I know that some people will never care about being the cool parent. I know that some parents see their role as a trainer, guide and disciplinarian, and believe that the best way to raise desirable adults is to not be too indulgent to their children’s whims. That’s fine. Everyone has their different parenting style and I can respect them all.
I definitely think that you can be a cool parent and still raise desirable adults, though. You have to find a balance. In fact, I think if you do it right, you can be the cool parent and your children will never know when they are being guided, trained or disciplined and that makes the lessons they learn from life so much more organic, lasting and meaningful.
Why did I want to find that balance of a cool parent? Because I think that when your kids see you as the cool parent – the one they can sort of relate to, that they can confide in, that they can have unabridged fun and openness with – that you instantly have access to an entirely different sort of relationship with your children. You stop seeing them as little projects that require the exact amount of a million different ingredients in order to grow properly and you start seeing them as already pretty complete little humans, even without all the micromanagement.
Now, I know that no matter how cool I am as a parent, there are going to be times when I don’t have the option to be cool. I have to say no a lot. I have to set some boundaries. I have to lay down some discipline. That’s all part of being a good parent and we should never sacrifice those responsibilities and duties for the sake of being cool. But if we do all the hard things in the right way, and we temper them with some of the ways that we can be cool – well, we get to be a bigger part of our children’s life in a way that makes parenting more than just authority.
But how? Well I know what I have seen work through my years as a parent and what I have learned through research, and it goes like this:
Play the way your kids play
There is an unstructured spontaneity in how kids play. It comes out of nowhere and takes the form of anything. There are usually few rules and the ones they have will constantly be added, dropped, amended, prepended and otherwise addendumized, to fit their needs and current play style. It’s amazing to watch but more incredible to get involved in.
Relearning how to play with your children this way opens up a whole new level of creativity and imagination, for you and for them. It brings you into their world of magic and wonder and perpetual joy. You get to return to your own childhood as well and recover some of the things you put aside when you donned the seriousness and responsibility of adulthood.
Direct, Don’t Demand
Occasionally, as parents, we let the authority of our lofty positions get the better of us and, instead of directing our children towards an ideal task or goal, we demand them towards it. What do I mean? Well, I often find myself saying, “Go clean your room.” It’s fair. It works, eventually. But it doesn’t earn me any cools points and I usually have to repeat it 100 times before it gets done.
Demands suck. No one likes to just be told what to do. You don’t like it. Kids don’t like it. Kids don’t like, “Go clean up your room.” any more than you like, “Go get me that report.” Even adding a please at the end doesn’t soften it much, in my opinion.
The other alternative is to make it a question. “Can you go clean your room, please?” I am not a huge fan of giving my son the option to say no to something that I am not going to accept that as an answer to. Not fair to either of us and sets us up for a drawn out discussion of why, if not a full blown argument that ends in the dreaded, parental, “because I said so.”
I have learned that it is way easier if I just make the things I want him to do a small step towards something he wants to do. “Buddy, I have an idea. You go clean your room and I will set up the game you really wanted us to play.” He doesn’t hear the misery of cleaning his room because I directed him through that to what comes after. Cleaning his room has a purpose now instead of a “because I said so!”.
Allow Controlled Chaos
My general rule of thumb here is, if it can’t explode the house, cause a forest fire or end in a frantic emergency room visit, I will allow it, within reason. There is a lot of potential for cool mischief and fun in that wide of a boundary. Children love to explore and create and walk the tightrope of insanity and chaos. I say let them do it.
Yup. They are going to get hurt. Yup. Things are going to break. Yup. Some of those things will be them and they are going to get casts and scars and stories and yup. They will almost start a fire in your sister’s bathroom with a book of matches they found in the junk drawer because they really wanted to see if the toilet paper would light on fire and… Wait. They might not do that. I certainly didn’t do that. Ever.
My point is, you can let your children have quite a bit of wild fun that they think is completely unstructured by putting it all in a very large structure. It’s like letting lions roam on a sanctuary. We still let those lions do everything a lion does but we don’t let them leave the sanctuary.
As parents, we have to get comfortable with the occasional emergencies of raising a child. You are not doing them any favors by coddling them and “saving” them from all the chaotic shit in this world. All you are doing is stealing away a great deal of the experience that is being a child.
So give them a nice length of rope. Not enough to hang themselves with but enough where they can think they have some authority over the way they play and the enjoyment they can have in it all.
Talk to your kids as though they understand and listen as though you do
Probably one of the more contentious suggestions for coolness but I think that raising the level of conversation and engagement with your children is a way to elevate parent and child. As a parent, we don’t have to constantly feel like we should talk down to our children. You would be surprised at what they can handle and understand when presented in the right way.
Now, I understand that some people would have a few topics off limits to talk to with their kids. I can respect that. I don’t agree with it, but I can respect it. I honestly want to be able to talk to my son about anything. Not only because I think knowledge is crucial to the world, but also because I think he might have some brilliant ideas that I never thought of.
Even more than talking to your children in a way that elevates the conversation, you have to strive to listen to them in their way. No, not in one ear and out the other, like we assume they listen to us. I mean listen to them from their point of view. Try to understand their perspective on things. Sure, it is usually epically blown out of proportion and incredibly childish, but try to think back when you were a kid and how hard it was to get a handle on the slippery, nuanced realities and emotions of life. We didn’t have a lifetime of perspective to temper the burning fires of youth. Even with that lifetime of experience we have most of us still blow shit out of proportion and end up looking childish from time to time.
It’s easy to forget how hard it is to be a kid, because it’s a whole hell of a lot harder to be an adult, but they don’t know that yet. So sympathize a little. Sympathize and tell them to stop whining but sympathize all the same. If they are going through some struggle, listen, hear and relate a similar story from your own childhood so they know that it is a natural part of growing up. And, if you give your children a little dirt on your childhood, it bonds you closer to them.
Coolest Advice Ever!
You don’t lose your authority by trying to be a cool parent. You lose your authority by trying to be a parent that always pleases. We know we can’t do that, but we can make an effort to be cool in the eyes of our children because there is a lot to gain from it.
You gain a level of trust, understanding, and connection that may just open the doors to a richer, deeper and more meaningful relationship with your child. You get an improved sense of authority that comes, not from your constant dictatorial stranglehold on your child’s life, but from a place of democratic camaraderie. Most of all, you get to share more of your life with your child and be involved in more of theirs simply because they want you to be.
And that is the heart of all of it. If I had to sum up all my ways to be a cool parent, it could be said with two words: Get Involved! The more involved you are with your kids, in their way, not your way, the cooler you become because they start to see you as one of them. And that is the best gift that my son gives me every day – a chance to be a kid again with the coolest one I know!