Choosing to Be Parent or Friend

Should you try to be friends with your kids—or do they need a parent, not another friend? Actually, there’s no conflict between being a parent and being a friend. A parent who is approachable, accessible and has their kids’ best interests at heart grows a close bond with their kids. We simply call that a friendship.

When my daughters were young, I feared that my closeness to them might destroy my ability to discipline them. But I began to realize that kids actually give you permission to discipline them. They grant you permission to have authority over them. And why do they do that? Because, over the years, through the constancy of your relationship, you have proven to them that you’re fair, you’re not capricious or frivolous, and you have their best interests at heart. So even though they may disagree with you or be temporarily angry or disappointed, they give you permission to discipline them because they respect and trust you. If you don’t think you need that permission, you’re in for a very wild ride—one filled with disobedience, rebellion, power struggles, chaos and endless nightmares. And the older they get, the more difficult it becomes.

The most important goal of parenting is to build a strong, positive relationship when your kids are very young so that when they get older and the issues become more complicated, you’ve already created a connection that makes you the one they talk to—and listen to—even about the tough stuff in their lives. But parenting is a balancing act and you can get off balance in several ways.

1. If you’re too close to your kids you can run the risk of being permissive. So please remember:

  • Don’t allow or encourage your kids to go beyond the limits (as their peers might do) and don’t ignore it when they do. And effective parent sets boundaries—a permissive parent erases them.
  • Don’t try to be your kids’ best friend. That might look like dressing as they do, trying to be oh-so-hip and cool, using their slang or giggling with them about inappropriate, intimate details of your life.
  • Keep your parent/child boundaries crisp and clear. You can share and be open without talking with them like they talk with their peers.

2. If you mandate your kids to obey to the letter of the law because you think your way is the only way, you will be too controlling. But:

  • Power and control doesn’t work as a disciplinary technique.
  • Power and control aren’t real. They’re an illusion. They’re fragile at best.
  • You can’t even guarantee that your kids will obey you when they’re in the same room, let alone when they’re out of your sight. It’s more effective in the long haul to teach your kids to make decisions on their own—with advice and counseling from you.

3. If you don’t take the time to talk with your kids and participate in their daily lives in a caring and meaningful way, you’ll be too distant, aloof and disengaged. They will respond by:

  • Not talking with you and not sharing their lives, their problems or their decisions.
  • Treating you the same way you treat them—with little interaction, sensitivity or caring.
  • Not feeling safe with you and not trusting you with their issues because they don’t really know how you will react.

4. If you’re too afraid your kids will make mistakes, you may end up being a “helicopter parent.” Instead of smothering them, it’s important to:

  • Allow them to stumble and screw up at times. It’s not so much what they do in the moment but what they learn from it that counts.
  • Honor their mistakes. This gives you the opportunity to talk with them, explore options and help them make better decisions in the future.
  • Support them—even when they’ve done something stupid—because that’s when they need you most. It builds their self esteem and their self-confidence.

It’s often easy to be close to your kids when they’re young. The question is: Will you be able to protect and maintain that relationship for those important pre-teen and teen years? You can if you’re purposeful in developing a friendship with your children. Make it a friendship that is a caliber higher and a layer deeper than those they have with their peers. A caliber higher because you bring a wealth of knowledge, experience and mature decision making that your kids can trust and learn from. A layer deeper because you’re never competitive or jealous and you never betray them or abandon them. This is what creates a lifelong bond of love and loyalty that no other friend can beat.

By Joanne Stern, Ph.D. Author of “Parenting Is a Contact Sport: 8 Ways to Stay Connected to Your Kids for Life”