Do you want to be your child’s friend? All parents love their kids, and pretty much all of us, I’m sure, have wonderful dreams of doing things together and getting along well as adults. But just as we recognize that it may be great to be your child’s friend when they’re an adult, is it a good idea to want to be your child’s friend when they’re a child? It’s easy to cloak the question in rose-coloured glasses as a reflection of the relationship you hope to end up with, something that was very cutely portrayed in that lovely Randy Newman tune in “Toy Story.”
You’ve got a friend in me.
You’ve got a friend in me.
When the road looks rough ahead
And you’re miles and miles
From your nice, warm bed
Just remember what your old pal said,
Boy, you’ve got a friend in me.
We all hope that once our children are grown up, we can be good friends, and that’s really the ultimate in terms of enjoying a relationship that has matured the way it should. However, let’s focus today on when kids are young and ask the question, “Is it good to be your child’s friend?” You’ve probably figured out by now that I’m not really for it, but if it’s not a good idea, then why isn’t it?
We are often told that it is possible to be friends with your kids as long as you uphold boundaries, but that’s like being in a row boat half full of water and being told that as long as you continually use an ice cream scoop to bail yourself out, you won’t sink. Sure, if you continue to scoop the water out, possibly you won’t sink, but it’s exhausting, and you have to keep doing it ad infinitum until you get either a very sore arm or go crazy. It also reverses the normal adult-to-child flow and puts you and your children in a less than optimal leadership position that isn’t helpful at best and can make life very challenging for you at worst.
1. Your leadership will be affected.
You see, when you try and be your child’s friend, you put yourself in a situation that makes you vulnerable from a leadership standpoint. I know that emotional vulnerability is a plus at times with people you fully trust, but children are children, and they’re not looking for vulnerability; they’re looking to you for direction. Seeing you open up and be vulnerable is likely to scare the heck out of them. Not only that, but friends tend to direct each other equally, each one knowing the times when one needs something a little more out of the relationship than the other. It’s a constant give and take, but your relationship with your child is by necessity more one-sided. That’s because they don’t just want you or your direction; they need you to interpret the world and make the important decisions for them.
2. If you want to be your child’s friend, that desire is coming from you, not them.
It’s also important to remember that the impetus to befriend a child usually comes from the parent, not the child. It usually means that the parent is looking to the child to fill in something within themselves that they think would add to their parenting experience. A warmth, a closeness, a bond that they think will be fulfilled by being friends Often, it’s in response to a desire to have a different relationship with their child than their parents had with them. By trying to be a “friend,” you run the troubling risk of achieving the exact opposite and sinking under the weight of your desire for closeness.
Think how difficult it is to offer boundaries to even best friends who are mature in thought and expression. Now, try keeping strong boundaries with your child in a way that maintains a “possible” friendship. Think how often you hear children play with each other and then fall out with a sharp, “I’m not your friend anymore!” If those words strike a chord, then they are having an impact, and if they have an impact, it’s very likely that the parents will modify their parenting behaviour in response to that impact. How will they do that? Well, likely by providing fewer boundaries, by not following through, or by a myriad of other less-than-positive responses.
Leadership matters. If a parent cannot act because they are constrained by a need to remain friends with their children, they hamper and distort their efforts.
If you want to be your child’s friend, keep in mind what adult relationships are really made of.
Let’s remember that friendship is often defined by mutual understanding and compassion. While a parent can be sympathetic to a child’s situation, the sympathy and compassion offered are based on experience. An experience with similar situations over the years helps in the interpretation and potential solution of the problem. The question is, “How can a child reciprocate?” How can a child be expected to help a parent deal with the stress of the gas bill? Mortgage problems? A marriage breakup? A car breakdown? The simple answer is that they can’t.
If you want to be your child’s friend, you will eventually but it takes time.
Even as they age, it takes children many years to be on the same kind of footing as grownups so as to be able to offer a reciprocal relationship. My husband and I were having a chat the other day about some of his early girlfriends. He had long since come to the understanding that one previous and serious relationship had failed to develop because, even in her mid-twenties, the girl concerned still looked to him for help with her problems but had failed to develop the capacity to deal with them or even empathize or help him with his. That left the relationship stunted and unable to progress fully into something far more meaningful.
Parents need to realize that by believing in the possibility of a truly reciprocal friendship early on with their child, they deny that child the very building blocks necessary to provide that friendship later on.
If you want to be your child’s friend, try thinking of it like this: having a friend relationship with your kids is like having your cake and eating it too. It’s the same as creating a moment of satisfaction on the lips and a lifetime on the hips. It’s a way to feel good for the moment at the loss of something far more important, both for your child’s future relationships with other people as well as the relationship they have with you.
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