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I am not your friend, I am your parent

I am sometimes asked about child rearing, as I was a single parent with my first daughter.

As I observe many parents dealing with their children I find many things interesting. I look at how some parents make deals with their children to get them to do what they should be doing for their own good; or how they allow themselves to be manipulated by their children; how they continue to make excuses for their children whenever they come up short; how they allow their children to argue with them and even in some cases physically abuse them when they are refused something by the parents; or how some parents will do almost anything to have their children say “I love you.”

These observations cause me to look back and think about all of the many days I was disliked by my daughter who saw me as the mean scourge of the earth who kept her from doing all the cool things she wanted to do. To her I was “mean stupid Daddy” who said the things that she found hurtful like “ if you spent as much time concentrating on your school books as you do thinking about what your friends are talking about or as you do standing and preening in front of the mirror you would be much better off.”

My daughter’s favourite saying when I made her do something against her will was “you are not my friend”, to which I had a pat answer. “No I am not, I am your parent, and I am doing what a parent needs to do. It’s as simple as that.”

Needless to say I didn’t think of myself as very a popular parent. Nevertheless, I persisted. Not in a cold, non-feeling way, but in a way that did draw a hard line between us as parent and child. I am often surprised that now when I talk to my daughter she seems to have forgotten most of the horrid thoughts she had about me and seems to remember what a fun parent I was.

Yet when I think deeply on the subject, I am forced to think about the reasons behind my actions when she was growing up. One of the key factors I always tried to consider was that as her parent, it was my role to prepare her as best I could for adulthood; an adulthood that would demand a kind of discipline and determination that could only be developed from an early age. I believed that taking one’s education seriously had to be something that a child accepted as part of life and not as an optional activity. Because my daughter had been diagnosed with dyslexia, I knew that she would face a big challenge that she would have to overcome if she wanted to become successful. I remembered an award winning book on education I had read in the mid-sixties called “Death at an Early Age” by Johnathon Kozol that talked about how children in Boston were being programmed and doomed to failure at the elementary grade levels due to the inherent racism, insensitivity and inequities built into the American education system. I was determined that my daughter would not become one of those statistics.

Also I knew that even though both her parents were university graduates and that there were some advantages I could offer my daughter, I also knew that she would still face the reality of being an African American person in a society where many of the established practices were diametrically opposed to her success and didn’t expect for her to measure up to society’s standard.

I knew she would not only have to measure up but she would have to excel if she was to become successful. I saw it as my job to try and give her the mental strength and the tools that she would need to be able to survive, cope and excel. From my point of view there had to be a good mixture of discipline, love, caring and understanding. And as much I tried to do this, I will be the first to admit that these things were not meted out properly or equally in every case.

However when I talk to my daughter who is now in her mid-thirties, I am always surprised when she refers to how much I have mellowed. And by the way she is also quick to point out that over the years I have also learned to cook properly, which she never had the benefit of when she was growing up and depending on me to cook her meals. I guess the positive side of that was she learned to cook at an early age and became good at it.

Now we have lots of meaningful conversations and oftentimes end up laughing so hard we are both in tears. I am most happily surprised when she says how glad she is to have had me as a father who was there trying and pushing and telling her all those things she didn’t want to hear for all those years.

I think she is probably saying that because although it was not an easy journey, she graduated from university and is a qualified nurse in the US who earns enough to take three or four vacations a year, drives a late model luxury car, lives in a very nice apartment in New York City , and is generally happy with her life.

In any case, I doubt if any of what she finally grew into would have happened if I had decided that her tears were more important to me that her self-determination, self-worth and self-esteem; and that her dislike of me was more important thatn her scholarship. I also felt that I had to say the things I knew she didn’t want to hear but needed to hear.

Looking back over the thirty years, with my daughter now on the brink of starting her own family I think about what is now popularly called “tough love” and know that “tough love” is actually just “real love” by another name. This is not the kind of love that is romanticized in sensitive TV programs and movies where the parent and the child are best friends. Instead it is the kind of love that allows us to build and improve on society and pass on those necessary skills that allow us to survive from one generation to the next.

I remember as a child having heard my uncle say “everyone wants to win, but not everyone is willing to do what it takes to prepare to win.” In this case, winning is using all we know to help our children become responsible and functioning adults that can make a contribution not only to society but most importantly to themselves and their children.

Children need to learn at an early age that there are dire consequences for certain intolerable actions and that the world doesn’t revolve around them. And they also need to learn that sometimes there are things they want that they cannot and will not have. All these things are taught by parents at the early stages of a child’s life before teachers are involved. These lessons are taught for the child’s own wellbeing, not by the parent in need of their child’s approval wanting to be the child’s friend but by the parent who loves the child enough to prepare them to win.


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