Balancing Being a Parent and Being a Friend

large man's hand giving high five to small child's hand

(Editor’s note: a big thank you to Elaine for her insights on balanced parenting here. Thanks Elaine!)

How children are parented will affect them for the rest of their lives. As primary caregivers, parents are responsible for the physical, emotional and psychological welfare of their children. Yet parents need to be wary of sweeping statements like “Be a parent, not a friend.” Taking that generalization too literally can result in parenting that is too distant, aloof or controlling. Effective parenting requires finding a balance between being a friend and being a parent. Given the lack of academic research that’s been done on the subject, balancing friendship and parenthood is an often overlooked topic in master’s degree programs in psychology and child development. This article will take a deeper look into what experts are saying about finding a balance.

Joanne Stern, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of the book, Parenting Is a Contact Sport, stresses the benefits of being a friend to a child. “Your kids benefit immensely from this friendship,” Stern says, “because it establishes a solid base of trust and respect between you.” Stern emphasizes the value of friendship as children get older. “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.”

Stern also stresses the necessity of setting boundaries for children, warning parents not to be too permissive with their children, but urging parents not to become too controlling at the same time. Becoming too distant cuts off the lines of communication that are so essential in establishing trust within a relationship. On the other hand, becoming too controlling can lead children to assume a rebellious attitude that can lead to self-destructive behavior. Too much interference sends a message to children that they cannot function on their own.

Problems arise when the parents overstep their boundaries and instead solely try to befriend their children. Psychologist and Director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues at Birkbeck University of London Jay Belsky warns of the consequences when parents seek to meet their own emotional needs through their children. Children who are put in the role of confidant or mediator are more apt to feel depressed in adulthood and to engage in destructive behavior. Stern emphasizes that “placing a child, even a teenager, in the age-inappropriate role of confidante and support provider to a parent is not in the child’s best interest.”

Although parents should never abandon their responsibilities to set boundaries, guide, and discipline their children, they must do so in a manner that not only allows the children to gain a sense of independence, but also in a manner that is emotionally connected. Being a friend to children can teach them how to be a friend to others and develop the foundation for a long-term relationship. On the other side of the argument, parents need to ensure that they do not become dependent on the friendship of their own children to meet their emotional needs. With the right balance, being a parent and a friend to one’s child can provide for a wholesome and rewarding childhood experience.

Earnest Parenting: advice for parents who want to be balanced in their approach.

Image courtesy of Holtsman via Creative Commons license, some rights reserved.

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