Wednesday, September 16, 2009

My Parent, My Friend

     For this second installment in my parenting series, I’d like to expand on the partnership role I mentioned in my last post.

     At this point in my life, I’ve passed a good portion of that difficult transition stage. Thankfully, I’m no longer a teenager, overwrought with emotions, hormones, and other things I didn’t understand. Yet, I live with my parents for some of the year, and I’m still under their authority. The difficulty now is determining how much I’m under their authority, and how much I can have them next to me in an advisory role.

     We still argue, because there are times when my parents want more control than I’d like to give them, times when I want to tell them to leave me alone and let me do it my way. For the most part, however, I consider my parents my friends. They are my advisors in life decisions, my encouragers through all sorts of struggles, my resources of practical wisdom, my unconditionally loving and reliable foundation, and my examples of all I want to be as a parent (and some things I don’t want to be). I have said many times, and had many friends concur, that I probably have the best parents ever. I admit that I do not know a lot about parenting, because I am not a parent. I would contend, however, that I have a very good idea of what it looks like to be a good parent, because of the examples I have. When I think about my relationship with my parents (now, granted, not when I was a teenager), I can honestly say that I want my relationships with my children to be just like ours.

     How does one get there? I’ve certainly wondered why my relationship with my parents looks the way it does, especially as compared to several friends. For instance, I have a close friend whose parents want to be deeply involved in her decisions, including those regarding her relationship with her boyfriend. This type of parenting led to anxiety and stress for both sides, and a very strained relationship, even after the couple broke up. Another friend has expressed envy of families with parents who want to be involved in their children’s lives at all. How involved is too involved? How does one cultivate a good relationship with an adolescent child?

     My answer comes to mind in several parts: trial and error, contained failure, and it’s up to the child.

     The first part probably needs no explanation. Every parent makes mistakes, and every kid grows up and realizes (or should realize) that his or her family has issues. This is why I think everyone should go to counseling at some point in their lives, but I digress. Parenting is difficult, and no one has the perfect way all figured out. Being able to see one’s errors, acknowledge them (especially to the child, when appropriate), and learn from them in order to move on is the take-home point here.

     The principle of contained failure is one my parents were told when they were young parents, and one that has carried through the years. Essentially, it’s a “pick your battles” principle which says, if it’s not harmful to the child or others, let them do it. I have many memories of saying to my mom, “But I want to do it this way!” and her saying, “Okay, contained failure”. I can still picture her hands going up like she was physically letting go of the issue. It told me that she believed she had the better way, but that she would let me try it my way if I really wanted to. Interestingly, that was often all she needed to say for me to give in and do it her way. Recently, I had an interaction with a 4-year-old I babysit which affirmed my belief in the benefit of picking your battles and, more importantly, listening. I had in mind one way of doing things, and he wanted another, and started to whine and argue. I told him I didn’t want to argue with him, but I did want to hear why it was so important to him. This stopped him in his tracks. We calmly discussed both ways, and I decided it would be fine to do it his way this time. Yes, my way had better rationale, and his way ended up being more of a hassle, but the open, calm method of communication I initiated was worth it.

     The third point in having a healthy, low-stress relationship with an adolescent may be the most important: it’s up to the child. No parent can make a child want to talk to him or her by requiring it. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen this tried, and seen it fail miserably. The mother of one friend in high school made it clear to her daughter that she was not allowed to have secrets from her parents. Instead of fostering a relationship in which her daughter could tell her anything (which I’m sure was what she wanted), her daughter kept more from her. Another friend was required to come home from college for the entire weekend, every weekend of the first two years. He hated it. I’m certain that, once his parents no longer required it, he would almost never go voluntarily. I am absolutely convinced that the best way to encourage a child to involve her parents in her life is to allow her the freedom to decide when and how that happens. When I was a freshman in college, my parents told me they would enjoy seeing me home for a weekend when I could make it, and they would look forward to hearing from me often. There were no requirements, no guilt-trips, there was no emotional manipulation. The result? I called my parents every day, even for five minutes here or there, and went home about every other weekend. I adjusted to college, got busier, and relied on them less and less. The content of my phone calls changed from “what laundry setting should I use?” to “I got a great score on my test; how’s your day going?”. Now, in my fourth year, I don’t make it home very often, and I make many more decisions without needing my parents’ answers. Do you know what hasn’t changed? I still call them every day or every other day, just to say hello and to catch up. My parents know what’s going on in my life, have met (and like!) my boyfriend, and know many of my friends (and my dad is friends with them on Facebook). [As an aside, my dad is not on Facebook to stalk me, and I willingly became his Facebook friend.] If I don’t call for awhile, they’ll call me or send an email, but they don’t sound worried about me, upset with me, or say I’ve hurt their feelings. Sadly, I don’t know very many other people who can say that.

     Some people may think that this sort of relationship is bad in relation to respect and authority, but they couldn’t be more wrong. In my case at least, I respect my parents immensely, and honor their authority because they do not force it upon me. At 21, I feel blessed to have the kind of adult relationship with my parents that many people do not have until their late 30s, if ever.

     True, my parents aren’t perfect, and my family has issues. At the same time, I can truly say that I love my parents dearly, and I know with all my heart that I can tell them anything, and they will love me and accept me. I’m proud to call my parents my friends.

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