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Joanne Stern, Ph.D.
Joanne Stern Ph.D.

Parent or Friend: Do I Have to Choose?

There's no conflict between being a parent and a friend.

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 than 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 our 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.

For more up to date parenting tips, check out my book, "Parenting Is a Contact Sport: 8 Ways to Stay Connected to Your Kids for Life."

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About the Author
Joanne Stern, Ph.D.

Joanne Stern, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist in family and couples counseling, as well as the author of Parenting Is a Contact Sport.

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