Can You Be a Friend to Your Child?
“I was surprised by my son’s words and I didn’t know how to respond to him,” explained Tara. She was confused. “I told my four-year-old, Austin, to take a Break. He wasn’t responding to my instructions and we had exchanged some heated words. He turned to me and yelled, ‘Mommy, you take a Break!’ It was true I needed to cool off, but can kids put their parents in a Break? I want to be friends with my son so we can work together and enjoy our relationship. I want us to be a team, but something seems wrong here. How should I respond to him when he tries to give me an instruction or discipline me?”
That’s an interesting question. Here are several things to keep in mind. First, parents need to apologize to their kids when they’ve done the wrong thing. Tara’s angry words were out of place and hurtful, and asking for forgiveness from Austin is healthy for their relationship. Furthermore, as parents, we recognize that God sometimes disciplines us through our kids and our response models a positive way to handle offenses.
Friend vs Authority
It’s important for parents to look for ways to be friends with their kids, but in this case, Austin was wrong. Tara’s desire to be friends with Austin has blurred the issue of authority for him. A parent has responsibilities and privileges that a child doesn’t have. People in authority use their positions to correct and instruct and set limits in a way that a person under authority can’t. That’s not only true in the family, but it’s also true in government, work, and other areas where authority exists. The family isn’t simply a group of housemates living together as equals. Both parents and children have jobs to do. Parents have the responsibility to teach spirituality to their children, pass on values, instill character, and to foster maturity. Children have the responsibility to learn those things. Preschoolers in particular need to learn self-control and responsiveness to authority.
Proverbs 1:8 is just one of eleven times in the book of Proverbs that God gives instructions to children to listen to their parents. It says, “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.” You have many things to teach your child. Some of those lessons will take place in dialogue and discussion, while others will happen when you give instructions, correct, or set limits.
Tara’s desire to be a friend to her son is a good one. Playing together, talking and listening, and making cooperative decisions foster cooperation and value for one another. It’s helpful for strengthening the relationship. But sometimes the desire to be a friend leads parents to avoid conflict, become more lenient than is helpful, and give in when a child is demanding. In those moments, the desire to please has crossed a significant line.
Balance is Key
A careful balance must take place in the parent/child relationship in order to maximize a child’s growth and understanding. If you overemphasize authority your child may miss some of the benefits learned through fun, play, and working together. If, however, parents don’t teach their children how to respond well to authority then all kinds of problems develop.
You’ll want to monitor your child’s perception of you and your relationship together. Teaching children what cooperation is in practical terms is helpful. Cooperation means that individuals give and take in order to accomplish an objective. However, some children only give when it’s convenient and many haven’t learned what it means to sacrifice or give up their agenda for others. Older preschoolers are just coming into the ability to understand what that looks like in everyday life. If you see your child taking advantage of the relationship by becoming demanding and self-centered, you’ll want to pull back and require changes.
It’s interesting that children who have a healthy understanding of authority, balanced with strong relationship, actually have a closer relationship with their parents than those who are indulged. Parents sometimes think that being permissive or lenient with their kids will increase relationship, but, in the end, those approaches diminish respect and increase a sense of entitlement.
Playfulness is a great quality. Tickling, teasing, and enjoying life together with your child fosters closeness. Take time to enter your child’s world, allow your child to lead in a game, and create ways to laugh and play together. Undivided attention is a tremendous gift you give to your child, and listening attentively and sharing stories demonstrates your love and the high value you place on your relationship. Even in the midst of those bonding times, however, it’s important that you remain the parent. When a child crosses the line and won’t stop the teasing or tickling game, you’re the one who must exert your authority to communicate that that game is over.
Respect Builds Trust
When parents set limits and stick to boundaries, kids learn to trust, and the parent/child bond develops naturally with respect and obedience in their proper perspective. It’s often helpful to explain to your child what you’re doing as a leader and why you’re making the decisions you believe to be necessary. But don’t feel you have to convince your child to agree with you. In the end, whether your child agrees or not, you need to decide what’s best and your child needs to follow. Taking time to have fun with your preschooler will go a long way to build the healthy and strong relationship you desire.
Remember that when you’re in a group setting your child may behave differently than when you’re at home. Preschoolers are still trying to figure out their place in the family and often don’t understand the dynamics of a group setting. Parents who volunteer to teach in a preschooler’s classroom may find that their child doesn’t quite know how to respond. In those situations, your child may act out in order to get some special attention. Your child may be trying to apply what he or she has learned about authority and relationship in a new situation. Your child may need to limit interaction with you as the teacher, allowing others to receive individual time, and not get the same “Mommy privileges” that they’re used to at home. This provides another teaching opportunity about authority, roles, and responsibilities in life.
Maintaining a close relationship while still demonstrating authority will help your child develop trust and faith. Look for ways to balance firmness and relationship with your preschooler and you’ll have the strongest friendship possible.
Listen to Dr Turansky’s podcast on How to be your Child’s friend.