Parent to Child: I am NOT your friend (nor should I be)

Should a parent be a child's friend?

Posted Sep 12, 2008

The famous, charismatic and now retired basketball player, Charles Barkley, once hit the nail on the head when he contended that being a star athlete did not qualify him to be a child's role model; that was the parent's job, he astutely observed. I am reminded of this remark about appropriate parental roles upon reading new research on "emotional parentification" in adolescence.* This piece of psychological jargon refers to a child being expected "to meet a parent's emotional need for support or companionship", such as serving as a confidante, dispute mediator when mom and dad have a conflict or family decision maker.

What the investigators found in their research on intact--not divorced--families, was that the more parents practiced parentification, the less teenagers regarded them as warm, supportive and autonomy granting; that is, encouraging of the adolescent's age-appropriate quest to do take on reasonable levels of responsibility in managing their own young lives. In addition, highly parentified children felt more sad, lonely and depressed than did agemates not so treated, while engaging in more aggressive, disobedient and delinquent behavior. It would be a mistake to exaggerate what was found and make it seem like the sky is falling, that horrific damage is being done which will last forever. But there is evidence from other studies that even when parentified youths grow up to become high achieving and socially skilled adults, they tend to feel unsure of themselves and experience frequent feelings of sadness. In sum, 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, no matter how much it may (seem to) benefit the (selfish?) parent.

But what about the other, perhaps more positive side of the friendship coin, being your child's buddy--or mate, as they say here in Britain where I write from? What I am about to say, I should make clear, is not based on any scientific evidence or even clinical experience, as I am not a clinician (probably more of a patient!). So in the interests of full disclosure, let me be clear that what follows is my opinion as a citizen, parent and professional. I know of no research evidence to substantiate it. Feel free to disagree.

Although I certainly see nothing whatsoever problematic about parents and children enjoying their time together, be it playing games, engaging in sport or participating in thoughtful conversations, I strongly believe that the word "friend" is not and should not be included in the job description of parent, at least not during the tender years, or even the adolescent ones. There should--and hopefully will--be plenty of time for that once children grow up and become responsible for their own lives. In fact, to my way of thinking, parents should be proud to sound like Charles Barkley, either when just thinking about their role in the family or when speaking directly to their children: "I am not your friend; other children, perhaps even other adults, should be and hopefully are. I am your parent."

The role of parent comes with certain responsibilities and obligations and being a friend can make exercising these more difficult than can be anyway. It can also make life more challenging for the child. What risks being compromised most notably when parents see themselves their child's friend is the placement of reasonable, age-appropriate demands on children--in a consistent and persistent manner-and the holding them accountable when they fail to live up to them. A parent who desires to be a friend to their child is going to have a much harder time holding a child accountable, while simultaneously and inadvertently making it more difficult for the child to behave in a cooperative, responsible and respectful manner. Most of us, after all, have been on the receiving end of someone saying, or acting as if they were saying, "then I am not going to be your friend anymore" when we have refused a demand or failed to fulfil a request that we did not find appropriate or sensible.

In thinking back over my time parenting my two, now 20-something sons, I now realize why I never engaged in the common practice of exchanging "high fives" with them when something good happened that pleased us. To my perhaps old-fashioned way of thinking, this was implicitly the kind of behavior that friends or mates engaged in, not two people for whom power dynamics were of fundamental importance, with one of the parties, me the parent, being more powerful than and responsible for the other. This was the kind of thing, I felt, friends, buddies and teammates did--like Barack and Michelle Obama knocking their knuckles together.

*Despite the following scholarly article appearing in print, it has not yet been posted on the web:
Peris, T.S., Goeke-Morey, M.C., Cummings, E.M., Emery, R.E. (2008). Marital conflict and support seeking by parentings in adolescence: Empirical support for the parentification construct. Journal of Family Psychology, 22, 633-642.