The Parent-Child Relationship

Respectful comments are always welcome. Opposing opinions are also welcome. Rude and disrespectful comments will not be approved. 

What does it mean to put one’s relationship in the center? A friend shared a blog post she’d tripped over about our relationships with one’s children.  I don’t know the author of The Only Parenting Mistake I ever Made – Over and Over and Over Again (or – The Illusion of Control), but her blog, The Adventure Continues, focuses on trust and building relationships between parents and children. (It’s long, but grab a beverage and skim it.) I’m all for a healthy relationship with my child — a healthy parent-child relationship, that is.

I met my older son just over fifteen years ago. I suppose you could argue we started our relationship in the womb, but that first look at my son brought me into relationship with him beyond what I’d known possible when he was in utero. I was his mom. He was my child. I was wholly responsible for his care — feeding, changing, tending, loving, guiding, nurturing. (Okay, his dad was there, too, but I can only speak to my relationship with my kids, not his.) So I fed, changed, tended, loved, guided, and nurtured. I also helped maintain a house, returned to work, had another son, and eventually ended up homeschooling both of them.

As they each grew, the job description of parent became more challenging. Little people can get into big pickles, and their growing, immature brains don’t have the skills to guide them to safety. Soon, seat belts had to be buckled even when a child fought against it. Wounds required washing and covering when a preschooler wanted it left alone. Quickly, plenty of my parenting involved setting limits and invoking safety protocols designed to keep my children healthy and whole. Another set of protocols gradually taught them skills for navigating the world successfully. (By successfully, I mean living without encroaching on the freedoms of others and allowing them to make some friends and compatriots along their walk through life.) Limit-making, thoughful and appropriate limit-making, was part of the feeding, tending, loving, and supporting that started with their births

The author of The Adventure Continues would likely have called me a control freak. She advocates caring more for how my child would feel about a rule than the rule itself. I know exactly how my two-year-old felt about that car seat some days. He was angry as hell. I got that. And yet the rule stood. I doubt very many children would make it past their toddler years if not for parental override on health and safety issues. The remaining ones might be shy on company if their naturally self-centered attitude was allowed to trump all social protocols.

I admit it. I’m my children’s parent. I’m not their friend. That, per the author’s first post (copied, with permission, from another parent) on her blog, makes me “mean, selfish, and lazy”. Perhaps I am sometimes. I’m human. I worry about their futures, struggle with the pains of their past, and sometimes just want them to act differently in the present. I believe that makes me human. I also care deeply about my relationship with each of them. As my older enters his mid-teens, I delight in the ways our relationship has evolved. As he gains more independence, I spend less time doing things for him. He’s a fun person with whom to be — funny, smart, and compassionate. I enjoy sitting with him in front of a TV show that he’s now old enough to understand or enjoying a crossword puzzle together at the kitchen table. And I love watching him mow, edge, and trim the lawn.

Make no mistake. I’m still clearly his parent, not his friend (not even, as the author suggests, his 40-something friend). I set limits because that’s part of the parent/child deal. I still have to keep him safe. He must wear a bike helmet. He can’t ride in the car of just any teen. He must let me know where he’s going. On the homeschooling front, my parenting includes helping is still-developing executive skills. I set deadlines and insist he meets them. I expect a certain level of quality (but not perfection) on assignments. After all, college classes this fall and jobs sometime later will expect nothing less. And I do all this knowing he’s not always happy with the constraints these expectations put on his life. That’s okay. We’re not always happy with those with whom we’re in relationship. I want him to have choices, and he admits he wants choices later on. He’s always had plenty of academic choices — he picked to study Algebra at age nine and to start Calculus this fall. His first history study as a homeschooler what his choosing (see We’ve Come Full Circle ). One has to make choices and blunder through the consequences in order to learn how to choose more wisely and muddle with grace.

My struggle with her piece largely revolves around her story about another mother’s child of about 12 or 13, a friend of her child’s. Essentially, this friend was plotting to “…meet up at midnight. But first they should steal LIQUOR from their parents, meet at Fred Meyer, STEAL an inflatable boat, HITCHHIKE to a river in the woods, and float down the river at 2am, drinking liquor.” Her daughter refused. The author reported nothing to the mother of the plotting young one. The author’s explaination to this failure to act as a village to raise a child goes like this:

…I do know that at that time, she was regularly (while grounded) sneaking out of her house at 2 am, taking public transit to a park, smoking there in the middle of the night, etc. – and calling my daughter to tell her how scared she was of sketchy people on the bus. And her mom never had any idea. Because the relationship was not the priority, the rules were, so had she known, the girl knew that it would have resulted in more grounding and “punishment” and none of the supported exploration and deep learning that she undoubtedly craved.

…It’s all too common, and when you are a parent to a teen who tells you a lot of what goes on in their lives, you have the privilege of hearing what is going on in the lives of other teens – most of whom are parented very differently, few of whom have parents who prioritize the relationship over the rules. I would never violate my children’s trust in me by telling other parents what their kids are doing behind their back, but I wish i could convey to so many that it’s NOT what they think.

May my children never be friends with her children. We teach our children to help those in trouble. We tell them to let an adult know about others who are struggling, because adult intervention can save lives. We tell them we can help (and we often can). Had this child come into danger, what would this author feel? Would she feel smug in her assessment that this child had parents who prioritized rules over relationship? Would her daughter ask what they could have done to help this child? Would the author be satisfied with herself since she did not “violate (her) children’s trust in my by telling other parents what their kids are doing behind their back”? That would be a cold comfort indeed. This isn’t putting the relationship with her child first. It’s negligence.

To me, this author is missing a key to parenthood: responsibility. As parents with (hopefully) mature prefrontal cortexes (cortici?), we can put the pieces together that our children (and their friends) cannot. We can assess risk where they may not be able to do so. Is is precisely because of our relationship with our children and, by proxy, our relationships to their friends, that we MUST place limits and create rules. It is our responsibility. It is part of the relationship. In fact, our level of responsibility with our children defines our role as parents.

Yes, the relationship matters. It matters deeply, and I’ve shed many tears and lost plenty of sleep over harsh words I’ve said and limits I’ve placed. Harsh words and limits are sometimes necessary in all relationships, but I know at times I’ve overstepped. I’ve apologized many times, and I’ve received apologies from them. We all blunder our way along. Through it all, our relationships grow as they grow. Wiping bottoms, breastfeeding, and tying shoes passes away. Coaching life skills, teaching Chemistry, and discussing organizational strategies moves to center stage. Conversation, laughter, love, support, and guidance continue throughout. The relationship is at the center of my parenting. A generally healthy, ever-changing parent-child relationship.

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10 thoughts on “The Parent-Child Relationship

  1. I agree – the relationship is important, but it’s a parent-child relationship, not a peer relationship. It’s the same whenever you have a responsibility toward another person, rather than just being friends. And parents most definitely have a responsibility toward their children.

  2. Well, I have to say this was pretty mean spirited toward your fellow parent. It perpetuates the divisiveness of women – mothers – who are, for the most part, doing everything in their power, all over the world, to do the best they can for and with their children. When you’re out of the trenches, as it were, I hope that you will recognize that your hurtful words and lines in the sand serve no one’s purpose. This is not a competition. This is life, in all its diversity. Good luck on your journey.

    • I didn’t intend to be mean-spirited, and I don’t believe I was. I gave an honest critique of a piece of writing that contained elements that worried me deeply. I presented my opinion as just that — my opinion. Parenting is a balancing act, and each parent has to find what works best for his or her particular family at that particular time. In short, what works for that blog author and mom works for her. Period. She’s welcome to parent her children how she’d like. I’m free to disagree, in part or in whole. I value my children’s health and safety as well as their spirits and minds, and I’ll not sacrifice the former for the latter. I don’t agree with her decision about the young friend of her child’s, and I’ve clearly stated why. That’s not divisive. That’s just my take.

      Like you and like the author of that blog, I’m doing the best I can do for my children. Every parent-child dyad is unique. There certainly isn’t a competition, and I never suggested there was. I’m entitled to my perspective, and you are entitled to yours. As you said, “This is life, in all its diversity.”

      Peace.
      Sarah

  3. With every relationship comes responsibility. As an adult, I have had experiences where I have potentially sacrificed friendship for my friend’s health or well-being. That’s what a real friend does. As far as Sarah’s post dividing mothers, I will have to respectfully disagree. The author of the original post went beyond dividing mothers into camps when she villainized her daughter’s friend’s mother. Nothing in the post said that they attempted to help the teenage girl who was putting her life in danger. If the author truly had a solid, respectful, mature friendship with her daughter, the two of them could have openly discussed the importance of keeping the girl safe and the danger she was putting herself in. Then, perhaps together, they could have spoke to the friend’s mother from a place of peace and compassion. A united front in motherhood. Instead, they seemed to have made her the enemy.

    I do believe in protecting a teen’s privacy. If this was a case of a teen friend texting past their curfew, I would have talked to my teen about whether or not that was a good idea. I would have let them decide if they wanted to talk to their friend about breaking the mom’s rules. But it seems like in this instance, in the original post, the teen was crying out for help. Could the blog author and her daughter have become an ally in helping to heal a troubled family relationship? Maybe. But not by criticizing and keeping the other mom in the dark.

    Of course, I’m not a parenting expert. We are all struggling through parenting each of our exceptionally different children. I appreciate the perspective here, and that Sarah has provided a safe and respectful platform for discussion.

  4. My 12 year old and I just had a talk tonight about snitching on friends who are about to do something dumb, dangerous, or illegal. There was a terrible tragedy in our community that might’ve been avoided if a teen who knew what was being plotted had spoken up. I told my child that I expect her to tell me and that I am more than willing to be the over-protective crazy woman “bad guy” who over-steps her bounds if it means that someone else can be safe. I don’t think the article was mean spirited at all–we are all different mothers–and we do what is right for our kids. I think a philosophical difference like, “i know your child is riding a bus to a park at 2 AM and smoking, but I’m going to let them experience this wonderful life experience and not mention it to you”.. is negligent and wrong, and I probably would discourage my child from hanging out with that family.

    Because when your child is at my house, I got your back, and I’d appreciate it if you return the favor.

    • We’re in this child rearing together, Sharon. We’ve had the conversation, too, about what needs to be reported to an adult. Tragedies so often have warning bells (not always, but often). We need to not only listen to them but to respond with swift, compassionate action.

  5. I adopted my 4 children through foster care, the oldest was only weeks away from being 14 when I met her. Her biological mom was her friend. That was the most important thing to her bio mom, that they be buddies. Needless to say, this did not work out so well for the child who became my child. Throughout our relationship she used to ask me why we couldn’t be friends like she and bio mom had been. I would tell her that we could be, some day, when she was an adult. But right now I was her parent, and she the child, it was my job to keep her safe, alive, and teach her about life. I could not effectively do those jobs as her friend.

    So, even though I was the mean Mom with all the rules, she still talked to me. She told me things I didn’t want to know, but probably needed to, and we dealt with them as a parent/child, not as buddies.

  6. I agree with your position here, Sarah. I would expect a true friend to tell me if my child was doing something dangerous. And I also tell my kids not to tattle on their friends UNLESS those friends are doing something that could hurt them. Let’s continue to facilitate civil dialogue and avoid getting sucked into the mommy wars.

  7. Sarah…simply the best thing I have ever read on this topic…speaking not just as a Mom but as a counselor too. AND I have made an occasional hard call to other parents..usually well received. Keep up the thoughtful reflections! Ann B-F

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