Foster the Relationship You Want With Your Child While Creating the Boundaries You NeedJan 30, 2023
Note: The transcript below may not be exactly the same as the podcast and has not been edited for accuracy
So there’s a feeling, a role, a thought in parenting that might actually be one of the things that’s confusing you and making it harder for you to create effective boundaries and limits. Parents and caring adults often share with me that they worry about what their child thinks of them, that their relationship goal is to build a strong friendship.
Let me start off by sharing that this something I’ve been pondering as long as I’ve been an educator, like for 20 some odd years. From those very first days when I thought I knew a lot and really I knew very little. I knew a lot of information, but I didn’t have the layers of experience to go with it. I’ve pondered it for so long because it’s something that comes up with pretty reasonable regularity and people tend to have strong feelings on one side or the other. We love to pick sides and something I understand more and more as I get older and more experienced… this is a terrible way to approach our challenges because the sweet spot is often somewhere in the middle.
When I was setting up this podcast and reflecting I thought one of the best examples would be from a group I was moderating in the fall. There was a conversation about trying to be a very different parent than their parents. That they felt distant, weren’t validated and really just not loved in the way they wish they were. Now, it’s really important for me to say… this doesn’t mean they weren’t loved, it means they didn’t feel love in the way that might have been a better fit for their personality. I think this is where a lot of people are getting lost in reflecting on how they were parented and how they want to show up now as parents. We fall a bit too far down the rabbit hole of how we wish things were different for us and apply that thinking like a blueprint for our kids, but our children aren’t us, they have their own personalities and nuances.
The other piece is previous generations didn’t have the tools or skills to understand emotions or personalities the way we do now. There was also a pretty distinctive box for what personality type was believed to be most ‘successful’ and like all parents across every generation, they wanted to help ensure their children were set up to be successful. That meant valuing characteristics like being outgoing, mentally strong, academically proficient, effectively assertive and most off all, really good at suppressing emotions… t
I think that’s one of the things we are struggling with now, we still have that boxed out personality type, but we are realizing people, especially our children, are so much more complex and different people have different things to offer the world. So we are playing this invisible game of tug of war between validating our children, validating the ideals of success and trying not to be our parents, or at least those memories of how they handled certain things.
Anyhow, returning to my moderation example. At the end of the conversation the person shared that it is really hard to be a parent because they struggle deeply with wanting to be their child’s best friend.
I’ve heard so many different versions of this over the years, whether it was as a teacher, administrator, or preschool owner… And the context always came up around discomfort around ‘hurting their child’s feelings’ or worrying that it would affect their connection or worrying their child would hate them or be angry with them. This lead to them having a really hard time holding an important boundary or limit or following through to make a child accountable for their choices.
Here’s a little deep dive into that piece. Kids make mistakes, awesome kids make mistakes, well grounded kids make mistakes, kids who know right from wrong make mistakes, kids who are connected to their parents make mistakes, … kids make all kinds of mistakes and some of those mistakes require school phone calls and things of that nature. Long before I had kids I would often leave my office saying to myself that I have children I will never be the parent who says ‘it wasn’t my kid’ or ‘I trust my kid’ because there’s always more to the story and this was rarely helpful. Because the problem isn’t the mistake made or how it was made, its the journey to fixing it. Every parent wants their kid to be perfect, especially outside their home, but this isn’t real and you’d be surprised why different kids ended up in my office and who those kids were. That’s the box I was talking about… the successful personality box where kids don’t make mistakes or show their feelings or…
We all do not awesome things sometimes and when we avoid or have people avoid us taking accountability and working through those, we just get really good at doing not awesome stuff. So yes, I trust my kids, but they are human and they will make mistakes and maybe they’ll do things I wish they wouldn’t do, but I have stood behind my statement that I will never tell an educator, it wasn’t my kid because it can be any kid. And there’s situations where I’ve doubted the course of events and problem solved through that, but I’ve never said it’s impossible that it was my kid. Instead I’ve helped problem solve the layers and the different stories involved because I’ve seen all kinds of kids make mistakes and I’ve seen all kinds of excuses for those mistakes and avoidance of accountability and the whole nine yards.
There’s something really important I want to say about this. I don’t think you’re a bad parent if your child makes mistakes, but I know society isn’t always as forgiving. However, if we go in with the mindset that mistakes happen and the goal is to problem solving fixing the mistake, it can go a long way to figuring out why it happened in the first place. We can do this when we think of ourselves as a mentor or guide.
It might seem like I’ve veered a bit off topic, but actually this is all part of an important bigger conversation. When we have the mindset as a parent that we are our child’s friend we are not able to show up for them in the ways they need us to. Here’s a very loose definition of the difference between a friend and a guide or mentor. A friend is someone who is at roughly the same maturity level as you, in other words a similar age. They likely have similar perspectives and they care deeply about what others think of them. This is key, they care what their friends think of them. To a degree there is a level of judgement that passes between friends. Not necessarily the bad kind, the kind where you find similar interests or maybe you share similar values and so on, but there is always an element of fear built into friendships around sharing hard truths, even among the greatest of friends. Some people might even say this is the truest test of friendship, to share freely with less fear. In other words, you are always on guard on some level around your friends so as to not offend or hurt your their feelings.
You can imagine that this line of thinking might not put you in the kind of mindset you need to show up in your parenting. When you care about what your child thinks of you, worry about the things they say about and to you… that unwritten judgement stuff that passes between friends… What you are worrying about is things that will impact your ability to make decisions, set important boundaries and be able to do things that ultimately will make your child very unhappy with you at times.
In friendship we don’t set out to make our friends unhappy, in fact sometimes we bend our truths to fit in and comply with that version of happiness. I’m not saying in parenting you set out to make your kids unhappy but I can guarantee if you’re doing things well, there’s gonna be a lot of unhappy feelings surrounding some of your decisions. This really is the important piece and perhaps the biggest difference between parenting now and previous generations. It’s how you teach your child to handle and manage those uncomfortable feelings that will help them move forward with your decision making. Previous generations told you to suck it up and push it aside. That’s the real issue. It’s not that you needed to accept everything you parents said to be validated, you need to have your feelings of frustration, disappointment, annoyance, etcetera validated.
Kids are self-focussed, they love to experience things that make them feel good and dislike like doing hard things. Sure some kids thrive on being helpful and things like this, but in general I think it’s pretty fair to say if children were given free reign without any adult oversight or guidance they would make some pretty unhealthy choices for their body and mind. That’s the whole reason adults guide children and increasingly build their skills for independence over a very lengthly trajectory. 18-20 or so years when most adults leave home in Canada and US and its between 20-25 that they have fully developed executive functioning skills. Things like: time management, impulse control, emotional regulation, effective memory strategies and so on.
I like to think of the dichotomy between friend and guide as the difference between unwavering love and like. We don’t need our children to like us, we need our children to know we love them. We love them when they screw up, we love them when they do awesome things, we love them so much that we say and do things that are really hard for us to do and deep inside we wish we didn’t have to stand so firmly in our stance, but we have to hold strong so that we don’t bend to that temptation of bending because we worry about whether our children will like it or not.
Here’s where this reframe is extremely helpful. When your children are testing your limits, pushing every boundary and treating you with unkindness you can stand firm in your decision because you love them, and in that moment they don’t like you, but it’s not actually you they don’t like… it’s your boundary, rule, limit, or decision. Something that is getting lost in the world right now, we can validate children, acknowledge their awesomeness but we also have to remember that adults have a ton of life experience, fully developed executive functioning skills and ultimately are authorities for a reasons. We have almost become afraid of this fact. You can still validate feelings and your children without losing your role as guide and mentor. We all know there are different kinds of leaders, some more effective than others. It’s the type of leader you choose to be that will determine the effectiveness. This is something I teach in my program, Building Resilience Through Kindness.
But another piece of this is realizing that you are not your child’s friend and this won’t prevent you from having an amazing relationship where they can confide in you and you can be an important support for them. The parents I work with tell me time and again, when they implement systems with confidence things actually get better, their children exhibit more kindness and confidence and generally everyone gets along better. The opposite of what was happening when they worried offending, upsetting or hurting their child’s feelings… when they were thinking like a friend.
You’ve heard me say it before, brains love that path of least resistance and if your children find a path in your fortitude because they sense your concern about how they will think about you, unfortunately it will be leveraged. I know it feels like your child is saying really mean stuff about you or to you, but really they are just wanting to get their way or trying to find a limit that’s too murky. Depending on the age of your child, it’s not even with malicious intent, it’s literally self-serving, DINO BRAIN. I hate you likely means, I hate this rule you’ve put in place and one of the things we have to teach them is to mean what they say and say what they mean. Right, I hate your rule. I have strong feelings about the word hate, but I know it’s a common phrase said to parents by children expressing their big uncomfortable feelings. The temptation is to take that language super personally, but something I help parents understand is how to see what that language is actually meaning or doing… It’s words being used to push a limit or change a limit because, those words are causing wavering in your parenting because they are hurting your feelings. I know this all sounds very intentional, and in older kids it can be, but with younger kids it’s all emotional nuance. I call children emotional radars. You can try your best to hide your feelings, but they can sense them. That’s a topic for another day.
This is the message I want to leave you with. When you take on your role of mentor and guide and reframe your thinking around your relationship with your child with this piece in mind, you will find you can still accomplish all the goals you have in mind, but you will be more equipped to handle the hiccups and bumps of parenting with confidence. Being a parent at times does mean having really thick skin, this is the reality, but it can be really helpful to reframe your thinking so that you can process their behaviours and choices using logic instead of emotion. When you worry if your children like your decisions, you are operating using our emotional thinking versus your logical thinking. You are thinking like a friend instead of a mentor or guide. Friends come and go, but parenting is forever. If you didn’t catch episode 28 about resetting routines to navigate parenting overwhelm, check that one out because I talk about the value of predictability before flexibility. This is the role of parent over a life-time trajectory, to provide that predictability and stability grounded in logic.
Okay, so I’d love to know if this conversation is resonating with you, if you feel like I’ve helped you reframe your thinking or if you’d like more on this topic. Drop a comment on my new Podcast page at taragratto.ca/podcast you can find the link in the show notes! I’ve got some pretty cool things in the works for that page, including this, an option to drop your comments and ask questions I will cover in future episodes.
For now thanks so much for listening and I can’t wait to hear your thoughts.
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