Is it better to be your child’s parent or their friend? There are many parenting lessons in the movie “Eighth Grade,” comedian Bo Burnham’s directorial film debut, which is a squirm-fest tour de force.
Eighth grade is a painful life phase and movie
Kayla, the main character, allows viewers to experience the self-involved cringe-inducing anxiety of an eighth grader who compares the insecurities of her interior world to others’ airbrushed exteriors on social media. She tries too hard to fit in with the “cool” kids, failing at every turn, instead of being herself. And Kayla’s dad tries too hard to fit into her world as a “cool” friend, failing to be the sturdy parent she needs.
Kayla’s dad is a single parent. He’s a well-meaning anxious and panicked adult, who has transferred his anxieties and emphasis on being cool to his daughter. And she, like kids everywhere, has absorbed this parent with whom she has spent the most time during her childhood. (Most kids absorb more of mom than of dad, since children usually spend more time with their mothers than with their fathers.) Kayla’s dad wants to connect with her just as desperately as Kayla wants to connect with the cool kids at school and in her YouTube/Instagram/SnapChat fantasy world.
In a couple of particularly memorable scenes, Kayla’s dad tries to connect with her over dinner and another time while driving her to a pool party. Kayla is rude to her dad in ways that many parents will recognize, letting him know that he’s an embarrassment to her and shutting him out. She criticizes his silence as he drives, his attempts at conversation with her, and his “weirdness.” In watching the excellent movie, I was struck by the fact that her dad failed her by letting her treat him disrespectfully, rather than teaching her that her treatment of him is unacceptable. Kayla treats her dad the way the mean girls treat her. She eventually calls out the mean girls on their demeaning behavior, but her dad never talks with her about her mean behavior toward him.
The cost of cool
Throughout the movie, I wanted the dad to recognize that coolness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, that it’s just narcissistic and exclusionary. Instead he supports it as an aspirational goal.
If the dad could get past needing Kayla to be cool, perhaps he would get his flailing daughter the psychological help she needs to deal with her mother’s abandonment and the hole it left in her psyche.
Much is being made of the omnipresent “judgisphere” that is social media and its effects on kids who are raised with their phones practically growing out of their hands. These kids feel pressure to post photos and stories that will get the most likes and views of any of their friends. Posting becomes a competitive event. I agree that this feeds narcissism. But it doesn’t create narcissism. What creates narcissism is self-involved parents who are unable to help their kids to move beyond the narcissistic position that is a phase of human development. It’s the parents’ job to help their kids embrace reality, rather than fantasy, to choose substance over form. But a narcissistic parent who stresses the importance of cool fosters form over substance, fantasy over reality. Eighth grade is a tough year for any kid, but it’s especially hard for a girl whose mother left her behind. And telling her how cool she is, rather than getting her real help, does her no favors.
Examples of misguided parenting
Many years ago I worked with a divorced dad who felt bad for his son who had to adjust to a half-brother and a volatile stepfather. He felt guilty that he had not spent much time with his son. This dad was determined to be his son’s friend, rather than his parent. The son lived in a suburban “bubble” and the dad was working overtime to prove his “street cred” cool by telling his son that “no matter what, you always take care of your homies.” It was absurd: his son was in the third grade and had no idea what he was talking about! The dad needed to spend time with his son, to show him love and empathy, to do fun things with him, to listen to him and hear his concerns, not to talk “at” him. His son needed a father he could rely on, not a poser modeling fake urban cool.
And Kayla needed her dad to do all of the above from the beginning of her life, and especially after her mother left. She needed him to help her learn to treat others with respect (yes, even parents!), to let her know that he remembers the doubts and insecurities of eighth grade, and to reassure her that although it feels like it will always be this way, it will eventually feel better and that he will do everything he can to help her get through adolescence in one piece. What she doesn’t need is to hear how cool she is from her dad!
Be an empathic parent encouraging resilience
So clearly I come down on the side of parenting our kids, rather than befriending them. It helps them calm down to know that they can count on us to set limits, to expect reasonable things from them, to refuse to tolerate intolerable behavior. When life is hard, they need us to show empathy for them and to encourage their resilience, rather than to coddle and infantilize them because we feel sorry for them. They need parenting. The generational boundaries are necessary and helpful. Children need to know that their parents are empathic and benevolent authority figures who are in charge, not their peers or authoritarian tyrants.
Your parenting lessons
There are many parenting lessons from the movie “Eighth Grade.” If you’d like help in understanding and navigating your role as a parent, give me a call at 212-353-0296 or reach out by email on the contact form.
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