Parents’ Night at school. I’m not there as a parent, but as a teacher of Upper Secondary English at a private British School in Hungary. Be not illusioned, teachers hate parents’ nights. They’re dull and often awkward (try spending an evening spouting qualified, politic phrases like “not quite working up to her full potential,” or “shows promise but needs to work hard on her basic English skills” when what you really mean is that Tiffany is as bright as a bag of rocks and not likely to get much brighter), and they eat into the time you could be at home marking papers or playing with your kids. Parents’ Night sucks.
A mom sits across the desk from me. The mother of a certain 14 year-old boy who is very clever, congenitally lazy, and remorselessly rude. His face looks like a rotten raisin pudding and his demeanor is about as charming. He’s impertinent, impolite, impudent, insolent. A smart-ass, in short. The kind of kid teachers particularly loathe – an intelligent under-achiever with an attitude.
So I begin my little talk with the mom, telling her that – let’s call him Larry – that while Larry is very smart and has a lot of potential, he’s been missing homework assignments, performing poorly on tests, disrupting class, etc., etc., ad nauseam.
Mom is looking haggard, pushing wisps of bedraggled gray hair from a face that also looks, unsurprisingly, like a pudding. She’s slouch-backed and downhearted – I’m not the first teacher she’s seen that night.
“I just don’t know what to do with him,” she says. “He’s on his computer all the time,” she says. “I can’t get him off of it,” she says. She looks at me with a helpless little shrug of her shoulders.
“Why don’t you tell him you’ll take it away from him if he doesn’t do his homework?” I ask.
“When I tell him that he just laughs at me,” she pouts, shrugging again.
I look at her understandingly, and proffer a suggestion. “Punch him in the face.” She looks up sharply. “Next time he laughs at you, cock your arm back and sock the little bastard in the nose as hard as you can.”
Her face brightens. I can see her contemplating the scene with something like relish. “That’s just what I’ll do,” she declares, sitting up straighter. “I’ll smash that little sucker right in the schnozz. I’ll bash that smug little smirk right through the back of his head.” She leaps up, a mother reborn, and calls over her shoulder, “Thank you! Thank you so much!” She fairly skips out the door, and I sit back with a grin, gratified that my job has been done well.
All right, all right, so that’s just my little fantasy. What really happens is this.
“He laughs at you,” I repeat, pausing significantly to let the ridiculousness of the situation sink in. “I see. And did he buy the computer himself, with his own money?”
“Of course not. I bought it for him.”
“So why can’t you take it away from him?”
She then utters the words I dread, but had been half-expecting. “Well, Larry and I have a very special kind of relationship. We’re really more friends than mother and son.”
No, no, no, no you’re not! I want to shout at her. You tell him to do his homework and he laughs in your face. He’s not your friend. He’s your 14 year-old son. You’re not his friend; you’re his 40-something mother. And then, just at that moment, I began to see Pudd’nhead Larry in a slightly different light. Maybe it’s not entirely his fault. Maybe he was made this way.
Much has been written of late about the seemingly growing tendency to treat our children as equals, friends, even confidants.
You’ve probably read articles decrying the fact that modern parents appear increasingly concerned about being ‘friends’ with their children, neglecting their responsibilities to set and enforce boundaries.
You may have seen the studies in which children of self-avowed ‘permissive’ parents are more likely to respond inappropriately – even violently – to situations of disappointment or conflict.
You may even have come across the term “emotional parentification,” the inversion of the parent/child roles in which the child is expected to meet the emotional and psychological needs of the adult. Emotional parentification is a very bad thing indeed, creating a toxic situation just about guaranteed to produce a dysfunctional adult.
Let me interject here with a caveat. When one embarks on an airing of his perspectives on parenting, he runs the risk of sounding self-righteous and smug. I wish desperately to avoid both. The only observations I can offer here are from the viewpoint of a very flawed parent and a somewhat experienced teacher. Grains of salt may be needed.
Teachers often bear the brunt of the problem when kids are sent to school without adequate discipline at home. In a 2011 survey of Australian teachers, a whopping 75% felt that “parents expect teachers to provide all the discipline for their children.” [Italics mine] And that’s just what Larry’s mom was looking for me to do. “Could you sit him down and have a talk with him?” she asks. “He respects you. And he likes you.”
Well, Larry certainly doesn’t act like he respects me, and if he really liked me, he would do the tasks I set him and not screw around in class.
Teachers who let kids get away with too much in class are setting themselves up for a world of trouble. Overly permissive teachers are constantly complaining about how their kids are disruptive and show little inclination to work in lessons. Working in a boys’ middle school in Korea, I heard teachers who routinely beat their students (corporal punishment, often severe, was common at the time) express bewilderment at the fact that their students frequently acted aggressively toward each other. They threw up their arms in complete befuddlement, and beat the kids even more for their pugnacious tendencies. My colleagues in Hungary who allowed kids to perpetually push – and cross – the boundaries of appropriate behavior just couldn’t fathom how their students could act out so outrageously in class.
Is it indeed an epidemic of lackadaisical parenting to blame for “The Narcissism Epidemic,” as outlined by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell? I’m not really sure. But what does seem to be rife is the inane and perhaps irresponsible desire parents have to be BFFs with their own children.
Sure, be friends on Facebook with your kids (and 92% of parents are), but as a way to keep tabs on their social lives and protect them from cyber-bullying, not so that you can comment on their every photo and post. “Cool pic, Dawg, LMFAO. CU @ *$ 2moro.” Please.
Of course you should spend time with your kids doing mutually enjoyable activities, like any friends, but when a boundary needs to be set or a rule enforced, the parent needs to step up, even if that makes him or her briefly the bad guy. Research has shown that kids grow up to be happier and more well-adjusted if parents show affection and enforce age-appropriate limits on their children’s behavior.
But anyone who’s ever had a dog could tell you that. Apologies for the analogy, but the well-trained dog, which knows its limits and exactly what is expected of it, is happy, secure, and well-behaved. The dog that gets inconsistent signals or insufficient training, guidance, and behavioral parameters is the one tearing up the house and biting the neighbors.
“Friendship” implies equality. You and your child are not equal, at least not until he or she reaches adulthood. It should go without saying that young children lack the emotional and intellectual maturity to make many decisions for themselves, from what to eat to when to go to bed to how much time to spend in front of the tv. You make these decisions for them, because you, presumably, do have that maturity.
It seems to me that in this instance, as in most others, it’s all in the balance. And here’s where I wax sanctimonious.
I believe that parents should be authoritative, but not authoritarian. That children should be treated as individuals with minds of their own, but it is understood that those minds are still developing and may not be ready to handle important behavioral decisions. Why it’s important to follow rules should be explained, but when those rules are broken clear consequences must follow.
You should absolutely talk with your kids about their feelings, their fears, and their hopes in an honest, respectful, and open way, and you should share your own with them, but only insofar as those confidences will not cause them stress or emotional discomfort. Telling them you might lose the house because you can’t pay the bills or that you’re lonely and sexually unfulfilled since the divorce is probably not doing them any favors.
Be warm, be nurturing, be supportive, but when they step out of line, be firm and don’t fear that your kids won’t like you for it. Don’t leave the discipline up to the teachers, the ministers, the guidance counselors. And when your kid’s teachers tell you, in that roundabout, qualified way that is an unfortunate professional imperative, that Larry is way out of line, he probably is, and you should probably come down pretty hard on him.
So no, don’t sock him on the jaw (leave that to pedagogical fantasies), but yes, take his computer away. Confiscate his cell phone. Impose limits and stick to them. Larry may be your friend, but he’s your child first, so leave the egalitarian ideology until he’s twenty-five or so. Parents might just find that being firm and not worrying about offending their children might actually make them their Best Friend Forever.