There are many parenting adages we don’t question. We don’t feed whole grapes to small children. We don’t let them run with scissors. We are their parents, not their friends.
Like a new intern wanting to make a good impression, I nod sagely when I hear them. When I became a mother, agreeing with these commandments felt essential to being inducted to responsible parenthood.
I agree with most of them but over time, I kept thinking about the last one: “We are their parents, not their friends.”
“What friends are we talking about?” was my question. If we’re talking about friends who would enable your worst tendencies, take advantage of power dynamics, or manipulate situations into their favor—these are traits that aren’t exclusive to dumb friendships. I cave into this kind of behavior on all of my worst days as a parent.
I’m sensitive to the idea of the parent as friend because it’s my wish to be one. Other parents fantasize about their kids becoming superstars. There are no professions I fixate on because most of the time, my daydreams lead me to having my grownup daughter as my best friend.
I suppose our fantasies allow us to peer into things drawn from our insecurities. I have faith in my ability to raise a capable and responsible kid. I second guess myself when it comes to developing healthy relationships with people.
The adage about parents as friends guilts me. It makes me wonder if having your child as a friend is something too ridiculous to aspire for. It also makes me wonder if it’s the shallow understanding of a friendship, coupled with a longstanding tradition of patriarchal discipline, that makes us afraid of seeing children deserving of the courtesies we extend to adults.
The notion of a long game is what powers me through the exasperations of parenting children. It’s what I tell myself when I’m in the middle of a needless argument with a four-year-old over her choice of outfit. If I keep my patience, the odds are higher for my daughter to keep her fire intact. She’ll be needing it when she becomes an adult where there will be far more idiotic, unjust situations that will call for her rage and conviction.
My motivations aren’t all selfless. Wanting my daughter to become my best friend is just as bad as wanting her to be an astronaut—both endeavors impinge on her free will if she doesn’t want any of it. My fantasy is grounded on being able to take a break from trying so much with the world. What if I don’t have to try so hard to maintain my social obligations? This is the prayer of the introverted and tired. My daughter can be my regular date, my sounding board and movie buddy.
This is where the fantasy makes itself clear.
I consider parenthood a lifelong vocation. I don’t stop being a mother even when my child is all grown-up, and I don’t think I’ll ever want to. The vocation of parenthood calls upon you to use the privilege of being older and wiser not to dump yourself emotionally upon your child just because you think they’ll be able to handle it. There are weights that are not meant to be distributed to your kids—the uglier feelings towards your partner or the things you gave up (no matter how willingly) to be home more. Sometimes people think this is what friendship is, it’s not.
When I say I want to be a friend, I want to be the safest place for my child. I never want to be the last to know about something in her life just because she was embarrassed, scared or ashamed. I also want to be able to take her seriously and be able to imagine what it’s like in her shoes.
Right now the preschooler years drive me crazy because things I consider to be non-issues become life or death matters to my kid. She insists on wearing a gown to Sunday lunch because not feeling like a princess is unbearable. She needs the bedtime sequence of pillow fight, tickles and story time because deviating from it feels unsettling. Her emotions are real and it takes all my patience to remove all the ways I want to shut them all down just because they belong to someone more powerless than me.
I learn to be a good parent by learning how to be a good friend. I learn how to be a good friend all over again because I’m trying to be a good parent.
“Believe this difficult truth. Showing respect in the face of disrespect, love in the face of hate, trust in the face of betrayal, and serenity in the face of turmoil, will teach your children more than all the moral lectures by all the preachers since the dawn of time.”