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Are You a Best-Friend Parent?

Many parents want to be their children's best friends, but should they be?

Key points

  • A high percentage of parents say they want to be their child's best friend.
  • The roles and responsibilities of "parent" and "friend" are fundamentally different, perhaps even conflicting.
  • Parents should be friendly but should resist the urge to become best friends.

Ian Pierpoint of Synovate, a market research company, surveyed 1,000 parents who lived with children ages 12 to 30 and an additional 500 children in the same age range in the U.S., UK, and Canada. The survey found that:

  • 43 percent of parents say they want to be their child’s best friend.
  • 40 percent would buy their children everything they wanted if they could.
  • 37 percent would prefer their kids at home at all times because they want to protect them.
  • 71 percent of parental child purchases are made without any child request. Parents guessed what their teen or young adult wanted, rather than getting something he or she asked for.
  • 47 percent of the teens say they intend to stay home as long as they can.
  • 41 percent of 20-24-year-olds are living at home.
  • 56 percent of parents are in no hurry for their children to leave home.
  • 72 percent of parents would welcome their children back at any time.
  • 65 percent of teens believe their parents “try hard to be a friend.”
  • 40 percent of teens indicated they would raise their own kids differently.
Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels
Source: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

A best-friend parent “doesn’t give you rules and tell you what to do," Pierpoint says. Best-friend parents interviewed for this study felt their own parents didn’t understand them, and so they want to be seen by their children as someone who is fun to be around, listens, and is non-judgmental. (Sources: personal communication with Ian Pierpoint, and a USA Today article.)

Becoming an epidemic

In the article, “If your mom’s your best friend, who’s your mother?” psychologist Steven Poulter claims, “This really is an epidemic. Because of unresolved issues with their parents, some parents today don’t want to be so hard and just want their children to like them. At the end of a long working day, they don’t want conflict.”

Best-friend parents

Best-friend parenting raises several questions. What does it mean to be a friend? What does it mean to parent? Can parents be friends with their children, and in doing so, do they abdicate parental responsibilities in exchange for friendship? How is a friend-to-friend relationship different from a parent-to-child relationship? Is there a difference between being a friend and being friendly? Is being a best-friend parent good for children, or is it a form of childhood overindulgence? If so, what type of overindulgence?

Nicole Michalou/Pexels
Source: Nicole Michalou/Pexels

I would argue that the roles of parent and friend are very different—perhaps even conflicting. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a parent as “a person who holds the position or exercises the functions of a parent; a protector, guardian.” Friends are on the same level as you, equal in power, while parents should hold more power than their children. Parents should be friendly but should resist the urge to become best friends. That can happen when the child becomes an adult.

When children are young, parents have very clear jobs. They make decisions in the best interests of a child’s development. They say yes and no appropriately.

They are role models. They teach. They mentor. From time to time, they insist.

They stand fast as consultants to their children as their children become ever more skillful and responsible. They act to keep children safe. They discipline.

These are not the hallmarks of an equalized friend relationship. Friendly, yes. Best friend, no.

What happens when a parent discusses sensitive issues with their child?

Koerner, Wallace, Lehman et al. (2002) researched mother-adolescent daughter relationships post-divorce and the impact of sharing sensitive information. They found “that detailed mother-to-daughter disclosures regarding financial concerns, negativity toward ex-husband, job ups-and-downs, and personal concerns were clearly associated with greater daughter psychological distress, but not with greater feelings of mother-daughter closeness, as existing retrospective research would have predicted.” Glenwick and Mowrey (1986) found that when parents abdicated the parental role in which the mother functioned as a peer/partner, it required clinical intervention to reestablish her parental role, resolve conflicts, and improve parent-child communication patterns.

Apply the Test of Four

Is being a best-friend parent good for children, or a form of childhood overindulgence? The Test of Four says parents may be overindulging if the answer to one or more of the following questions is “yes”:

  1. Will being a best-friend parent interfere with or slow down what my child needs to learn at this age? (Yes. Children in this study and our studies reported growing up without many of the life skills needed to function as adults because their best-friend parent did things for them.)
  2. Will being a best-friend parent mean spending a disproportionate amount of family resources on one or more of my children? (Yes. When asked, 40 percent said they would buy their children everything they wanted, and 73 percent guess and then buy things for their children without asking.)
  3. Is best-friend parenting done to benefit the parent more than the child? (Yes. They said they were parenting this way because they felt their own parents didn’t understand them. They want their children to accept them.)
  4. Does best-friend parenting potentially harm others, society, or the planet in some way? (Possibly. Children raised by best-friend parents won’t follow the rules because their parents didn’t set guidelines, rules, or boundaries.)

Best-friend parenting = All three types of overindulgence

I believe best-friend parenting is a form of childhood overindulgence. It overindulges children in all three ways: too much, over-nurture, and soft structure. Best-friend parents buy everything for their children: too much. They want to protect their children by keeping them home as long as they can and catering to their every desire: over-nurture. They do not set limits or enforce rules: soft structure. Further, our research shows that overindulgence harms children, and they, too, are more likely to become less effective parents when they grow up.

Tips for avoiding overindulgence

  1. Be friendly to your children, but don’t try to be their best friend.
  2. Expect your children to do chores.
  3. Develop meaningful relationships with the adults in your life.
  4. Set limits and discuss them with your children.
  5. Enforce the limits you set.
  6. If you are over-involved with your child, begin the process of emancipation in a thoughtful and caring way for both of you.

Practice Aloha. Do all things with love, grace, and gratitude.

© 2021 David J. Bredehoft

References

Bredehoft, D. J., Mennicke, S. A., Potter, A. M., & Clarke, J. I. 1998. Perceptions attributed by adults to parental overindulgence during childhood. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences Education, 16(2), 3-17.

Koerner, S.S., Wallace, S., Lehman, S.J. et al. (2002). Mother-to-daughter disclosure after divorce: Are there costs and benefits? Journal of Child and Family Studies 11(4), 469-483. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1020987509405

Glenwick, D. S., & Mowrey, J. D. (1986). When parent becomes peer: Loss of intergenerational boundaries in single parent families. Family Relations, 35(1), 57–62. https://doi.org/10.2307/584283

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