It’s OK To Be Your Child’s Friend, But They Should Not Be Yours

How do you gain your children’s trust from an authoritarian parenting perch?

Imagine the Gilmore Girls, if Rory had a brother and Lorelei was actually married to Luke. That is sort of our family. We all genuinely like each other’s company. Our conversations are often fast-paced banter that mixes information about our lives with humorous commentary in a mash-up that wanders from subject to subject like a bumble-bee on Red Bull. We tend to talk about nearly everything from our favorite scientists and their recent projects to blaming each other for a weird sound heard the night before. I cannot tell you how often people tell us that someone should do a sitcom based on our family.

I also cannot tell you how often some well-meaning person has told me: “You have to stop trying to be your children’s friend and start being their mother.” As I was raising my kids, this parental proverb caused me considerable anxiety and self-doubt. On one hand, I was being told to spend time with my kids and talk to them about insignificant things so that we would be able to talk about the big stuff. On the other hand, it seemed that the parenting mantra of the first decade of the Millennium was “Stop trying to be your children’s friend and start being their mother.”

I negotiated my way through the minefield of my children’s adolescence blindly, which means that I blew up a lot of things. One of my biggest regrets was that from time to time I would get it in my head that maybe it was bad for my children if I was their friend, and I would withdraw and try to assume the role of benevolent authority figure. The wheels came off their individual buses each time that I stepped back and tried to stop being their friend.

Last week I wrote about what happened the final time that I tried to stop being my children’s friend. I wrote about a near sexual assault that my daughter survived, and how I went about making the decision whether or not to file a police report about the incident. In the months leading up to my daughter’s revelation that she had been nearly sexually assaulted, I had been trying to parent from a distance, as a non-friend. She had kept it a secret for two months because based on the style of parenting I had been employing at the time she had reason to believe that I would act based on my own beliefs of right and wrong and without regard for how it would impact her. My pulling back was also what allowed her to keep it a secret. Had I been there for her as her confidant and friend, I would have known the next day. In fact, she did not tell me what happened until after I demonstrated that I was willing to go back to being responsive to her needs, until I had gone with her to the trampoline rather than summoning her to the family room for a grilling, until I had negotiated the terms of secrecy rather than declaring that I would decide who needed to hear her story.   

I am not the only parent who is periodically shamed out of a close relationship with his or her children. I think that a lot of blame for this goes to Dr. Phil and his pathological need to turn complex problems into simplistic sound-bites. When he scolds permissive parents by telling them to stop trying to be their children’s friends and start being their parents, he is taking three very complicated concepts of parenting and spinning them into a single sharp, snarly tumbleweed of parenting criticism. The three questions are:

1) What kind and how much power should parents wield over their children’s lives? Do you believe your children are best served by an authoritarian, permissive, or authoritative style of parenting?

2) How much should parents use their relationship with their children to meet their own needs for approval, social contact, and positive emotional connection? Should your child be your friend?

3) Should parents try to create an emotional connection with their child that allows them to meet their children’s needs but that also allows their parenting decisions to be influenced by their child? Should you be your child’s friend?

What Dr. Phil’s rhetoric implies is that parents who are not authoritarian are automatically permissive. In fact, there is a third option: being authoritative. Authoritative parenting prioritizes the relationship between parents and children, and recognizes that while parents are ultimately in charge we should make decisions in concert with our children. We should think of their rearing as cooperative not oppositional.

Perhaps the biggest problem with telling parents to stop being their child’s friend is that it lumps into the one group of friendship both emotional responsiveness and emotional incest. When we are our child’s friend, we are being responsive to his or her emotions and needs. But we become emotionally incestuous when try to get them to meet our needs for approval, emotional connection, or social contact.

There are many good reasons why we should not ask our child to be our friend. One of the more important is that it can lead to permissive parenting. If we are dependent on our children to get our emotional needs met, we will make our decisions based on our desire to keep getting our needs met, not our children’s best interest.

But there are a thousand reasons why we as parents should give friendship to our children. Offering all of the benefits of friendship to our child without seeking any in return places us in a wonderful position from which to parent. When we hang out with them doing what they want to do, watching their favorite shows, getting to know their friends, we are better able to see the world through their eyes. When we prioritize the creation and maintenance of a relationship over arbitrary rules we find that we have enormous influence as a confidant and advisor. They will come to us with their problems if they knew that we will always have their backs. As our children enter their teen years, they continue talking with us if we allow them to gross us out with dead-baby jokes and don’t act like an FCC censor when it comes to their choice of words. 

At some point in the process of parenting, we are going to need our children to trust us, and trust is not created in distant authoritarian relationships. Authoritarian parenting is based on the idea that children are not trustworthy and that it is more important for a child to respect a parent than to feel loved. Trust comes when we demonstrate that we trust the other person, when we offer them respect, demonstrate loyalty, welcome their confidences, affirm our love, and are responsive to their emotions. Being our children’s friend without them being ours means that we do not ignore the power-imbalance in the relationship or allow them to do whatever they please. It means that we prioritize our relationship with our children and build everything else based on that.

Lynn Beisner is the pseudonym for a mother, a writer, a feminist, and an academic living somewhere East of the Mississippi. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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