You Are Not Your Child’s Friend
In doing research for this article, I ran across a wide variety of opinions on the subject: Should you be your child’s friend? Some thought it ridiculous that you would try to be, and others thought it was ridiculous that you wouldn’t. Let me state emphatically that you cannot be both your child’s parent and their friend, no matter how hard you try.
Let’s dispel a couple of misconceptions before we get started. Just because you are not friends does not, in any way, rule out loving and trusting or being loved and trusted by your child. So those who claim you must be friends in order to have that bond are quite simply wrong. Nor does it mean that you are an all-knowing, unfeeling and unquestionable automaton handing out rules from on high. Those who would claim that ruling over your child by ironclad diktat is necessary are just as wrong in the opposite direction.
To illustrate the point: Would, or could, you truly be friends with someone who was always telling what you were or weren’t allowed to do and even punished you if you broke their rules – no matter how nice they were at other times? It’s pretty safe to say that you, as an adult, would (or at least, should) never tolerate that kind of relationship from anyone other than your boss – and he/she only gets away with it because they are paying you for the privilege.
Sure you can be friendly with your boss, but even when you’re away from work at a social function, you have to be mindful that this person holds your employment in his or her hands, so there will be things you will consciously choose not to say or do whenever you’re around them. That same fundamental power dynamic underlies your entire relationship with your child right up until the moment they move out on their own (and sometimes beyond). No matter how hard you try to be their “friend,” you can never change that – unless you’re willing to entirely relinquish your parental responsibilities. There’s a difference between “friendly” and “friends,” and – as with your boss – there are certain lines that you just can’t cross with your child and that your child is going to choose not to cross with you.
But, the “parents as friends” advocates say, “My child is my best friend, and I’m theirs.” No, you’re not. No matter what you might believe and what they might say, that’s simply not true unless you’ve completely abdicated your role as a parent. After all, you are the person who has the most authority over them, and any time you exercise that authority you are likely to engender at least some degree of resentment – if not outright rebellion. No one likes being told “No, you can’t,” and if you are parenting properly then you will find yourself saying that quite a bit over the course of your child’s formative years as they constantly test their boundaries. So who is your child going to be able to complain to about you? You? How is that going to be cathartic for them in any way? Just as we need to vent about work, family and other daily frustrations; so do your kids. It’s not healthy for either of you if you are, or expect to be, that person for your child when you are the one most likely for them to be upset about in the first place.
“That’s right,” the authoritarian parents are nodding right now and saying. “Let them know you’re the boss, and just make them do what you want.” Well, now you’ve gone too far the other direction.
Let’s go back to the example of your boss: Are you more likely to want to go the extra mile for the boss who acts this way or for the boss who takes the time to sit down with you, explain what needs to be done and makes it clear that he values you as both as an employee and as a person? Which parenting style is more likely to yield the results you want?
Your rules as a parent shouldn’t be arbitrarily set or enforced. Your children should understand why those rules exist and what benefit they will get from following them – whether it is an immediate benefit (look both ways when you cross the street, so you don’t get smushed by a car), or a long-term one (do your homework today, so you can pursue the career of your choice tomorrow). You should be helping them understand that the reason those rules exist is because you love and care for them. This is something we’ll cover in far greater depth in future articles, but the bottom line is: “Because I said so,” should be an explanation of last resort – not your go-to reason for expecting or demanding obedience – if you want or expect to maintain a loving relationship with your child.
As we continue down this road, we’ll help you and your child develop a positive, healthy and loving relationship that successfully walks the line between overpermissiveness (“We’re besties!”) and tyranny (“Just shut up, and do it now!”). That relationship should be based on mutual trust, consistency, loyalty, love, and many of the other traits that friendships have. But it should never be mistaken for a friendship such as you might have with a co-worker, college roommate, or neighbor. It’s not, and it never will be.