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Kids’ best friends

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Fathers, those erstwhile agents of terror, today want to be their kids' best friends. What's wrong with that?

You'd imagine someone like Shah Rukh Khan would have all the friends he could want. But not content with chums his own age, the 47-year-old recently lamented on a TV show that he couldn't have the one friend he really wants - his twelve-year-old daughter, Suhana. (This coming from a man who had a public showdown at Wankhede Stadium in the presence of his daughter and her friends). "I told my daughter that I feel I have no friends, and asked her if she would be my friend. But she said, Papa I am your daughter, " Khan said.

Suhana's reply, no doubt, echoes the sentiments of most twelve-year-olds who, at their age, are not interested in becoming their parents' confidante. They probably know (even if their fathers don't ) that they're not emotionally or intellectually ready for the job.

Tell that to the scores of latter-day parents who have been practising the trending 'parent as friend' technique. This school probably gets its lessons from Bollywood where the dad is depicted as drinking partner, back-slapping bud, and all-round fun guy who fits in with his offspring's crowd. He's Mr Moneybags who funds the good times, the confidante-counsellor who helps tide over breakups, the liberal who makes a joke about bad grades, possibly on Facebook, where he's also a 'friend'. But what happens when real problems come calling? Screen sons and daughters always miraculously come out tops at the end. What about real-time kids?

Family counsellor Dr Vasantha R Patri, Chairperson, Indian Institute of Counselling, New Delhi, has dealt with numerous cases of parents who complain their kids don't listen to them. She narrates an incident: "There was a mother who came in recently saying her son is disrespectful of his father though he has been a pal to him' she says. " To parents like these, Dr Patri's advice is simple: "You can't abdicate parental responsibility. The moment you agree to be your child's friend, you end up losing authority and control. "

As children grow up, the role of parents becomes more functional and less emotional but modern dads who want to be their child's 'best friend' find this a bitter pill to swallow. "A parent's main job is to set guidelines, demarcate boundaries and create structures. Friends take liberties, friends can be taken for granted and they can say 'no', " Dr Patri says. With a oneyear-old, 'functionality' entails changing diapers. With an eight-year-old, it's getting homework done. With a 15-year-old, it involves enforcing a responsible curfew.
Author, columnist and social commentator Santosh Desai believes what has changed now is that men recognise parenting as a self-conscious role. A father to two girls, Desai is well aware of the perils of parenthood. His strategy is: think, don't over-think. "Power distances have generally shrunk in Indian society, whether between the teacher and student, leader and voter or dad and kid. Everyone is a little less reverential, a little less accepting of authority, " he points out. (Brings to mind a certain Calvin & Hobbes series where Calvin discusses his father's popularity ratings!)
Desai gestures to the construct of the 'terror-dad', whom kids were scared to even approach. "Parents, especially fathers, were largely responsible for creating 'infantilised adults' - adults treated as kids by their parents. Oldworld dads still refer to their progeny as 'nalayak' or some such in public, " Desai says. But the era of the all-knowing patriarch, at least in the urban setting, is officially over.

Restaurateur, and new dad, AD Singh feels it's important for a kid to have at least one parent in whom he/she can confide. "If you have to give up a little authority for that, it's okay, " he says, adding that he's a very hands-on dad and hopes to stay that way. "I suppose with the life I've lived, I would be a hypocrite if I wasn't a bit easygoing. But I do feel strongly about ethical codes and in that regard I will be fairly rigid, " he says.

For dad Sunil Sethi, president of FDCI (Fashion Design Council of India), the 'my daddy strongest' credo applies. "Yes, a father should be a friend but he needs to be a father figure too. The child has to look up to the dad, after all his advice should be considered seriously. This is not possible if you are too buddy-buddy, " he warns.

There are always some things you can share with a child without turning him into a confidante. While you can tell them you can't buy them the toy they want because you can't afford it, you can't say you are running short on the rent this month. Then again, being a confidante doesn't mean you crack jokes with them about their teachers, bosses or other authority figures. If you punch holes in authority figures, you are undermining your own position too.

Not all men wear their paternal suits from the very beginning;some are daddys-come-lately. "If you haven't been involved in your child's life from the start, you can't suddenly question his/ her decisions later in life, " says Shivani. In her experience, kids don't expect an involved dad, but they will notice an active one through their peer group. Dr Patri cautions that it's one thing to be an attentive father, and quite another to be an appeasing one. "With the money equation changing, many dads sometimes equate indulgence with involvement, " she says.

Desai puts an interesting spin to the 'dad as friend' method: the quest for an 'extended youth'. (SRK, maybe this portends a mid-life crisis. ) "Being a friend to your kid is a classic parental escape route that men usually resort to. You delay ageing by being friends with your kids, identifying with their group, drinking with them or taking them out, " Desai speculates.
Children and adults have very different notions about their roles, their wants, and what's right and wrong, Dr Patri maintains. "Parental roles today are not challenging but confusing, " she admits. Her advice: "Friends they'll get, you be a dad. "

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