciprocity, you are free to refuse without feeling guilty.
One particularly sensitive area is respect. Children naturally feel entitled to respect from their friends. However, unconditional respect is not reciprocal in the parent-child relationship. The parent is entitled to respectful behavior from the child, but the child is not free to demand it from the parent. Again, this may seem harsh, but it prepares the child for the real world where people in positions of power expect respectful behavior—whether or not the child judges that they have "earned" it.
As your child matures, he or she will come to understand and appreciate the parent relationship as distinct from friendship. Teenagers are frequently tempted by friends to engage in behavior they know is risky. It can be difficult for them to avoid such behavior without losing face with their friends or even risking the friendship. In such situations, it is terribly convenient for your teenager to throw you under the bus, and blame your "stupid," "unfair," or "hard-ass" policies in avoiding their friends' bad behavior.
The point here is not to withhold reciprocity, fairness, or respect arbitrarily. Indeed, parents should be generous with them wherever appropriate. However, we must understand that the parenting relationship—unlike friendship—does not entitle the child to these, and this is beneficial to both sides.