I have enough friends.
It inevitably happens.When ever my friends and I get together and the liquid libations start flowing it is only a matter of time that we start discussing the bigger issues in life. This usually disintegrates into just a venue for each of us to hurl insults, make jokes and generally say strange things for entertainment purposes only. These usually begin with a question. Chicken or the egg? Democrat or republican? Tastes great or less filling? Paper or plastic?Butter pecan?(I choose pecan) However, every once in a while one of these conversations turns into one of those unanswerable questions that are really fun to discuss in that depending on how you answer it reveals , at least for a moment, who you really are and what do you believe in. And since every one of us are parents in some way or another, the question arises,” Are you your child’s friend or are you their parent?”
This question has always perplexed me and as I grow older it is still no easier to decipher. My parents, however, faced no such doubt as to their answer. They were my parents first, last and always. Maybe it was just the generational differences. I have often heard that each generation is twice as smart and half as strong as the one that preceded them and I cannot argue with that statement. When I was a kid, there was absolutely no doubt as to who was calling the shots. As my mom was a stay at home mother she had the misfortune to have to spend her every waking hour with me and I understand how miserable that can be. Hell, I only spend half my time with me and I want to kick my ass. Mom also grew up in the era of discipline. She was never abusive but did believe in the biblical adage,”Spare the rod, spoil the child”. She believed in it so strongly that she actually had a “spare” rod in case the one she was using broke. Now mom never used corporal punishment in a way that was cruel nor inhumane and it was necessary to use something other than just words with me, because as my wife can fully confirm, I’m not real good with the whole “listening” thing. It was always surprising to my childhood friends…er…hoodlums… that such a small woman could be so good at keeping my Jethro Bodine sized self in line. How? The answer was simple. Hand speed.
My mom was a little 5 foot 2 woman from the mill towns of North Carolina but she could move her like Sugar Ray Leonard. If every house is like a baseball team, my mom was definitely the Designated Hitter. My mom could be driving down the street in that aircraft carrier on wheels that they called a ’75 Chevy Impala, while my sister and I were riding in that backseat begin enough to run a 5k in and the minute my sister and I begin to fight, and we always fought, mom could reach back and smack us both so fast that we never saw her hands leave the steering wheel. She took these skills outside the car also. When I was in elementary school, she was the neighborhood champ in both “pencil-break” and “slaps” four years running. She was a lot of fun to grow up with and she kept me from becoming that wild little animal that every young boy can be. She was strict and fair but had one flaw. My mom was really naïve.
For the adults out there that grew up in homes with strict but naïve parents you know that means. It means do whatever you want to, just don’t get caught. And boy, did I do some stuff. Since the statute of limitations has not expired on some of my more reckless adventures and due to the fact that I would rather not record my activities for fear of losing future job opportunities, let’s just say that my (frequently bloodshot eyes) chronic “Pink-eye” condition that I developed while in high school was not viral in nature. My need to not get caught also created a certain need for me to be,shall we say, flexible with the truth. Let’s face it. I was a one man Thespian association. While my actor friends at school were rehearsing their lines from Grease and Death by Chocolate, I was at the house successfully explaining how the 125 cigarette butts in the yard were not the result of a party but rather the left over evidence of an extremely pushy door-to-door salesman.
The basic picture that I am trying to portray is that my parents were parents. They were in charge. They had all the answers and they already knew all the questions. They had mom and dad tattooed on their souls. So,why do I always feel that any time I have to make a parenting decision for my own kids that I should be wearing a paper hat and a name tag that says,”Trainee”? I know that I say “I don’t know” so much that until the age of three my daughter thought that was my first name. I want to raise my kids and guide them through life with authority and conviction but the truth is that everyday there is some situation that arises that is too complex and too life changing to just make on the basis of “cause I said so.” Not that I want to be my kids’ buddy, but I want them to understand that I am just as imperfect as they are and if I make a wrong decision that I need the same kind of forgiveness that they get when they make a mistake.
This complexity is not constant. I do have a defined sense of what is right and wrong, what works in our house and what doesn’t and how the decisions that everyone makes defines ,not only who they become, but also has a lasting effect on all the people in their lives. I don’t accept disrespect from my kids. I don’t allow my kids to harm themselves or others. My kids will not be “fighters” nor “bullies”. They will do and say the right things regardless of the popularity of it. I am in control and I give my kids guidelines but it is just so hard to see myself in the classic dad role that to me should be reserved for my and my friends’ fathers and the dad on any sitcom filmed in black-and-white. This continually bouncing between the two roles of friend and parent seem to be just a natural progression of how my ideas and ideals have changed throughout the years. If life is a football game, then I unfortunately go to the replay every chance I get to make sure I made the right call and all too often,” After further review, the play on the field is overturned and Tearle will be charged with a time out.”
My constant reevaluations are most pronounced in the way I view myself as a parent. My wife and I started dating at age 18 and even after we became serious we swore that we would never get married but we did. We swore that we would never have kids but we did. Once we found out that we were to be parents we talked seriously about how we were going to raise them. We decided we were not going to be the authoritarian parents both of us had. We were going to be the cool parents. No rules. Just do what feels right. Give the kids all the freedom they want and they will be happy and never have a single care. We were going to let our kids drink at the house(just no driving, OK?) let them smoke weed if the wanted to( its no worse than tobacco right?) date whoever they want and if they wanted to have sex, no problem just do it at home so at least we would know they were safe. This was a solid plan and we were quite proud of how open-minded our plan was. Then one tiny event happened that side tracked the whole affair. It was called my eldest child’s birth. From the moment we saw how fragile this wonderful human being could be , and likewise her brother who came a few years later, our open-minded plan was treated like that sixth grade photo of me in the clogging club outfit, it was buried behind the garage and never mentioned again.
It’s not that we became those typical straight-laced ’cause I said so ‘ parents but just that we understood the value of having guidelines to keep the kids safe and freedoms to keep the kids happy. I have never quite understood why the whole parent or friend thing has to be so black and white. We make the rules in our house, but we do so with the understanding that kids need to have the room to grow and live and experience life without unnecessary limitations. That is the principle difference. My parents and other strict parents wanted their kids to fear doing wrong but we want our kids to love doing right. Every holier than thou parent that tells you about “spare the rod” also needs to remember the verse about “fathers not provoking their children to anger”. It’s a slippery slope but one we as parents must ascend every day.
Some people of a more conservative nature may wonder why just being a parent isn’t enough. The question is simple but the feelings involved are complex. The way I see it, we are raising our kids to be free thinking human beings who use rational thought and reasoning to guide their lives. When I tell my kid to look both ways before crossing the street because I have the experience of knowing what could happen when they don’t, they need to trust my authority as their parent. However when I recommend pursuing a certain crush they have or guide them into an experience they are nervous about I want them t0 realize that as their friend I want them to be happy. That balance between keeping them safe and keeping them happy is why I have such a hard time figuring out which role I actually am.There are two more reasons to let your kids know you like them. First of all, they are the ones that will be picking out your nursing home when you get old, so you might want to make sure they don’t have any axes to grind from the time you wouldn’t buy them the My Little Pony they wanted when they were 6. Secondly, and most importantly, if your kids know that you love them not because you gave birth to them but rather because you value the type of person that they are and honor their interests and personal likes and dislikes, you will open yourself up to sharing a world of experiences which is better than any dream you could have.
So which is it? Am I their friend or am I their parent? Can I like my kids even when they disappoint me? Can I have fun with them even though I have to be the responsible one? Does my experience make me their ally or their authority? I guess the answer is that I am not really sure and it would take years to actually reason the correct answer out. Unfortunately it’s almost 3 o’clock……..
And I have to go pick up “my friends” from school.