In my clinical work with parents
, I’ve noticed a rather unique and specific source of distress. All of them—even the really good ones—seem to experience a certain, vague pressure about their role as parents. It’s a pressure that makes the parent-child relationship harder to adapt to, and starts to come out when I ask about their struggles and difficulties. How have you been feeling toward your little one lately? "Fine," they say. But the question brings on a tight smile, a hesitancy in their voices, and there's a clear sense that something important is being actively avoided.
Understandably, many parents seem desperate for a rulebook on how to effectively manage their children and themselves when disobedience and tantrums rule the day - how can they mount an effective response to the chronically dys-regulated and irrational little people that all of a sudden are living in their homes? But instead of having savvy, insightful principles about learning and behavior enter their newly developing parent minds, what seems to emerge for so many parents are instinctive, culturally-endorsed, automatically-generated beliefs/rules about how to parent. And many of these ideas are neither helpful nor particularly fair.
A prime example is the widespread idea that, as a parent, you cannot hate your child. Maybe I should rephrase that. There’s an idea circulating in the mainstream that parents subconsciously soak up—if you experience any negative emotions (i.e. anger, frustration, fear, disappointment) while engaging with your child then you are a bad parent. And you'd certainly better not cop to it. This idea is profoundly absurd. I’m going to state the obvious—as a normal human being you are inevitably and unavoidably going to experience a wide range of intense negative emotions toward your child, a lot of the time. Obviously you don’t want to express these emotions with physically or verbally abusive actions, but the emotions will definitely be there to be felt. How could they not? Whether it’s that moment of mortification when the plane takes off and your two-year-old launches into what you know will be an endless tantrum, or whether it’s the end of a long, hard day and your four-year-old just won’t get into bed, or whether it’s a dozen other daily occurrences—you feel something toward your child that is definitely not love.
This is where the societal message of ‘thou must always love’ becomes harmful. You’ve just experienced a normal and understandable negative emotion toward your child, but because society relays the message that it’s bad to experience that pang of anger or fear you respond in a very different way. Perhaps you feel shame about yourself, and judge yourself as incompetent, and impulsively suppress it which only makes it re-emerge later, stronger and scarier than ever. And while you're starting to feel all this toward your self, you're still feeling all the negative emotions toward your disobedient, relentlessly needy child. Now you’ve got primary emotions (anger about the child’s non-compliance) and, what’s called secondary emotions (i.e., shame at yourself for feeling anger), swirling around within you. This is a problematic process that can only be severed by an attitudinal change about harboring hateful feelings toward your child.
This dilemma that parents face, this invisible battle that they unknowingly wage with societal/cultural beliefs about parenting, is the reason I think that the film Friends with Kids is not just entertaining but therapeutic. You see, parenting is hard enough. And helping parents to create appropriate and playful expressions of distaste toward their child (when he/she is behaving like a little snot) and fostering a more compassionate, accepting attitude toward themselves (when they feel their self-control slipping away) is a critical pursuit. The goal is to initate a certain kind of discourse about hating your child's behavior in certain moments, and in most cases merely getting such a challenge off the ground is half the battle as the subject is so taboo.
Thus, the first step in this process is to create some breathing room around the issue of 'child-hate', to create a culture within the household in which child-directed negative emotions is a topic that can be discussed openly. As this conversation with yourself, your partner, your support system and, yes, even if your child starts to unfold more frequently and explicitly, the negative emotions that are already there will get processed more effectively. Only after you acknowledge and verbalize these emotions can you then experience validation, acceptance and, ultimately, a resolution that will enable you to re-enter the war zone of parenting and effectively channel all that negative emotion into firm, consistent and healthy parenting.
“Friends with Kids” does a nice job of creating this kind of inviting ethos around the taboo subject. I’ll let you read a review of the film to learn of the plot’s specifics, but I’ll briefly note that the film creates a tone of “It’s important to be a responsible, loving parent” while simultaneously highlighting the myriad ways in which children can make life/relationships exceedingly difficult. The movie also combats some of these unhealthy societal beliefs about parenting by having the three sets of protagonist parents (it’s a lovely ensemble cast) verbalize—in comedic and appropriate ways—their negative emotions about their children, and the negative impact that the children can have on their romantic relationships.
Given the therapeutic function of this film—its sub-textual confrontation and reconfiguration of unhealthy parenting beliefs—I feel compelled to prescribe it to parents of young children. But I’ll prescribe it with a grain of salt. First, the movie is more about the romantic relationship between the parents then it is about the bond between parent-child, so you have to let yourself get in touch with the film’s playful tone and underlying message more than the actual content within each scene. And, secondly, be on the lookout for a few scenes in which the message seems to be “kids can ruin marriages and make life way too hard.” I would let these scenes roll off your back, and remember what research says about parenting and happiness: when you have kids your happiness will take a significant hit in the short-run (first few years), but the sizable dosage of meaning that kids inject into your life will likely raise your happiness above pre-kid levels in the long-run.
So to really maximize the therapeutic value of this comedy, laugh your way through the viewing, let yourself loosen up about this topic in the way that the characters model, and then go home and take the discourse that this film kick-starts to the next level.