Can you be your child’s friend?
My husband was raised with rather strict parents who were not much fun to be around. Now that we have our own children, he tries very hard not to follow in his parent’s footsteps. Sometimes I think he is too friendly, too permissive, and shares to much personal information with the children. I think he is compensating too much and trying to be their friend rather than their parent. Do you think parents can be a friend to their child?
Dear Authoritative Parent,
In a nutshell, my answer is no.
I perused an interesting article by Natalie Lusinsky entitled ‘11 Qualities that Make a Good Friend According to Experts’. The following characteristics were listed: trustworthy, supportive, accepting, emotionally available, common interests, helpful in tough times, active listener, reciprocity, having best interests in mind, and loyal no matter what. Dr. Suzanne Degges-White in an article called ‘13 Essential Traits of Good Friends’ in Psychology Today, added to this list with traits like dependability, empathy, self-confidence, sense of humor, nonjudgmental and fun to be around.
Most of those characteristics could also be used to describe parents, as there are many similarities in the roles. However, parents have a functional role of caring for their children and ensuring their safety and proper development. They worry about their futures. Their love is unconditional and enduring. And often they have to hold a tough line on discipline because they care for their child so much.
Parenting Science expert Dr. Gwen Dewar believes that “parents who style themselves as buddies may find it hard to enforce rules and standards”. As well using kids as confidants is often too stressful for children who do not have the brain development and emotional intelligence to deal with adult problems. She notes that friendship is egalitarian while in the parent-child relationship the adult needs to be in charge and make wise decisions. A relationship of mutual respect must be built and the parent with some 20 years of life experience on top of the child must exercise authority. Dr. Dewar says that “Research suggests kids do better when their parents show affection and enforce age-appropriate limits on their children’s behavior”.
A Counselling Directory article entitled ‘Parent vs. friend’ suggests that it is confusing to a child when a parent expects respect and obedience to authority while trying to be friendly, egalitarian and share complete openness. It is important to be a parent at all times and the adult should never drop that role. There must be a balance between the friendship part of the adult child relationship and the parenting authority, in- charge, discipline part of the role belonging to the parent. For some families it is only in adulthood that friendship can be a reality.
So why do parents sometimes want to be friends with their children rather than parents. The Counselling Directory suggests five reasons:
- The adult is selfish or needy: The parent may be lonely, may lack friends himself, or may need a confidant.
- The adult wants to be liked: This is a natural inclination but may not be possible, when the parent must set limits that the child does not agree with or prefer. It is because we love our children that we must be able to put up with their not liking us some of the time.
- The adult dislikes conflict: Sometimes setting limits for children produces conflict between the child and the adult which is unpleasant.
- The adult lacks confidence: Parents are in a position of authority and must be confident that they can make wise decisions and enforce them.
- The adult’s own upbringing is remembered negatively: Sometimes new parents want to make up for the deficits in the parenting that they received.
- The adult is competitive: The parents to a child may be in competition about who is closer to the child, who makes better decisions or who is more popular with the children.
- The culture has abandoned the distinction between adult and child. Some parents are choosing to be their children’s playmates rather than be the adult and do what’s best for them.
James Lehman has written an excellent article called “Your child is not your friend,” in which he suggests you not make your child a confidant, nor a co-decision maker. As well, parents should leave their personal history out of their parenting. He writes, “If you try to be friends with your child, it comes at the cost of your authority and undermines your role as a parent.”
The bottom line then, dear Reader, is that a parent can be friendly but must be the loving, authoritative adult primarily. Your motto should be ‘Parents first, friends last’, because children need the adults who gave them life to be parents not grownup friends.
I will conclude with a few quotations about parenting which might serve to inspire you:
“Parenthood…Its about guiding the next generation, and forgiving the last.” — Peter Krause
“All that I am or hope to be, I owe to my mother.” — Abraham Lincoln
“Parents aren’t the people you come from. They’re the people you want to be, when you grow up.” — Jodi Picoult
I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.