Warning, warning; high horse alert!
There is a particular conversation I frequently overhear between parents and children.
At school pick-up: "James, please get off that icy patch; Ms. Stein (the principal) says you're not allowed over there."
Or, "Olivia; Elaine (the pool manager) won't like it if she sees you drinking water from the pool."
What is going on here? Parents, not principals, or any other adults in a position of authority, are in charge of our children. We made these kids, and like it or not, they are our responsibility. We are the final arbiters of what they are and are not allowed to do.
Are parents so intimidated by their children that they cannot simply say, "Get off the ice right now, James," or "Olivia, don't drink from the pool"? Why do we have so much trouble working up the gumption to discipline our own children?
As relationships, and lifestyles have become more casual, there has been a shift in the way we relate to other people, including our children. There is much that is nice about a more relaxed way of life—casual dress at work, eat-in kitchens, more common ground between generations. But the down side is that boundaries can get blurry, and traditional hierarchies become harder to maintain. Your boss may be a great person whose company you enjoy tremendously, you are still his subordinate.
Remember during the 2004 election campaign, when there was much talk about how George Bush would be a great guy to have a beer with? He may have been a hell of a lot of fun to get drunk with (back in the day, when he still tied one on), but it didn't exactly qualify him for the job. He was, in effect, our country's parent, and he did a pretty shitty job running the place. While I'd love to have a drink with Barack Obama (not very likely), it is not one of the qualities I look for in an elected official. I don't need to like the man at the top; I just need to trust and respect him. We're living in tough times, and I may not agree with every decision President Obama makes, but the last eight years left me so shell-shocked that every day since he took office, when I look at the newspaper, I am relieved to have a grown-up back in charge.
The same goes with our kids. It becomes easy to lose sight of the fact that our children are not our peers, but our charges. I am their mother, not their friend. They don't need me to be their friend; that's what their peers are for. While there can be aspects of friendship to our relationship, and I hope that when they are grown, and there is more separation between us, they can see me as something of a friend, now is not the time for that. Now is the time for boundaries. They give our kids something to rub up against. It is our job to set them, and theirs to test them.
I like to think of my household as a benign dictatorship. I aim for an authoritative, not authoritarian state; more Singapore than North Korea. We may open select items up to the populace for a vote, but this is by no means a democracy. The results would be disastrous. With your children, more often than not, the better policy is don't ask, tell.
We become so desperate for our kids to like us that we forget that they love us. Just as you began to bond with your children soon after they were born, so are they bonded to you. It is biologically determined.
Because by default your have your children's love, parents need not be afraid to scold, discipline, or when the situation calls for it, rip your kids a new one. Sometimes you have to be tough or forceful, and you may not win a popularity contest, but you will earn your children's respect if you treat them fairly, and with dignity, and are unafraid to assert your authority. We do not help our children by trying too hard to curry favor with them; it may make us feel better about ourselves, but it does them no service.
Nobody knows when they sign up for this job how hard it is going to be, and how often you'll find yourself feeling conflicted, and making it up as you go along. But if you reveal too many of the chinks in your armor; your children will be happy to exploit them. Don't let your kids take advantage of you; when their safety is on the line, you need them to heel, and quickly.
And although we all hated it when we were kids, one of the great satisfactions of parenthood is that sometimes, "because I said so" is the only explanation necessary.