Parenting from a different perspective.
All through my son’s early years, I heard the mantras:
You aren’t his friend, You’re his parent.
He needs to be afraid of you.
He’s going to be a big guy. You have to get your bluff in early.
Let’s look at the first one. What is a friend? If you are fortunate, a friend is someone who always has your back, but holds all of you accountable. They have your best interests at heart. They share their joys and sorrows with you. They tell you the total truth with lots of love. They apologize when they are wrong, and when they hurt you. They answer your questions. And, of course, you have lots of fun with them. Why would any of that be incompatible with parenting?
The second one? I dismissed that entirely. Why would I want him to fear me? Respect and fear are entirely different things, and respect should be earned. I enrolled him in martial arts with me when he was six. When a guy at my high school reunion asked him, “Blake, who is the toughest guy in the room?” He answered, “My Mom.”
I did try getting my bluff in early. But mostly, I didn’t bluff. Because he saw right through me. He still does. Don’t most of our friends?
So, what did I do instead of bluff? My mother was the one who told me that I was telling him to do things or stop doing things without really expecting him to. I learned, through a friend, to check within myself first to make sure I really cared whether he did something or not. If I did, then I needed to say it calmly, but with firmness and conviction. Miraculously that worked. Most of the time.
Prior to his ability to understand the reason, we had some tough times. From 18 months old to close to three years old were sometimes pure, unadulterated (as in, no one was the adult) hell. I’ll write about that later. For now, let’s look at what you can do when children can start to reason and be reasoned with.
Answer the whys.
I explained things to him when he was old enough to understand, and I answered all his “whys.” If I didn’t know an answer, I admitted it. If I realized I didn’t have a good reason for something I wanted him to do or stop doing, I would say, “Well hell,” under my breath, and then tell him never mind. What I did not say is, “Because I said so,” no matter how desperately I wanted to. And I so desperately wanted to.
Sometimes, as in when there is danger, there isn’t time for answers.
Those rare times became learning experiences for the future. Once, when he was four and would stand on a chair and “play” a video game in our favorite pizza place, was one of those times. When we parked, there were two guys in the parking lot arguing. After I placed Blake in his chair in front of the machine next to the entrance, I sat at a table on the other side of the entrance.
The two guys came in, still arguing, and stopped at the entrance. I told Blake to come to me. He asked “Why,” I told him because I needed him to. He still asked, “Why.” I didn’t want to antagonize or even gain the attention of the guys by saying, “Because those fools could be dangerous.” I walked over and picked him up, and got the manager to ask them to leave. In today’s climate, that would have been much scarier. But it gave me the opportunity to teach him that when I told him to do something for no reason, it was because there was danger.
Apologize when you are wrong.
I always apologized to him when I was wrong. I still do. From hearing me apologize, he learned to do it too. I apologized whenever I lost it temporarily and raised my voice. Or when I didn’t follow through on something. From that, he learned that people, even Mommies, make mistakes. And that most mistakes are survivable.
Tell the truth.
Because I tell him the truth, he tells me the truth. At least the vast majority of the time. The few times he didn’t, he came back and admitted it later. I did the same. There was one specific time I answered his question, then had to go back and answer again. The real truth. He asked why his Dad and I divorced. I told him while we really like each other, we wanted different things and are too different to live together. That was all true. What wasn’t true is that we had been married. I came back a little later and told him. He took the fact that we had never been married in stride. But twenty years later he still refers to it as “The time you lied to me.” Telling the truth to one another saves us both heartache and makes us a tough team to beat. We can’t be divided and conquered.
Give children choices.
I know parents who argue with their children about clothes, food, chores, ad infinitum. I won’t pretend none of that happened with my son. He’s pretty hard-headed. Which is good, because he often has to run into a wall to get the lesson, so he needs a hard head. It’s bad when he holds out until I give in. So, early on, I would put out two sets of clothes for him, and tell him to choose. This cut down on arguments and tantrums getting ready for school and or going out. I also had to assure him that his choice made him look cool, the ultimate goal from then to today.
I would assign chores or ask for help by saying things like, “Homework needs to be done before bedtime, so choose which two 30 minute shows you want to watch before starting.” Or, on a weekend, “Please clean your room by tonight.” That cut out a lot of complaining since he got to choose when to do something, as long as it got done.
Have fun together at least as often as you do chores.
This is one of the biggest keys to growing a friend. Better yet, make chores fun whenever possible. When you’re having fun, it’s hard for either of you to get mad. My son and I have hiked, hot tubbed, taken photos, and played on his trampoline. I have cheered for hundreds of basketball games. I have watched him snow ski and snowboard while I waited below with a hot toddy. I took him to the X Games and marveled at him at the stunts. We have enjoyed many a beach. We still have fun together. As friends do.
What is real is that children are people. As you parent, try remembering how you felt as a child. What actions and words by adults won your cooperation. Which ones shut you down, or made you more rebellious. Then be real with your children. Nobody is served by you pretending to be something or somebody you aren’t. Least of all a little person who could grow up to be one of your dearest friends.
Previously published on Medium.com.
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