You Can Be Friends With Your Child… Just Not Yet.
A look at the topic with advice from the experts
When my oldest daughter was in pre-school, I attended a monthly parenting workshop run by the director of early education. Many women in the room were first time mothers, too. One talked about the trouble she had disciplining her then 5-year-old. She couldn’t enforce a time-out because her daughter was her “best friend.”
I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who thought, “Your daughter is not supposed to be your best friend.” I think even the mother who made the statement knew this wasn’t a healthy dynamic.
I also understood her sentiment. As Dr. Robin Goodman, a clinical psychologist who works with children and families, explains, “Many of today’s generation of parents grew up with authoritative parents and in turn, they want to be the opposite. They want to be seen as ‘cool, young, hip’ and be able to bond with their kids in a way that their own parent did not.”
But a parent’s role is not the same as a peer, and it’s crucial to make that distinction for a child’s protection and development.
A Friend vs. a Parent
“The parent-child relationship can have mutual caring and transparency, but it is not friendship because it is not one of equals,” says Brent Sweitzer, a professional counselor in Georgia. As Goodman points out, your friends don’t tell you to take out the garbage or clean your room. “Parents need to set limits, be role models, and make rules,” she says. “It’s their responsibility to take care of them and keep them safe.”
Therapist Katie Lear adds, “It can be tempting to talk to a child or teenager like a friend, especially if the child is very bright or precocious. Parents spend so much time with their children, and it is such a close bond that it can be tempting to vent to a child about problems with friends, work, or relationships. Sometimes, kids like these conversations because it makes them feel grown-up and important.”
But when the lines get blurred between acting like a parent and acting like a friend, it can lead to behavioral problems and impact the child’s future relationships. “Children feel secure when they know a parent is in control and can handle situations,” Lear says. “One way parents communicate this to children is by setting boundaries and giving consequences. Even though no child wants to be disciplined, kids who don’t have enough boundaries often feel less secure, which can lead to acting out behavior or anxiety.”
Parenting Children and Teens
Your teenager may be old enough to participate in group activities like shopping and going to the movies, but they still need parenting. “Even teens that seem very mature still are developing and do not have the ability to handle adult issues,” Sweitzer says. While they may complain about a parent being strict or setting limits, most actually want their parents to help them navigate their teen years.
Tandy Caraway, an educator and founder of CollegeMode Academy says, “Teens still want to be protected but want their voices to be heard. Unfortunately, at this age, their personality is much more developed than their personal reasoning skills. They still want and need an authority figure to help them navigate the transition to adulthood.”
Parenting teens is about finding a balance between protecting them and allowing them to become more independent. “I believe the magic in parenting a teen successfully lies in having a friendly relationship, instead of a friendship,” Caraway says. “Once you give up your credibility, authority, and assurance as parent, boundaries will be crossed that may cause you to resent your teen.”
Have Friends Your Own Age
It’s great when you can bond with your kids over activities you both enjoy, but this doesn’t eliminate your child’s need for friends their own age. Connecting with peers allows kids to develop life skills like communicating with others and resolving conflicts.
Just like kids need to develop friendships with their peers, so do adults. “This teaches kids to invest in healthy social networks and to seek out help in appropriate ways when (they) need it,” Sweitzer says.
Regardless of how close your bond is with your child, there will still be things they’ll feel more comfortable telling their friends. Conversely, it’s important for parents not to confide in their kids as they would a friend their own age, especially subjects like marital issues. “(These) really need to be reserved for adult friends,” Lear explains. “Kids who have these conversations with parents may become people pleasers, and feel like they need to be helpful to others in order to have a good relationship.”
You Kids Can Be Your Friends – As Adults
“It takes a lot of work to be a good parent and sometimes the job is not fun,” says Amber Trueblood, author and parenting expert. “But ultimately, parents have 18 years to create the type of people they would want to be friends with and hang out with as adults.”
Caraway’s children are now grown up and she says, “At this point, I can enjoy them as a fully developed, well-rounded adults. It is a beautiful thing to transition to friendship knowing that I gave them the support they needed when they were children and teenagers.”
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in parenting, teen issues, mental health, and wellness. She is a wife and mother of three children. To read more of her work visit www.randimazella.com.