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Parent or Friend: Do I Have to Choose?

Parent or Friend: Do I Have to Choose?

You shouldn’t be friends with your kids. What they need is a parent, not another friend. Right?

Wrong. That’s a parenting myth that needs to be debunked.

Actually, there’s no conflict between being a parent and a friend. And here’s why. A parent who is approachable, accessible and has their kids’ best interests at heart grows a close bond with them. We just call that a friendship. And you can set boundaries and have effective discipline — because your kids respect you enough to obey you.

But let me explain to you what I mean when I say you should be friends with your kids. Your friendship is a caliber higher and a layer deeper that those they have with their peers. It’s a caliber higher because you bring with you knowledge, experience, wisdom, and mature decision making ability. It’s a layer deeper because you don’t get jealous or competitive with your children and you never abandon or betray them.

Think for a moment about how you are with your kids when they’re young. You are their friend. You laugh, talk and play games with them and you enjoy each other immensely. And, of course, you still maintain discipline. Your kids benefit immensely from this friendship because it establishes a solid base of trust and respect between you. Why would you want to back away from or sever that close and positive relationship when they reach the pre-teen and teen years — times when they’re struggling with their growth into adulthood and meeting big challenges along the way? In fact, these are the times they need your support, your caring and your influence the most.

But, parenting is an art, not a science, and there are several ways you can get off track with them. Let me give you some tips to help you stay in balance.

1. You don’t want to become permissive. Effective parents set boundaries and permissive ones erase those boundaries. You don’t hang out with them on Saturday night giggling about their boyfriends, using their slang, dressing like they do and trying to be oh so hip and cool. You don’t share inappropriate and intimate details about your life with them just to try to get close to them. You don’t give in to them so they will like you. A parent who is also a friend keeps the boundaries crisp and clear, but you let them know — and feel — that you’re there with them for the long haul.

2. You don’t want to be distant and aloof. If you were, you wouldn’t get to know them and they wouldn’t get to know you. There would be minimal trust between you, and they wouldn’t share with you what’s happening in their lives, so you would lose your ability to influence and guide them. If you’re closed down with them, they’ll close down to you. If you don’t open up to them and promote mutual sharing, the communication between you will be tense and surface. Communication is a two way street—in any kind of relationship. And it’s the bedrock of a relationship. So if you decide to be distant, you have to give up on being close to your kids.

3. You don’t want to be controlling. When you control, kids tend to rebel. Instead of getting on the inside track with them, they will be out to disobey and get out from under your control. They might rebel openly and loudly by looking for ways to sneak, lie and cover up; to be un-cooperative, to be sullen and to talk back. Or they might rebel quietly by getting an eating disorder— because you simply cannot control what they put in their mouths or what they don’t. Control doesn’t feel like respect, and if you don’t respect them, you can’t expect your kids to respect you.

4. You don’t want to become a helicopter parent. When you hover over your kids making all their decisions for them, trying to prevent them from making a mistake or — God forbid — failing, you actually damage their self-esteem. They see your hovering as a message that you don’t trust them and that you don’t believe they can take care of themselves. The more you guide them in decision making, but allow them to make their own — in age appropriate ways — the more mature and wise they become in making good choices. And you want to teach them that failing is okay. It’s part of the human experience. You can ask them what decision they made that led to a bad outcome, how could they have handled it better, what they can do to recover and how you can help. And you can model for them how to deal with mistakes by admitting some of your own. Instead of making them feel belittled, berated, humiliated, put down or stupid, teach them that failure is a learning tool.

So what’s the best position to take? Being a parent who is a friend because that’s how you help your kids most and that’s how you get to be the one they talk to — and listen to — even during the tough times.

Related:
Plan B Parenting: 5 Tips for Dealing with the Unexpected
Taking the Perspective of Your Kids
How to Discipline a Child

Read more: Children, Do Good, Family, Teens, , , , , , , , , ,

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Joanne Stern

Joanne Stern, PhD, is a psychotherapist with a private practice emphasizing counseling with families, parents, couples and teens. She’s a teacher, consultant, speaker, and expert guest on parenting and family topics, including communication, discipline, self-esteem, addictions, eating disorders, grief, and loss. Parenting Is a Contact Sport: 8 Ways to Stay Connected to Your Kids for Life is her first book. A mother and grandmother, she and her husband, Terry Hale, live in Aspen, Colorado.

63 comments

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9:08PM PST on Feb 20, 2012

Nice explosion of another either or myth

1:12PM PDT on Sep 22, 2011

Kids have lots of friends, they only have two parents. As much as they might think their friends love them and will stand behind them, when push comes to shove, they won't. A parent will. You need to be a parent until they are grown. Then you are a parent and a friend.

10:03AM PDT on May 28, 2011

Parent first Friend second.

9:12AM PDT on Mar 26, 2011

I hate that idea that 'you are their parent not their friend' if you are a GOOD parent then you are of course their friend, one of their closest friends...that doesn't mean you can't be a parent, it means you are a good parent, not some hardass heartless slave-driver, control freak helicopter parent.

4:32AM PDT on Mar 23, 2011

thanks

6:54PM PDT on Mar 20, 2011

I am a parent and I was DEFINETELY NOT their FRIEND!! I am a parent and now that they are grown and have families of their own I can be their friend. This is not as the author says something that needs to be debunked. The parent guides a friend does not, a parent leads,friends do not, a parent is ALWAYS looking out for their best intrest their friends do not. Friends are fickle a parent is not. Get real your either a parent or a friend. Once they get past the 21 yr. mark U can begin the process of being a friend.

6:55PM PDT on Mar 16, 2011

My mom seems to be a lot more of a friend...

3:11PM PST on Mar 7, 2011

I am not seeing the difference here. What the author is describing is solid parenting skills. A good parent engages with their children, and perhaps that is what she is referring to as a friend.

2:50AM PST on Mar 6, 2011

Parenting is one of the most rewarding skills in life.

5:04AM PST on Mar 5, 2011

I do agree with the need to be both friend and parent to our children. Yet, I think the author did not point out that we are oten forced to play one role more than another at different times in the child's development. She did mention the 'friend' role we assume when children are young but not the 'parent' role that is essential during the teen years. These are the years that people refer to when encouraging parents to be parents. Once the child has weathered the 13-21 period of trying, testing and challenging boundaries - we can then resume more of the 'friend' role. ..breathing a sigh of relief :)

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