Liberal parents are “parent-friends”: parents first, but still invested in a good relationship with our children.
Last week, Kelly Ripa, co-host of the very popular “Live with Kelly and Michael Show,” repeated a popular piece of modern parenting lore saying that she doesn’t worry if her child doesn’t like her because she is her daughter’s mother, not her friend.
Ripa explained that Lola, her 13-year-old daughter, has been struggling in Spanish class. During a time when Lola was supposed to be in her room studying, she was actually texting, in violation of a family rule that forbids children from having cell-phones in their rooms during study times.
Lola left her phone in plain sight when she went to the bathroom. And as luck would have it, that was when her mother came to check on her. While she waited for her daughter to return, Ripa went through her daughter’s phone.
According to Ripa her daughter doesn’t like her anymore. Lola seems to have had some expectation that her phone would be private, and she is having serious difficulty adjusting to life without social media.
In general, response to Ripa’s revelations have been positive. Conservative media outlets have been especially effusive in their praise of her. They believe she dropped a bomb on liberals that is sure to “freak [us] out.”
I hate to disappoint them, but I do not feel even slightly freaked out or chastened by Ripa. Yes, I have been upset by most of the commentary about Ripa’s revelation, but that is because it has shown me how illiterate the general public is about parenting methods. And, frankly, that should worry us all.
We need to dispel the myth that parents who work to have a good relationship with their children, who “hang out with them” and treat them with respect are not “pathetic” people whose “self-esteem is actually tied into our children liking us.”
Liberals are not permissive parents who are so averse to upsetting their child that they refuse to set limits. But we know how destructive, child-alienating, and demeaning authoritarian parenting truly is.
Liberal parents, by and large, have authoritative parenting style. And yes, many of us are our children’s friends. We work to have a warm relationship with our children, listen to them, and encourage their independence. But we also establish firm limits and enforce them fairly. We are parent-friends: parents first, but still invested in a good relationship with our children.
What does being a parent-friend actually look like? Well, here is what it does not look like. In Ripa’s situation, a parent-friend would not give her 13-year-old daughter unlimited access to media and indulge her when she failed a class.
But when you value your relationship with your child, you do not shame them. Ripa betrayed her daughter’s trust and acted disloyally when she talked about their conflict on national television. Even if she had her daughter’s permission to share it (which I highly doubt), criticizing your child in public is not the way to build a loving and trusting relationship. The old adage “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” is particularly true when you are talking a child who is in that incredibly vulnerable place of early adolescence.
My criticism of Ripa ends there. She did a lot of things right, and I don’t believe in tearing apart other parents for fun or profit.
However, in the interest of explaining how a parent need not sacrifice their relationship with their children to be good parents, let me tell you how a liberal parent-friend might have handled the situation.
Most parent-friends are very cautious when it comes media, and especially social media. So before the child even had the phone, they would have talked the poor child half to death in the process of agreeing what kind of limits would be appropriate.
By the time we were done discussing it, our children would probably have agreed with us that for a 13-year-old, a phone is primarily a safety device that could also be used as an entertainment device during free time.
Since parent-friends worry about setting up their kids for failure, we would worry about how tempting it would be for our kid to use the phone at times other than the agreed upon schedule. So we would likely do something like have our children keep their phones in the kitchen at a family charging station. The phone would only leave the kitchen when the parent and child both agreed.
Liberal parent-friends are big on mutual trust and respect. So it would be a very big deal if a child snuck the phone out of the kitchen and took it to her room while she was supposed to be studying. We would have to have several long talks about how that betrayal of trust would impact our relationship and what it would take to restore that trust.
Many of us would suspect that the child’s behavior might be a symptom of a larger problem. Is she feeling really anxious about the upcoming test? Why is she having problems in Spanish? According to Ripa, she is pressuring her daughter to do well in Spanish because Lola is “half Mexican” and her grandmother teaches Spanish. We would gently prod to see if that was part of the problem. Is she feeling a need to distance herself from her family’s Latino heritage? Or is it something more prosaic like difficulty learning new words?
Understanding why the child broke the rules would not get her out of trouble. Breaking our trust means that our child has to accept the consequences of that broken trust. For example, most parents that I know would need to go through the child’s phone to see if this was a pattern or a one-off.
We would address whatever was keeping her from living up to her potential in Spanish class. Of course, we would want to act as her cheerleader, but failing that we would crack the whip.
Since she had wandered away from her study time, I would want her to study in a common area where I could help regain her focus should it wander off again. And given the fact that she broke our trust so that she could engage in social media, we would probably want her to take an extended cyber hiatus. So we would take the data plan off of her phone and change the permissions on her computer so that she could only access academic sites until we felt that she was ready to try again.
Parent-friends are not blackmailed into compliance by their children’s anger or sadness. We let them experience their feelings and express them respectfully. And no matter what our children’s attitude is, we take responsibility for maintaining our relationship with them. Regardless of how much trouble they are in, we still hang out with them, take them on family outings, share funny stories about our day, and remain available when they want to talk.
Having a parent-friend does not give a child a license to do whatever she wants. For years, our kids had to DVR whatever they wanted to watch because our family didn’t watch TV on school nights. And our son once asked why we couldn’t just beat him rather than making him talk about the mistake he had made.
It is a lot easier to be your child’s parent and not worry about being her friend. You don’t have to spend hours talking and listening with your child. You get to be right even when you are wrong. And you get a lot of applause when you announce that you don’t care if your child dislikes you because you say are her mom, not her friend.
Being a parent-friend is exhausting physically, emotionally, and mentally. You constantly worry that you are getting it wrong. And you will never want for critics.
But the good news for those who do the hard work of authoritative parenting is that as a rule our kids do better in school and have fewer behavioral problems. Plus they are happier, do better in relationships, and they are better able to handle their emotions. And best of all, we get to have a great relationship with some of the most amazing people on the planet.
Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.