A piece of advice to all you parents reading this: Don’t try to be your child’s friend. Don’t get me wrong. You can be kind, you can be chummy, you can (and should) have fun with your kids — but you are not their friend.
I say this as a mom and a pediatrician who has seen way too many parents muck things up by trying to be a friend to their child rather than a parent. You just can’t do it. Parents have to make hard, unpopular decisions. Friends don’t. Here’s a test: If your child likes every decision you make, you are not doing your job.
Let me give you some examples. I was talking with a mother and her 5-year-old son, having just diagnosed strep throat in the boy. I told the mom that it could be treated by giving him antibiotics by mouth twice a day at home, or we could give a her son a single shot right now in the office. The mother immediately said she would prefer the shot because her son didn’t like to take medicine.
I stood up to leave and tell the nurse to prepare shot when the mom then turned to her son and asked him whether he wanted the shot or a pill. I thought, “Seriously? You’re asking a five-year-old?” What person (let alone a child) in their right mind, given a choice, would opt for a shot instead of a pill?
Of course, her son refused the shot. Unsurprisingly, the mother then began to coax and plead with him to change his mind. “You know you don’t like pills. Mommy would really like you to have the shot.” Being a typical kid, he wasn’t buying it, so I wrote the prescription, and they went on their way. A few hours later, they came back — a tired, angry, frustrated mother accompanied by her distraught and tearful son — to get the shot that he should have received hours ago.
On another occasion, after I had finished a physical on a cute little 4-year-old girl, I asked the medical assistant to go into the room to give the girl her immunizations. Soon after, I heard the girl screaming at the top of her lungs in what sounded like a full-blown temper tantrum. As soon as the medical assistant emerged, I apologized to her. We usually warn them if we know that a child is going to particularly difficult. I had seen this little girl several times in the past, and she had always been cooperative.
That’s when I learned that the tantrum I heard was not for the medical assistant, but rather for her father. Just then, the exam room door opened, and the girl and her father walked out. Suddenly the little girl stopped in front of her father, looked up at him, frowned, and shook her tiny finger. “Don’t you ever do that to me again!” I waited to see her father’s response. Perhaps, I hoped, he would sympathize with her discomfort while gently explaining that sometimes we have to do things we don’t like, helping to prepare her for life where doing things you don’t like is an everyday occurrence. Instead, he apologized to his four-year-old daughter for making her get the shots!
Parents: You need to be parents, not pals. It’s your responsibility to protect and teach your children, demonstrating appropriate ways for them to cope with their frustration at not getting everything they want. It doesn’t matter that your three year old can speak in polysyllabic words or that your eight year old is reading books three years above her grade level. They are children and by definition are not mature enough to make important life decisions, especially when those decisions may cause them some discomfort. You should be a benevolent dictator. You can acknowledge your child’s preferences and desires, but you are under no obligation to abide by them if you don’t think that’s best for the child.
Watch cartoons with your kids, play video games with them, take them to the park, but do it as their parent, not their adult buddy. Now, go make friends with somebody your own age.
Kathryn L. Moseley is a pediatrician.
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