How Much Information Do Kids Really Need?
A while back we saw a commercial that made us both grimace and laugh. It was a TV spot for a bank that showed a 30-something mother with her pre-teen daughter and friends. Instead of talking to each other, they were--what else?--texting. The daughter was hot on the heels of some boy named Chas while Mom was in pursuit of financial freedom. At one point, the mother becomes terribly excited and exclaims (I am paraphrasing) to her daughter: "The bank is texting me about my checking and letting me know how much we have in our account!!!"
My husband groaned out loud.
"Are you in pain?" I asked him.
"Only existential pain," he said as waved his hand at the screen. "I mean how much information do kids need these days?"
"What do you mean?"
"A healthy, happy family is not a democracy," he said and changed the channel.
At first I thought it was just his formal Montana upbringing that found the new intimacy between parents and children a bit unwieldy, even awkward. In his family it would have been inconceivable for his parents to place themselves on such an equal footing with the four children. There was an abundance of love and involvement (they were all musicians and played together nearly every night after dinner) but not at the expense of a very clear hierarchy of authority. One's mother or father was not one's buddy. So, being from the Northeast where people stood on stoops and yelled down to the other end of the block at dinner time and our emotions were as visible as our shirts, I dismissed his disapproval as an archaic remnant.
But over the course of the day, as
I watched parents interacting with their children at supermarkets, hardware
stores, in therapy sessions and at school yards, I began to see it differently.
What I saw was that most parents wanted desperately to be friends with their children. They dressed the same, talked the same, giggled the same with them, jockeyed for position to be the "cool mom" or "hip dad." No topic was out of bounds. They discussed their sex lives, their finances, their politics, and the issues they had in their social and work relationships, not at all aware of how uncomfortable and confused it made their children.
I thought I would be appalled as
well, but I wasn't. I was embarrassed. It was a feeling not unlike watching
someone leave a bathroom with her dress tucked into her pantyhose or seeing a
colleague do something horribly revealing or inappropriate at a party and
wanting to cover your face to avoid being a witness the next day.
I took to wondering why"Why are parents so reluctant to be parents? What has happened in our culture and in our families that we are more worried about whether our kids like us than whether we properly prepare them for a life that is almost always challenging and sometimes damned unfair.
Based on the years of work that I've done with adolescents and their parents, it would seem that many adults today have a difficult time with true (meaning benevolent) authority. They vacillate between a laxity that is boundariless and a sporadic struggle for power. I don't believe there is just one reason for this. I think one possibility is that authority for these parents may have been excessive, unyielding, irrational, or capricious. If so, then those people will certainly confuse authority with dominance and cruelty. Precisely because they do love their children they naturally want neither to be that way nor for their children to suffer as they did. It is understandable given the perspective. But it is still erroneous.
Authority for some may be
antithetical to their more modern understanding of love, which is easy-going,
permissive, unconditional (in the wrong way, as we'll see), and blooming with
constant emotional reassurance and validation. In their minds, authority says
"No" when love says "Yes." This is not true. Anyone who has trained dogs knows
that love and "no" are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the only way to truly
give unconditional love is to be able to say "no," to love the person and
loathe the behavior.