Is Being Your Child's Friend Detrimental to Their Development?“Ideally, a friendship is a reciprocal relationship, each person both leaning on and propping up the other,” wrote Cari Romm, a neuroscience and lifestyle writer, in the New York Magazine piece Is It Really Possible for Parents to Be Friends With Their Kids? And a parent-child relationship, ideally, is not that,” she says. “It’s something much more hierarchical, with more defined ideas about appropriate levels of closeness and distance. It’s a relationship where the best possible outcome is for one party to grow away from the other.” From this perspective, friendship is fundamentally at odds with parenting.
“I strongly believe that the word ‘friend’ should not be included in the job description of parent, at least not during the tender years, or even the adolescent ones,” says Jay Belsky, Professor of Psychology at the Birkbeck University of London in the Psychology Today article Parent to Child: I am NOT your Friend. Friendship by this definition implies a lack of parenting, as James Lehman wrote in Your Child is Not Your “Friend“ If you have a tendency to treat your child as a ‘friend,’ you should understand this important interpretation of friendship: friends are a group of people that have the same notion about ideas and life,” he says. “The truth is, children and adults have very different notions about what they should be doing. They have entirely different notions about what’s right and wrong. They have very different notions about what they want to do tonight.”
Most of this opposition to parent-friending is rooted in the idea that parents want to be friends with their children for all the wrong reasons. “When they say, ‘I want to be his friend,’ and ‘I want him to be my friend,’ what they’re really saying is ‘I want to be his confidante.’ And that just does not fit with the functional role of a parent,” says Lehman.
Parent-Child Friendships Are Unhealthy When...
Parent-child friendships are unhealthy if the parent is seeking affirmation, warn parenting-only advocates like Kelly Sanders, who wrote Parent or Friend: Can You Be Both to Your Child? According to GoodTherapy.org, "It is not your child's job to help you feel good about yourself. If that is why you are your child’s friend, rather than being his/her parent, then you may need to get some counseling for yourself,” is Sanders’ sharp advice. “Placing a child, even a teenager, in the age-inappropriate role of confidante and support provider to a parent is not in the child's best interest,” agrees Belsky, “no matter how much it may (seem to) benefit the (selfish?) parent.”
But is every parent motivated by selfishness or immaturity? These critical statements are enough to make everyone feel like a bad mom (if you do, I recommend reading this: What Makes a Bad Mom?).
“Friendship between parents and children doesn’t need to be so black-and-white. Intimacy needn't imply that you are burdening your child with your personal troubles. And communicating trust needn't send the message that ‘anything goes.’ Parents can build close, personal relationships with their kids and still remain responsible adults," encourages Gwen Dewar, Ph.D. in the well-researched article Should Parents be Friends with their Kids? for Parenting Science. “The content of the relationship matters more than the label; if labeling it a friendship helps keep it friendly and warm, then screw it, call it a friendship. Call it whatever it is that makes you feel it’s something worth preserving. It’s the rare lie that can actually strengthen the bond between parents and their kids, whatever that bond may be,” echoes Romm in New York Magazine.
There is no one hundred percent certainty of proven evidence for either side of the debate. As with so many parenting issues, the lines are blurry.
Nearly everyone can agree on this thought: “We’re a generation raised on Gilmore Girls, and it shows." Being besties with your parents is no longer taboo; in fact, it’s pretty popular. “Kids are watching the same shows as their parents, listening to the same music,” and that’s almost unavoidable says child and adolescent psychologist Dr. Jennifer Hartstein in the segment “Should Parents Be Friends with their Kids?” on the CBS News Eye on Parenting series.
So maybe this is the correct question: How can you appropriately be friends with your child?
Parenting Tips to Create a Healthy Relationship with Your Children
Whatever you do, be genuine.
Living honestly is the key. (More on this in my article on becoming best friends with my mom.) Whether you are practicing authoritarian parenting or trying to be your child’s best friend, if you are not being genuine, it will not be sustainable. Harshly imposing rules when you don’t want to will feel terrible to you and faking friendship (Mean Girls, anyone?) will be uncomfortable for everyone. Take a moment to tap into your own emotional intelligence and do what feels honest within yourself. After all, no expert can even know the intricacies of your life.
Parents: Communicate with purpose.
Effective communication goes beyond words. It takes real work to communicate with your child. It’s not enough to simply ask, “how was your day?” or “what are you feeling about [insert issue here]?” You have to be engaged and practice active listening. The good news is that when you show your children that you are invested in their responses and you care about what they have to say, you encourage them to act in like. Communicating is hard work, but the connection it creates is absolutely worth it.
Don’t mistake being friends with being friendly.
One of the easiest traps for parents to fall into is thinking that being a child’s friend means making them happy. A true friendship is not always blissful, but it is genuine. Sometimes true friendship means not doing the token smile-and-nod and pretending everything is alright. Think of the difference between acquaintances and true friends. Acquaintances have pretty, civil interactions, but that does not always equate with deep satisfaction. Rather than glossing over things to make your child happy in hopes that she will then think of you as a friend; be a true friend. A true friend looks out for a friend’s well-being, even if that means making hard decisions.
Gain self-awareness by working on yourself.
Like air masks in an airplane, you can’t be your child’s friend if you aren’t your own friend first—at least a little. Understanding your own tendencies, quirks, and needs (which is also a huge part of emotional intelligence) is vital in any relationship, and that’s especially true in parenting. Before you can try befriending your child, you need to be aware of how you might react in difficult situations. Likewise, the more grounded and self-confident you are, the better equipped you will be to tackle the challenging—and transformative—work of being present to your child.
Learn to just BE with your child.
One of the biggest breakthroughs I had with my own mother came during a panic attack. I was overwhelmed by anxiety and, as mothers do, she was trying to help. But ultimately, her distress at trying and failing to ease me just escalated the situation. We learned this: sometimes the best thing you can do is to just BE. Many times parents TRY too hard to make everything okay for their children. Doing more is not always better; sometimes just being genuinely present with your child is the best thing. Rather than jumping to fix, teach or improve your child, maybe practice just being.
Friendship and parenthood are not mutually exclusive.
To be friends or not to be friends? In this parenting debate, many articles make it seem like an all-or-nothing risk. As Dr. Dewar wrote: “Parents can build close, personal relationships with their kids and still remain responsible adults.” There is not just one type of friendship, just as there is not just one parenting style. Both parents and children are complex, multifaceted humans, so it doesn’t make sense to box either of them in with one label. Since friendship is not an on/off switch, a better practice is to integrate friendship with parenting. As Romm wrote: "Call it whatever it is that makes you feel it's something worth preserving." Let go of the black-and-white labels and use your natural insight to guide your relationship.
Henry David Thoreau famously wrote, “the language of friendship is not words but meanings.”
Befriending your child can be a huge challenge, especially amid the debate over whether parent-child friendships are appropriate or detrimental. The answer is not, and probably never will be, crystal clear. But what is clear is that you will know when you’re doing it “right” because it will feel right for you.
To be friends with your child: Be genuine; be open; be a true friend; love yourself, and just BE. Then your role as both friend and parent will naturally balance itself out.
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